Erasing Queens of Color to Make a Profit: The Historical Racism of Drag Culture

Queer history is often erased from the mainstream teaching of history, especially if it does not fit a white hegemonic narrative. The history of drag queens, ball culture, and voguing is no exception to this hegemonic narrative. It is important to historically analyze the origins of dressing in drag, especially when modern depictions of queens rely heavily on racial stereotypes for comedic and entertainment value. To understand the history of drag, and to improve on its future, we must first acknowledge that drag has not always been a safe space for queens of color.

Venus Xtravaganza, Paris is Burning

Since the inception of drag, queens of color have been excluded from the white narrative and white washed beauty standards presented throughout the drag scene. Important cultural creations such as voguing, have been co-opted and stolen from queer people of color, then re-packaged for profit to a white mainstream audience.

Beginning in the 17th century, female impersonation slowly declined because of the fact that women were now allowed to appear on the stage. Two centuries later, female impersonation began to thrive in the United States, becoming a “comic travesty” of the nineteenth century (Bullough, 233). Female impersonators began to flourish within the minstrel and vaudeville scene after the Civil War, where blackface female impersonators became the highest paid minstrel players.

Because black women are stigmatized for both their racial and gender identity, stereotypes such as the mammy and the wench became popular comedic entertainment, which ultimately became the first instance of drag stage performance in the United States. Robert Toll explains perfectly why these black female tropes were so successful stating, “women, like Negroes, provided one of the few stable ‘inferiors’ that assured white men of their status”. “These all white male actors not only played in blackface but also were featured in almost every show as what were called “plantation yellow girls” and as the white daughters of plantation owners” (Bullough, 233). It is important to understand the historical roots of performance drag in the United States, especially when unpacking the racial macro and microaggressions that plague the modern drag scene today.

By the time the 1960s came around, racial tensions were high within the ball scene, where black queens were expected to “whiten up their faces” if they wanted to be successful in the competitions. Because of the extreme white washing prevalent in the ball scene, in 1962 Marcel Christian organized the first ball for exclusively black queens. Ultimately, this creation of black organized balls lead to the implementation of drag houses. Lawrence notes that the houses referenced the “glamorous fashion houses” that the black queens admired, inspiring other black queens to create their own houses and families. “A quite distinct phenomenon from the clusters of individuals and circles of friends who would head to the balls, houses began to operate as de facto orphanages for displaced kids” (Lawrence, 2013).

Excerpt from Paris is Burning

Lawrence goes on to explain that, [In the 1970s] “black, gay, working-class drag queens found themselves estranged not only from their biological families, which were usually intolerant of their choices, but also the ruling cadre of black nationalist leaders, whose increasingly macho ‘real man’ discourse was popularised by the gangs that multiplied on neighbourhood streets. With nowhere else to turn, they formed their own self-supporting gangs, which they preferred to call houses” (Lawrence, 2013). Houses allowed diversity to thrive within the ball scene, and put the power back into the hands of the collective, rather than the elite few.

In the early 1980s, Willi Ninja founded the House of Ninja, where his intentions were to “bring Asian aesthetics and philosophy into the ball world” (Lawrence, 2013, p.1). Soon after the creation of the House of Ninja, the first Latin house known as House of Xtravaganza, became successfully active.

Although queer kids of color seemed to be thriving creatively due to the ball scene, it did not take long for white mainstream entertainment to co-opt and ultimately profit off of their work. According to Shepherd, “the voguing community, which was started by and is still largely comprised of Black and Latino gay men and trans women, has a long history of being mined for its vast and mind-boggling creativity, and then discarded when it no longer suits said miners” (2015). Lawrence notes, “Growing out of the drag queen ritual of throwing ‘shade’, or subtly insulting another queen, voguing emerged as a distinctive dance of first the houses and then, inevitably, the balls, where specific voguing categories were eventually introduced” (2013).

Voguing gained international attention when Jennie Livingston released her documentary about the ball scene entitled Paris is Burning, shot between 1986 and 1989. Lawrence states, “the documentary provided a rich cultural insight into the previously clandestine culture of black and Latin drag balls through its mix of ballroom footage, everyday-life material shot at the piers, and interviews with Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza and others” (2013).

