By Amanda Scriver
Folks, I have something to tell you: You don’t have to be a man in a dress to perform drag. Now now, I know that for some of you out there, this may not come as much of a shock, because let’s face it, drag is an art form that’s political and well, genderless. But for some, this may be somewhat of a rude awakening, and I’m here to spill the tea on the fact that women can perform drag . . . as women.
For decades, drag has been an art form made by and performed for gay men. But the explosion in drag popularity has taken queens from underground shows at your local queer club to full-fledged touring acts and brand sponsorships, turning them into household names. This is thanks in large part to the popularity of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which introduced drag culture to suburban America and the mainstream media. It also gave many across the world a small glimpse into what drag culture was really about.
But one small piece that was missing — and seems to be collectively missing from people’s recollections — is the inclusion of bio-queens (sometimes called hyper-queens/faux-queens or lady queens) in the scene. Assigned female at birth (and identifying as “biological women”), these performers have never been fully accepted into the drag community or the queer community. Their very existence has sparked controversial debates in the clubs (Toronto resident and Drag Coven member Courtney Conquers explains how she’s had drinks poured on her head and told to get “the fuck out of the club”) and online, especially in communities such as Reddit.
“Many members of the gay community feel as if we are co-opting their art form, although drag was invented in the Shakespearian era because the church forbade women to be on stage. The same thing is happening today. They forbid us in their clubs and on their stages. There is definitely friction.”
As the popularity of drag rises, so does the popularity of the bio-queens who are commanding and demanding their way onto stages across North America and the world. Drag has long been a political art form with ties to gender, gender performativity, gender fluidity, and of course, good old fashioned sex. With hyper-queens, drag performances are both an art and act of resistance to a culture that largely is asking them (as “biological women”) to conform to the male gaze and engage in ideal beauty standards.
For some of these queens, they are both exploring and calling into question hyper-femininity — just what are these beauty standards and what does it mean to take on the uber-trappings of a woman as a cis woman through the context of drag?
Toronto resident and The House of Filth member Dottie Dangerfield explains, “Your body and face is a blank canvas and you get to present your face as the tool.” Through her persona Dottie, she offers a hyper-feminized clown similar to Drag Race’s Trixie Mattel. Dottie Dangerfield has taken part in beauty pageants and performed in burlesque, but one of the most memorable acts (at least in my mind) was a number she did in a costume comprised entirely of tampons and pads.
Robin Graves from Philadelphia echoes drag’s ability to serve as social commentary:
“Drag is any artistic performance that makes a statement about gender. Every person who is affected by gender roles can make statements about gender. If you focus on what does and doesn’t count as art, you’re missing the entire point of the art.”
Which raises the question: Why does the community keep calling into question the validity of bio-queens? Many of the women involved in the bio-queen community are staunchly feminist, wanting to bring a different side and a different voice to drag. Time and time again, it had been brought up (throughout internet forums and by other drag queens) that because these bio-queens have grown up as women, it is exponentially easier for them to prepare and perform drag. I for one find this to be a terribly lame excuse. The fact that large swathes of the drag community are policing gender highlights the fact some don’t fully understand that drag is an art form and one potential facet of this art is parody.
Courtney Conquers explains, “Faux-queen has become a buzzword like cultural appropriation. People think that because we’re women and might not use padding, that makes us not real as drag queens. I use pads every single day (in my real life) and I know a Toronto drag queen, Allysin Chaynes, who gathers her chest together without padding. Everyone’s different. Not every queen pads!”
Given the ongoing vitriol surrounding faux-drag, it pushes queens to work even harder to show that while they were assigned female at birth, they deserve to be on that stage — celebrating and eviscerating femininity — just as much as any man. California queen The Notorious Ali Doom explains, “Bottom line, not everyone is going to like you and you’ll never please everyone. Just be yourself and love your craft. Take the criticism and keep pushing forward.”
And many of the bio-queens are doing just that. New York’s Crimson Kitty has just created the LADYQUEEN, NYC’s Only All-Female Drag Revue, and curated the first six-week workshop for bio-queens called LadyQueen University.
Crimson Kitty tells me, “I am challenging our audiences to see drag as ‘genderless’ and for some that can be a struggle. However I feel that if they see a proactive and positive approach to any art form, then it can and will become the new norm.” Courtney Conquers (who wrote her entire thesis on Lady Gaga’s non-normative gender identity) is continuing her activist discourse through her bio-queen work, expanding social boundaries through gender, identity, and sexuality. The message that Courtney (and many of the queens) impressed upon me was their desire to use drag as a mode of self-expression and a political tool, and they welcome people of all genders to do the same.
Old-school drag purists, take note. As the bio-queen collective uprises, it’s time to understand the alternative realities of art and transformation. In the words of RuPaul, “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”
Lead image by David Allyon