Drag: Theatrical Queer Performance Against Marginalisation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Niamh Dann- Guest Writer
Watching the popular television series RuPaul’s Drag Race, one cannot help but find themselves within an increasingly accepting society of queer culture and theatrical queer performance. To anyone who finds themselves outside of the queer community and its customs, RuPaul’s Drag Race might seem bizarre and very American. However, drag has been a big part of mainstream culture for a long time and isn’t merely queer. Before recently, drag has commonly been comedic. With the British pantomime dame, movies such as Some Like it Hot (1959), Mrs Doubtfire (1993) and The Birdcage (1996), drag has been mainstream for a long time. Its professional identity, however, is relatively new.
With the current popularism of RuPaul’s drag race, Instagram and YouTube drag queens and TV shows such as Pose (2018), the community of drag has become a fundamental aspect of popular culture. To a modern audience, drag is a celebration of queerness, but it is also a theatrical protest against marginalisation, racism and resistance. This contemporary acceptance of drag seems a sudden progression towards social acceptance and an increasing push of the queer community into the wider social setting. However, such progressions of drag might not be as sudden as one might assume. According to drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys, an assumption that this is the golden age of drag is misinformed. He labels it instead the ‘Ru era’, where for the first time it has been pushed into a usually non-drag-consuming public. Its history, however, proves a deeper and more accepting reality preceding the twentieth-century.
The history of drag is one of complication. Being a marginalised community, its past beyond the twentieth-century is often hard to discover and understand. Even within queer history, drag and its existence is usually pushed to the corners in the favouritism of specific queer figures such as Oscar Wilde and Anne Lister, and events such as Stonewall. What came before the gay liberation movement and the influence that drag had upon the formation of a queer identity, therefore, is relatively forgotten about. Perhaps the lack of evidence can be to blame; even so, marginalised history has a way of showing itself eventually.
Drag scenes and the label of ‘drag queens’ as we recognise today, didn’t begin emerging until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Specifically, in the eighteenth-century, cross-dressing began to acquire a distinctly provocative identity. The increasing pressure on gender roles in this century and the tightening of masculine and feminine constructs meant that individuals who stepped out of these guidelines became conspicuous. This increasing noticeability does not mean that cross-dressing did not occur before the eighteenth-century, but that cross-dressing was now more controversial than it perhaps had been before. As it began moving off the stage and into public life, society began to worry about its possible links to the crime of sodomy.
In this period, drag and homosexuality were not insolubly linked. Drag experienced a fulfilled and expressive life upon the stage, whereas homosexuality was privatised and quiet. Therefore, there were fundamental differences between these two realities. The apparent move of drag into the life of privatised homosexuality, however, can be seen within the records of police arrests from the time. For example, on Saturday 3rd November 1792, The Norfolk Chronicle reported that “A nest of the worst description of people were last Monday apprehended at One Field’s, in Clement’s Lane, London. The officers, upon rushing into a room up-stairs, discovered two wretches dressed in women’s apparel, and painted in the face, walking a minuet, sixteen other wretches were at this time sitting round the room on benches, laughing spectators of the degradation of man, and in indecent familiarities with each-other” (Norfolk Chronicle, 1792). Their arrests mark a lawful shift within social ideas of private cross-dressing and homosexuality. Once drag moved off the stage, its links to sodomy became ever more apparent.
However, only sixty years earlier, in 1732, a drag queen by the name of Princess Seraphina (her true name being John Cooper, of which she was addressed as in the transcript) was able to prosecute a thief who stole her clothes, without being put on trial herself for her apparent homosexuality. Within the transcript, a witness, Mary Poplet, adamantly supports Seraphina’s story of the robbery. Poplet also went on to explain that “you would not have known her from a woman. She takes great delight in balls and masquerades, and always chooses to appear at them in a female dress, that she may have the satisfaction of dancing with fine gentlemen…I never heard that she had any other name than the Princess Seraphina” (The Proceedings for London: 1732). This fascinating transcript reveals a marginalised but expressive public reality of drag. Princess Seraphina lived as a cross-dresser openly and publicly, and was relatively accepted by her community. Her ability to even take someone to court as an open cross-dresser represents the relatively acceptive reality of our ancestor’s opinions of cross-dressing beyond the stage. In addition, the mentioning of balls and masquerades are also extremely telling in the history of drag culture. One cannot help but think back to the ballroom culture in twentieth-century America, that we see in Paris is Burning (1990), and wonder if such traditions found their roots within eighteenth-century England. Even so, only sixty years later, such public expressions of drag were being sniffed out and crushed by the police as a threat to society.
