High Impact Female Illusionists:
The Gay Drag Scene
For my field ethnography, I studied the culture of drag shows in gay bars. I know, and have known, some transvestites and some transsexuals, and I have never felt uncomfortable around them. As I am already sympathetic to and supportive of their plight, I did not have shock, confusion or disgust to wade through as I did my research. Someone else may have treated the project like a trip to the zoo, but I was able to approach it with respect and sensitivity. I chose this as my research project in part because I have always thought it was unusual that I, a gay woman, have been so fascinated by, even occasionally attracted to, some of the performers. Pat Califia, who is in a relationship with a woman, talks of her own attraction to male-to-female cross-dressers (194). The Lady Chablis also noticed that "For some reason . . . the dykes loved [me]." (125)
My methods of research included attendance at five shows in five different venues, one in New York City (Escuelita), one in Garden Grove (The Frat House), and three in Long Beach (Club 5211, Fire Island, Ripples). I interviewed three performers at The Frat House (Jennifer, Monique and Tahtiana), and spoke to spectators at three of the clubs. Jennifer and Tahtiana told me that they refer to themselves as "high impact female illusionists," thus the title of my paper. I read Hiding My Candy by The Lady Chablis, as well as portions of Pat Califia's Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. The only disappointing part of my research was not being able to find any books on transvestite or drag queen culture at Border's Books or at the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Community Center library. I had to order Hiding My Candy. I understand that there are other books in print, including Letting it All Hang Out by RuPaul, which I plan to read. Perhaps this lack of availability of literature is a reflection of the extent to which cross-dressers are marginalized in our society.
I met a young, gay man named Mark who worked at Border's and was "thrilled" (falsetto) to help me look for sources. He told me that he had done drag himself, but he has found that when he tells this to a man whom he is interested in dating, it seems to be a turn-off. Although I have never seen a drag show anywhere but in a gay establishment, it is my experience that transgendered people have a tenuous relationship with the gay community. According to Tahtiana, gays sometimes have a double standard for transvestites because cross-dressing puts the issue of gender "in your face." While Pat Califia reports that homosexuals often don't understand, like, or approve of transvestites and transsexuals, and that many gay people resent sharing their movement with them, sexual minorities continue to share social space and tolerate each other's presence (140, 220).
In this paper, I use "drag queen," "cross-dresser," "female impersonator," "performer," and "entertainer" almost completely interchangeably to describe persons in this genre. All of these were either transvestites if only for the moment or transsexuals. There are differences between transvestites and transsexuals, and I am aware that some people can identify as both at various stages in their lives. It is beyond the scope of this project for me to make this differentiation for each performer. However, I am a firm believer in honoring a person by relating to them as the gender that they say they are, so throughout this paper I refer to the subjects accordingly.
Beyond emulating typically female appearance and mannerisms, it is a myth that drag queens have much more in common. Reasons for dressing up and performing vary, as do the performances themselves. The Lady Chablis considers herself a performance artist (14), as does a performer named Glenn Allen (his real name as a man, which she also uses as her female stage name) that I saw at Fire Island. And, contrary to popular belief, not all female impersonators are gay, nor do they all solicit sex, although some do.
The shows appeal to heterosexual audiences as well. At Ripples, my girlfriend and I shared a table with a straight couple. I noticed what looked to be heterosexual couples at Fire Island, also.
Tahtiana told me that men who consider themselves straight sometimes go to the shows and pick up on transvestites because they are curious about being with a man. The drag scene makes it easier for the men to experiment with their sexuality.
One thing that was new to me was seeing a man lip-synch a man's song at Club 5211. It turns out that I showed up at a fund-raising event, so at first I thought an exception to the norm had been made in order to help raise money. But, Tahtiana told me shows are becoming more inclusive so that there is something for everyone. The Lady Chablis mentioned a "biological" female she had seen perform at some shows who would lip-synch and dance for the pleasure of the lesbians in the audience (160).
Except for the club in New York, which is known as a "mixed" club meaning gay- and straight- friendly the performances all took place on gay bar dance floors or on a portion of the dance floor that had been set up like a stage. The performers did most of their numbers on the stage, but would sometimes walk or dance out into the audience to be more intimate with the onlookers.
