This evening I went to a drag show. I have found myself going to drag shows quite a bit (for me) over the last few months. There is something about the ridiculous, extravagant, and bold nature of drag shows that brings me lots of ambivalent feelings: joyful feelings of celebrating other people’s genders, the potential for political subversion in fucking with gender, and also discomfort in usually feeling like the only trans* person in the audience. I want to move away from a worn discussion of whether or not drag is for entertainment or political purposes as I believe it can be either or neither, depending on the drag performer. However, I do know that as a trans* person that is often read as masculine, in my body it feels like a mindfuck to be in an audience of some portions of queer (as catch-all) community that has tensions with trans* communities but simultaneously and so exuberantly applauds masculinity vis–à–vis drag kinging.
Tonite’s particular performance was intended to help raise money for a local organization that serves as a shelter for (cis)women and children who are survivors of domestic violence. It didn’t escape my attention, nor my friend’s, when the emcee consistently used binary language in the interludes in describing the services the shelter provides for “women, men, and children in Iowa.” In addition to a performance, the drag kings also did a short panel after the show to open up space for audience members to ask questions.
During the panel the kings were asked to share with us how they came up with their persona. It was within these responses from the kings that I find interstices for dialogue. I am continuing to unpack the various layers of complicated politics of the tensions between drag and trans* communities and larger questions of do we all really fit within similar communities and how can we build solidarity around expanding the parameters of gender for all folks.
One of the more playful kings responded to the question by describing drag as a way to access and extend childhood playfulness of dancing and singing. This king described how being in the troupe is fun, and also has a politics of performance in the intricate ways in which audience members respond to kings in that some ‘forget’ that kings are performing gender. I believe it is in those moments when (some) audience members are going through a translation process of making intelligible a king’s gender that makes me celebrate the particularities of drag shows. But the panelist then spiraled into a discourse of reminding us that he is really female, a woman performing in drag, and that he attempts to play with hyper-masculinity in an effort to bring the possibility of more fluidity in all people’s gender identities, but that he wasn’t a ‘real’ man. That is, he didn’t have balls.
I find this cissexist discourse of “real” any gender or sex extremely disappointing. That our genders and bodies are suddenly reduced to genitals is not new. It operates in a systemic manner that oppresses trans* and cis people alike in our genders and ways of relating to our bodies. The irony of the notion of tolerance for diversity within gender, spoken in the same sentence as real men having balls was not missed. The only response, in that particular moment, was to turn to my friend and say, “I think it’s time to go.”
But I am stuck with these questions, these broader questions, of how we can create space within our collective communities for all of us to fuck with or lean into or embrace gender in any way it manifests and feels good in the ways in which we want to be in the world, and simultaneously not regard “authentic” genders as being marked by having bodies that conform to assignments made at birth, and that relies on cissexism.