Drag is Tranquil Chaos
- Kai Lee Mykels
I had no idea where to begin.
When approached about writing this essay, I knew I wanted to focus on drag entertainment and the idea of community, but these are broad topics to cover individually, let alone together. I couldn’t seem to find a starting point. So I rode my bike to Washington Park here in Denver, Colorado to try to begin. I sat down on my rainbow towel and pulled my laptop out. Nothing would come. It was early afternoon, sunny, and quite warm out: a great day for writing. But nothing was coming to me. Rather than force the ideas, I decided to join the NAACP’s eight-minute and forty-six-second moment of silence for George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer just eleven days previously, on May 25th. I sat praying in silence and solidarity with people from around the world for all Black people and for the soul of George Floyd.
Suddenly, as if in tune with this moment of silence, the sky became dark, the wind blew wildly, and—as I looked across the park—leaves, grass clippings, and dust began to circle as if preparing for battle. It was utter chaos. The fighting between them raged on, until droplets of water began to fall delicately from the sky. It was as if the rain was telling the leaves, the grass, and the dust, “We will get through this, and we will account for it, together.” The air cooled, and—BAM!—it hit me like the wind swirling through the park: this chaos is drag. This chaos is community.
Minority communities—Black, LGBTQ, drag—all share a common experience of being othered in our society. Queer people have been oppressed and have lived in the negative chaos of a heteronormative binary for centuries. We have been told what to wear, who we must love, how to live our lives, that we are sinners; this list could go on and on. It is our community that has gotten us through this chaos. While we have fought our own battles in the gusts of dark storms, we always seem to find that proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” and come out even tougher when we reach it. The hardships that society has thrust upon our shoulders make us stronger, even when we do not see our own strength.
Now, how the hell does drag entertainment turn this chaos into a positive thing? First, one must understand a little of its history. Drag originated in a gender-binary society that provided the foundation for Western civilization and its gender structures: Ancient Greece. In Greek performances, masked “male” actors would play “female” characters, because female actors were not allowed to perform on stage. Due to the nature of Greek plays, in which actors wore masks and had to interchange roles frequently, it became necessary for males to take on a variety of characters, both male and female.
This tacit acceptance of performative drag culture in a strictly binary society was later incorporated into church services by the Anglican Church in England to help worshippers understand Christian rituals. As detailed in the book Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts, “Women played no active part in the services and the offices of the church, so the original acting was done exclusively by men, choirboys assisting the clerks and playing women's roles when required” (Baker, Burton, and Smith 1994, 26). If we use contextual clues, this means that drag within the church was seen as an accepted social norm due to the prohibition of “female” participation in services.
In America, drag began to appear in vaudeville and minstrel shows in the 1800s, but the first true cultivator of the American drag culture that we know today was William Dorsey Swann, a former slave who identified simply as “The Queen.”
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Swann would host elaborate drag balls consisting of dance, song, and what was termed the “cakewalk,” a type of dance specifically performed on slave plantations both before and after emancipation. It was named for the prize that the winner received—traditionally, a hoecake or other baked good. In his 2020 article in The Nation, “The First Queen Was A Former Slave,” Channing Gerard Joseph writes:
In 1896, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of ‘keeping a disorderly house’—a euphemism for running a brothel—Swann demanded (and was denied) a pardon from President Grover Cleveland for holding a drag ball. This, too, was a historic act: it made Swann the earliest recorded American to take specific legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence.
Although these gatherings were not safe for the participants due to the restrictive societal norms of the Victorian period, which rejected the idea of “men” dressing in “women’s” clothing, these dangers did not stop them. They were a support group. They were a family. They were a community. This courage to create community laid the foundations for modern-day drag culture. While the Stonewall riots of 1969, seven decades later, are a huge cornerstone for modern drag and queer communities, we must educate and remind ourselves about the pioneering man who first paved the way for American drag: William Dorsey Swann, a queer black man who dared to express his authenticity.
While the drag and trans communities have become more openly accepted since the days of the Ancient Greeks, the new Anglican Church, and post-Civil War America, the gender binary still plays a huge role in modern theater and performance. Although trans people are represented on screen, they are often played by cisgender actors. Despite some progress in expanding definitions of gender in theater, much work remains to be done. For anyone wondering where to start their own quest for education on the topic, I highly recommend the documentary film, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.