The nineteenth-century experienced an increasing prosecution of cross-dressers as the link between theatrical gender performance became evermore linked to the queer community. Perhaps most notably, this century saw the famous court case of Stella Clinton (Ernest Boulton) and Fanny Park (Frederick Park) in 1871. These two were popular drag queens in the West End of London. With a drag act on the stage, these two also alternated between men and women’s clothing publicly. Their public drag was permitted with relatively little harassment in the West End, where theatre people and artists filled the space with a freedom that the rest of the nation lived in contrast to. Stella and Fanny were arrested at a local theatre after being found in a room of ‘familiar men’. The court wished to prove that they were sodomites, however, without walking in on literal proof of their sexual activities with men, they were let go. This was a victory for the queer community in England. Even so, this case began a darker age for English homosexuals as the law became broader in its prosecution of homosexuality. The Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) criminalised gross indecency where things like cross-dressing and love letters or even being found in gay spaces or with other gay men could be used as proof of homosexuality. This law saw the prosecution of people such as Oscar Wilde ten years later and Alan Turing in the next century. Drag, therefore, became an incriminating practise and was used by the government in order to sniff out and demolish hidden queer communities.
Even so, behind the increased prosecution, one can notice the beginning of a queer resistance movement in this century that used drag as an expressive force. In America, figures such as William Dorsey Swann began publicly resisting social restrictions on queer experiences. As an African-American being born into slavery in 1858, Swann was the first American activist to lead a queer resistance group. He was also one of the first known cross-dressers to dub himself a ‘Queen of Drag’. To his friends and followers, he was known as ‘The Queen’. With the addition of drag balls and masquerades, Swann helped to create a safe space for his community where marginalised men could be safe from racism, prejudice and homophobia. Though Stonewall in 1969 is often held up as the event that began the gay liberation movement, Swann’s courage and mobilisation in his community, and the efforts that were taking place in England, London, perhaps suggest that it is time to rethink the history of the movement.
The years succeeding the nineteenth-century witnessed a movement that used drag as a way to unify the queer community and express queer identity. As drag continued to live underground, by the end of the twentieth-century, it was moving into the mainstream. Today, drag is a universal expression of queerness and theatrically celebrates the beauty and love of the community. Without the efforts of queer men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such a reality would never be. Perhaps it is time that this early reality of drag in queerness is acknowledged, preceding the events of Stonewall and the efforts of RuPaul. For a long time, drag has been a fundamental part of queer protest and a unifying force in the fight for acceptance.
History Extra, From Fanny and Stella, to RuPaul’s Drag Race: A Short History of Drag, https://www.historyextra.com/period/20th-century/history-drag-queens-rupaul-race-evolution-gay-rights/, written by Vincent Chabany-Douarre, (Nov 8, 2019, 10:45 am).
Time, Ru-Paul’s Drag Race and what People Get Wrong about the History of Drag, https://time.com/5188791/rupauls-drag-race-history/, written by Wilder Davies, (March 9, 2018 11:18 am), updated March 9, 2018 12:25 pm.
Timeline, The Victorian Men in Drag who Led Britain to Outlaw Homosexuality, https://timeline.com/the-salacious-case-of-the-victorian-cross-dressers-that-made-life-hell-for-gay-men-e8efddb136e1, written by Meagan Day, (Oct 27, 2016).
The Nation, The First Drag Queen was a Former Slave who Fought for Queer Freedom a Century before Stonewall, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/drag-queen-slave-ball/, written by Channing Gerard Joseph, (January 1st, 2020).
Anonymous, The Proceedings at the Sessions of the Peace and Oyer and Terminer, for the City of London and County of Middlesex: 1729-1834, (London: Vol. 3, 1732).
The Norfolk Chronicle or The Norwich Gazette, printed by J.Crouse and W. Stevenson, page 2, (Saturday 3rd November: 1792).
By British Cartoon Prints Collection - Library of Congress Catalog: http://lccn.loc.gov/2006685290Image. Original url: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.03347. , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32489358.