A show is often started when someone who wants to perform asks around to build a cast and then takes a proposal to a bar, or when an establishment asks a performer to pull together a cast and develop a show. Often, a show will have a headliner who is considered the "diva," the leader or emcee of the show. In all but The Frat House, the show's divas were heavy-set drag queens who focused more on humor than glamour. Diva's generally go overboard and exaggerate their femininity in what is known as "camping it up." They also tend to wear more makeup and have an outrageously flamboyant wardrobe. They are considered the mother of the troupe and seem to take on a maternal role towards the other performers and towards their audience. The Lady Chablis explains, "Every drag queen has a drag mother . . . who launches her drag offspring on the road to their careers . . . [by] advising and counseling and showing them how to perfect their performances and personas" (82). At Fire Island, the diva's name was "Mama." At Club 5211, the diva referred to herself as "your mother." In New York, the diva kept calling a male member of the audience her "puppy." Tahtiana told me that the divas usually take that role because they want to perform, but might be too heavy or too old to be taken seriously doing impersonations of the more glamorous stars. Regardless of her appearance, a diva usually sings, dances, and does stand-up comedy. A couple of the divas that I saw had incredible wit. Drag queens frequently impersonate performers who are revered by the mainstream public. Impersonations I have seen include Barbara Streisand, Madonna, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Cher, Judy Garland, Dionne Warwick, Julie Andrews and Tina Turner. (A small twist to this scenario is Pat Califia's claim that Madonna learned to vogue from some black drag queens ).
Tahtiana told me that she has worked with some performers who are mainly into themselves, but that most people who perform together develop a bond like a family. Performers tend to joke around together as well as offer emotional support to each other. Drag queens frequently attend each other's shows. Whether in the show or just visiting, they tend to help each other get ready before the show and between numbers. While one performer is on the stage, others performers are in the dressing room spraying their wigs and getting ready for their next routine (Chablis, 141). I also noticed that the doorperson and the bartenders keep an eye out for "the girls." There is a strong ethic of protection from the club staff towards the performers.
Audience members frequently give dollar tips to the dancers. It is customary to hand the money to the performer, or tuck it into some part of their clothing. Often, the dollars fall onto the stage floor as the performer struts around, and sometimes the performer drops the money on purpose to create a dramatic effect. It is understood in the clubs that a lady is not expected to pick money up from the floor. After each song ends, the performer goes back to the dressing room and someone who works for the bar or knows the performers picks up and delivers her tips to her. Tahtiana let me pick up their tips as a way to participate as an insider. It was a good feeling to be part of their community and to share in the tradition of looking after them.
When I was in the dressing room during my interview, I was made to feel very welcome. Tahtiana explained that a female impersonator is able to tuck her penis out of the way with a piece of lingerie known as a "gaff." Tahtiana is amused by the persistence with which some audience members stare at her crotch when she performs. Some transvestites and transsexuals take hormone treatments, which can cause many bodily changes. The Lady Chablis reports that one of her favorite side effects from her hormone treatments is that they prevent her from getting a "hard on." (87)
Tahtiana said that doing drag is in no way intended to insult or make fun of women. In fact, most female impersonators think women are beautiful and want only to emulate them. She also explained that most campy "tear downs" are dished out in fun, and not to hurt anyone's feelings. At The Frat House, one of the performers never showed up, and ultimately the show had to start without her. But, while we were still waiting, Tahtiana complained in a most tolerant and patient tone that "Miss Thang is always late." Cathouse bitching is considered normal among drag queens (Chablis, 141), as are references to menstruation and other female concerns. For instance, when Monique walked into the dressing room and started primping, she said (to Tahtiana), "I hate a woman who is more endowed than I am." Tahtiana responded with a giggle and a demure "Stop it." Drag queens frequently call each other "sister" or refer to each other as "bitch." The Lady Chablis often refers to her audiences as "you bitches" (29-30). When I called Club 5211 to ask what time the show would start, the man who answered the phone said, "Well, they are supposed to start at 10 o'clock, but they don't always start on time." Because I have been known to "camp" a little myself, I responded with mock hostility. I said, "Those bitches," which elicited laughter from him. In drag culture, it is understood that the word "bitch" is an acknowledgement and acceptance of the drag queen's femaleness. It is a compliment rather than an insult. As is true of most cultures, drag queens have their own vernacular (Chablis, 168). David, who manages The Frat House, explained to me that the habit some female impersonators have of showing up a half hour or so late is known as "drag time."
The familial atmosphere among the performers extends to their spare time as well. It is common for performers to have sewing parties (Chablis, 16) where hot glue guns, boas, rhinestones, beads, glitter, sequins and vibrant colors come together to create wardrobes. The Lady Chablis feels her gowns give her performance an edge over other performers (140-1). Luckily, she has a drag sister who is also her seamstress (27).
One benefit of being a female impersonator is that the profession allows some transvestites to earn a living while cross-dressing. The down side is that the pay is often low, the hours are late, and bars aren't always the nicest places to work (Califia, 22). The Lady Chablis looks forward to a time when her profession can move out of the "exploitive and sleazy clutches of most gay-bar owners" (156) and into the legitimacy the profession deserves (145). One of very few highly successful performers (146), The Lady Chablis is able to afford an agent, a business manager, and a bodyguard (16). Most performers do not fare so well.