I was eighteen years old when I had my first drag experience in the iconic Rose Room Lounge on the second floor of the S4 Nightclub in Dallas, Texas. The second I walked through the double doors, I was hooked. The glitz, the glam, the lights, the production, the people, the music—everything captivated my senses. The whole experience was so chaotic and overwhelming, from the crass emcee, to the entertainer in pasties, to the sticky floor. I didn’t know how to take everything in. I’d grown up acting and singing in the theater, but never had I experienced anything like this.
A year later, I put on my first dress. A female friend applied my makeup. It was awful, but she tried. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing; between the wig, the lashes, the hairspray, the heels, the dress—it was utter chaos trying to do this for my very first time. We were undergraduate students in an extremely conservative city in east Texas with one gay bar that was only open one night a week. And on that night, we went to the drag show.
I looked like shit, but I felt amazing. No one could stop me from being myself.
Our mutual friends, who had no idea I would be dressing in drag, loved it. I still look back and think about how intoxicated they must have been. I mean, it was BAD as far as quality drag shows go, but they still LOVED ME. I never could have anticipated that thirteen years later, I would still be a drag entertainer. And here I am, in the arms of this community, whose history and struggles and triumphs stretch back hundreds of years, and whose members have continually transformed the confusion of the world around them into something bright, and bold, and beautifully chaotic.
The queer community is the reason I still do drag today. I came out as non-binary in November 2018. I call it my “second” coming out because before then I only “knew” how to be a gay man, which was not the most pleasant experience, growing up in east Texas. My first coming out was rather heartbreaking due to the lack of understanding I received not only from my family but from people who knew nothing about me. Their reactions caused a strong emotional trauma. I felt alone, as if no one was there to even listen to me. I know many queers go through similar experiences, and it sucks. It fucking sucks. The feeling of not being wanted or being unloved is an experience that no one deserves, but through drag I have found a love, not only for myself, but for the queer community, and this community has begun to help me heal.
Drag has been, and still is to some, an underground community. The popular reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race has definitely aided in the unwrapping of drag to non-queer people, but it certainly doesn’t speak to modern drag entertainment and culture. Although eye-opening in some regards, the show is very stuck in the gender binary while much of today’s drag entertainment isn’t. Drag and queer society have changed since the conception of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which only began airing eleven years ago, in 2009. The evolution of gender and sexuality norms has opened numerous doors for people of all walks of life to experience drag culture. It’s not just for males who want to create female illusions anymore. Drag is for everyone. Drag is an expression in which ALL people can exist. Drag is tranquil chaos.
I have been in Denver, Colorado for a little over seven years, and this city is where I felt unconditional love for perhaps the first time in my life. Sure, I know my blood family loves me, but their love is different than that of the queer community. My drag performances have helped me meet people, create relationships, and most importantly, find my authentic self as a human being. This community has picked me up when I have fallen flat on my face. They have held me accountable, have forgiven me when I have royally messed up, and have accepted me for the loving, broken human that I am.
The year 2020 has brought us a global pandemic and reminders of the systemic racism that the Black community has faced for over 400 years. Doctors, drag entertainers, artists, bus drivers, grocery clerks, and many more people are facing hardships, some of which are new, and some of which are centuries old. While the #BlackLivesMatter movement and queer rights movement may seem like two very different causes, one cannot deny that they share similarities in their rejection of the oppressive nature of American culture. We see the injustices faced by Black people and queer people as ever-present in the countless murders of Black trans women and trans folks in general, and in the lack of response by our judicial system.
We must raise our voices. In truth, society doesn’t want to hear them because, by demanding to be heard, we demand our power back and take their cis-heterosexual white privilege away. STOP KILLING BLACK TRANS WOMEN! Civil rights are human rights, and human rights are equal rights. Our communities must stick together and fight for a better future for generations to come. I truly believe and hope that through love, kindness, and education we can unify our chaos and brokenness to achieve a better tomorrow. Let all of us rise and create a stronger community. We will be present and we will be heard. Together.
Baker, Roger, Peter Burton, and Richard Smith. 1994. Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. New York: NYU Press.
Joseph, Channing Gerard. 2020. “The First Queen Was A Former Slave” The Nation (January 31). https://www.thenation.com/article/society/drag-queen-slave-ball/.