However, considering Livingston was a white filmmaker, the documentary faced its fair share of criticism. “the black intellectual bell hooks argued that Livingston was only able to make the film in the first place because she was white, educated and therefore more powerful than the drag queens she represented” (Lawrence, 2013). hooks goes on to state, ‘the whiteness celebrated in Paris is Burning is not just any old brand of whiteness, but rather that brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness that presents itself — its way of life — as the only meaningful thesis” (hooks, 1992, p.145).

Willi Ninja with Madonna and Jennie Livingston

Ultimately, the film went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance film festival and grossed over four million dollars at the box office. However, Livingston was not the only white creative force to use queens of color for her own personal profit. “Madonna also latched onto the drag ball and voguing scene, and working to a much tighter turnaround and with a good deal more capital than Livingston, came out with the single and accompanying video of Vogue in March 1990” (Lawrence, 2013).

According to Pepper LaBeija, a major character in Livingston’s film, “When she did the interviews, she gave us a couple hundred dollars.

But she told us that when the film came out we would be all right. There would be more coming. And that made me think I would have enough money for a car and a nice apartment and for my kids’ education. But then the film came out and — nothing. They all got rich, and we got nothing” (Lawrence, 2013).

Terre Thaemlitz, who was part of the ball scene, goes on to explain what it felt like when mainstream pop took ahold of voguing, “When Madonna came out with her hit “Vogue” you knew it was over. She had taken a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with her lyrics, “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed and broke” (2015).

Thaemlitz, the infamous queer DJ goes on to state, “So if anybody requested “Vogue” or any other Madonna track, I told them, “No, this is a Madonna-free zone! And as long as I’m DJ-ing, you will not be allowed to vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality” (2015).

Racial tensions within drag are further strained when considering that drag is often performed through a white feminine lens. Ragan Rhyne notes, “Understanding the documentary subjects’ (poor, urban, black and Latino drag queens) performances of bourgeois femininity as coded via standards of unmarked whiteness, bell hooks, for instance, argued that the film exploited the ways in which “colonized black people… worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit” (hooks, 1992, p. 149). hooks argues that the performance of whiteness by drag queens of color, at least in this specific case, is motivated by internalized racism and a desire to be white–a desire achieved through the appropriation of white femininity” (2004, Rhyne).

Still from Paris is Burning

We must work to understand the historical exclusiveness within the drag scene, and ultimately the cultural appropriation that allows the drag scene to thrive. For drag to be a creative outlet for the entire queer community, we must take into consideration how it has become popular and profitable, due to the co-opting of creative forces by queens of color.

In summary, it is important to analyze the historical roots of drag culture within the United States to understand why racialized stereotypes and undertones are so prevalent, and ultimately problematic, within the performance of drag today. The origins of drag culture in the United States originated with blackface, and ultimately grew into the exclusion of queens of color from mainstream drag.

Kat Blaque speaking on the racism present in the work of Ru Paul.

Through this exclusion, queens of color thrived creatively by creating important aspects of modern drag culture, such as houses and voguing, only to have it stolen for profit by mainstream white culture. The ultimate culture of drag further creates problems rooted in racism, because “good drag” is often dictated by white supremacist beauty standards. Queer history should be representative of all queer people, and not just those that fit into a white hegemonic narrative.

Works Cited
Bullough, V. L., & Bullough, B. (1995). Cross dressing, sex, and gender. Philadelphia, PA: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
Hooks, B. (1992). Black looks: race and representation. New York: Routledge.
https://stjsociologyofgender.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/paris_burning_bell_hooks.pdf
Lawrence, T. (2013, July 16). “‘Listen, and You Will Hear all the Houses that Walked There Before’: A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing”. London: Soul Jazz, 2011. Retrieved April 07, 2017, from http://www.timlawrence.info/articles2/2013/7/16/listen-and-you-will-hear-all-the-houses-that-walked-there-before-a-history-of-drag-balls-houses-and-the-culture-of-voguing
Rhyne, R. (2004). Racializing White Drag. Journal of Homosexuality, 46(3–4), 181–194. doi:10.1300/j082v46n03_11
Shepherd, J. E. (2015, January 13). Nah, Rihanna: A History of ‘Vogue’ Exploiting Queer People of Color. Retrieved April 07, 2017, from http://themuse.jezebel.com/nah-rihanna-a-history-of-vogue-exploiting-queer-peopl-1679218615