Tahtiana, who says she performs for the fun of it, and not the money, has been doing drag shows for six years. She confided playfully that most of her tips are used to replace panty hose. While she feels that she is getting better all the time, she has never had a problem being on the stage. Her problem was getting used to using makeup. She likes when she can look in the mirror and see Tahtiana instead of Del. I asked her to tell me what her name means to her and she told me that she is Del when she is a black man and Tahtiana when she is a black woman. Tahtiana embraces her femaleness and Del embraces his maleness. According to Tahtiana, what separates her from Del is that Tahtiana is snooty, vixenous and wild. Reflecting on this ability to experience and be comfortable along a wide spectrum of gender possibilities, Pat Califia says that a person "who does not conform to her or his sex role . . . is saying, 'These components can be arranged any way I damn well please. Mind your own business.' " (186)
The Lady Chablis likes that she can earn a decent living while being entirely who and what she believes herself to be (156). For some transvestites and transsexuals, the drag scene is the first place where they can begin experimenting with their gender transformation. For instance, at Club 5211, I did see a male-to-female transvestite in the audience who never got up to perform. The Lady Chablis reflects that "Society was expecting me to behave in a way that conflicted with my heart" (40), but she also remembers that people began to experience her as female as she began to carry herself like a woman (70). Some transvestites take pleasure in "fooling" the public (Califia, 218), but The Lady Chablis says "None of this was ever intended as a matter of deception." (26) She considers herself a real woman (102), but also acknowledges that others cross-dress solely for professional reasons, that is, to perform in shows or to solicit sex (82). Others, who may never become performers, cross-dress as a matter of personal expression only.
I noticed a kind of reciprocal relationship between the audiences and the performers. My observation that the entertainers genuinely enjoy the opportunity to perform for an audience is confirmed by The Lady Chablis (86). She found that the honesty that resulted from her self-discovery led to a natural ability to touch people with her humor (101). She feels confident on stage, and relishes the applause (108). She experiences her fans as a support system, and feels that the laughter she gives them is a gift in return for their support (29).
Something that bothered me is how miserly some of the audiences were. I genuinely enjoyed the performances I saw, so I tipped almost every performer for most their numbers at every show. Other patrons just sat there, obviously appreciating the entertinment, yet not offering a single tip all night. I asked Tahtiana how she felt about this phenomenon and she said it didn't bother her too much because she performs for the attention the audience gives her. Unlike some of the other entertainers, Tahtiana (as Del) has a "real" job, so she doesn't need the money she gets as tips.
One other thing I noticed is that some performers will let their hand linger on the hand of the person giving the tip. Occasionally, the performer will proffer a hug, a kiss, a kind word or some other gesture of familiarity. Tahtiana explained that this affection can mean a number of different things. The touch or comment may be a simple "thank you" or an acknowledgement that the performer is enjoying the attention of the patron. It may also be a flirtation. Many impersonators develop a reputation and a loyal following from the attention they pay to their audiences (Chablis, 88). Relationships, sexual and otherwise, may develop between performers and patrons. The Lady Chablis became so popular that audience members started coming up to her after her shows and inviting her to their homes (121).
Jennifer explained that an audience can tell the difference between a song that is acted or really felt. Jennifer told me that she usually chose ballads for this reason, because she felt that they reflected her life and her fate (may she rest in peace). Jennifer further clarified that tips are earned by how a performer makes an audience feel. Likewise, how a performer responds to a tip affects how the tipper feels. I watched performers postpone accepting tips to be flirtatious, and I have seen them not approach the tipper as a seductive way to lure the patron onto the stage. Sometimes this is part of the coquetry, yet sometimes the message seems clear: The lady will not be so undignified as to approach the money; some respect should be shown by delivering the tip to her. During one of her songs, I observed as Jennifer saw someone in the audience offering a tip to her. She acknowledged the tipper, but then waited before she walked over to receive it. To interrupt her song immediately would have taken away from the mood she was creating. Jennifer had incredible stage presence.
When I asked Monique what her job was, she told me it was to tantalize and titillate. She said she was like a geisha girl wanting only to please and serve her man and make sure he was taken care of. Tahtiana said that her job was to be sensual, sexy and bold. According to her, part of the persona is to have attitude. The Lady Chablis says she "speaks her mind up on that stage" (136) and that gestures, stage presence, and the ability to monopolize an audience have all contributed to her success (39).
During my research, I developed a greater appreciation for the art and lifestyle of the drag scene. An abundance of entertainment and camaraderie is found in the clubs and in the social circles that develop in this subculture. I asked Tahtiana what she would like to say to the public about her profession and its culture. Her advice is for people to "relax and smile." She asks people not to "look down their noses" at her and her companions. She invites everyone to "come out and experience the show."
2000 Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. (Second Edition).
San Francisco: Cleis Press
Chablis, The Lady
1996 Hiding My Candy
New York: Pocket Books
The Frat House, Garden Grove, California, November 8, 2000
The Frat House, Garden Grove, California, November 8, 2000
The Frat House, Garden Grove, California, November 8, 2000