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A history of drag in Utah

This post originally appeared on the College of Humanities website.

In 1870, the word “drag” began being used as theater slang for “women’s clothing worn by men” in reference to the long skirts trailing on the floor. Today, drag shows refer to a combination of creativity, performance, community and celebration that offers a unique space for self-expression, entertainment and connection allowing everyone—both performers and attendees—to embrace their individuality and celebrate diversity. So, why has drag become so controversial? Elizabeth Clement, associate professor of history at the University of Utah, offers her perspective and provides some background on the history of drag in the state of Utah.

When did drag shows start making an appearance in Utah?

There was drag in Utah by the 1870s. Drag was very common, especially in theater and in societies where women were being restricted in public spaces like they were in the mid-19th century in the U.S. At that time, it wasn’t “respectable” for women to go out in public and as a result, theaters sometimes used men to play women’s roles. My sense from the reading that I’ve done on the very early drag in Utah is that it’s much more associated with theater than it was with homosexuality. Although, in part, that’s because you don’t get homosexuality as an identity until the late 19th century. So, it looks like early drag was part of this theater tradition and wasn’t necessarily associated with homosexuality. However, there’s a lot of overlap between queer drag and theater drag.

When did drag become associated with homosexuality?

By the 1920s we know that drag became very strongly associated with homosexuality. Many states in the 20th century began to develop laws that basically declared homosexuality itself to be obscene or indecent. They passed laws that said bars couldn’t have gatherings of more than three queer people. It wasn’t even about drag, but about homosexuality and policing homosexuality.

What are some of the largest drag organizations and when did they appear on the scene?

In the 1960s, the Royal Court system was founded by José Sarria, a drag operator and drag queen entertainer, in San Francisco. It was founded as a charity organization, which focused on improving the reputation of the gay community. Most of their early fundraising was for very mainstream organizations like the March of Dimes, UNICEF or charities that had nothing to do with sexuality or homosexuality. They were showing that the drag community was participating in charitable activity aimed at the entire community in the United States, not just the queer community and that they were civic-minded people. It was a form of the politics of respectability to sort of show that they had a unique art form—just like other cultures have unique art forms—but they were using it to support broader goals of the community and to participate in a broad notion of community by helping.

In the early 1980s, they turned their fundraising efforts towards AIDS because of course, a lot of people participating in the Royal Court had contracted HIV AIDS. So, then there’s a long period in the 80s and 90s where the Royal Court was supporting AIDS and broader LGBT issues.

Another large organization was the drag ball scene happening in big cities such as New York and Chicago in the late 20th century. Black and Latino drag queens organized houses into a quasi-family system of chosen kin where you joined a house and competed with your drag house in pageants. “Paris is Burning” is a fantastic documentary about the drag ball culture.

Other than the Royal Court, were there other organizations fundraising for AIDS in the 80s?

No, definitely not. There was no federal money going into it, or attention being paid. A lot of different things were needed at that time—research money to try to find cures or treatments and money for care because people were dying, and nobody was helping. In Utah, the queer community fundraised from individuals, and some organizations, like the Junior League, also helped. But there was no federal, state or county help until the 1990s, about 10 years into the epidemic. So, the Royal Court was very important because it really was—as far as I can tell—the largest fundraising organization in the state that was explicitly about queerness and for queer people.

The federal government wasn’t helping. None of the states were helping with research except for California. The hospitals—the whole medical system—was in crisis because there were so many people with HIV. They were on the verge of collapse, and there wasn’t any meaningful funding until 1990 when the Ryan White Act went through.

When did the Royal Court enter the scene in Utah?

The Royal Court system came to Utah in the mid-1970s. Sarria sent Princess Royale out to Salt Lake to make a connection in 1975 or 1976 with the drag community and she began directing who was going to participate and how. It was (and is) very organized, which, of course, meant there was already a local drag community before Princess Royale arrived. So, people were already doing drag, but then they were pulled into this bigger charitable organization. I think that sort of supercharged their ability to be organized because they had structure and support.

What is the backlash about when it comes to drag shows?

To me, it’s partially just anti-trans, which is wrong because drag is not necessarily about transness, but it is about gender-bending and gender play. Most people who participate in drag are not trans, although they are usually in some ways either non-binary or have this non-binary part of themselves. It’s very hard to find a family that doesn’t have a queer person gay person or a bi person in it, but trans is rare. I think drag (and transness) challenges gender norms in ways that people find very frightening. It’s very easy to think a cisgender gay man is just like you because he’s not challenging your own sense of gender.

What seems to be going on here is that there is a sort of political and identity doubling down on gender as natural. It is seen as very threatening to allow trans people to exist or to allow drag performers to play with gender because that undermines this notion of sex as natural. And I mean, to me, it comes back to patriarchy. It’s as if we can’t have playing with gender because that will upset the structures around gender that we have built that are threatened by homosexuality, but also by transness and by drag. But the thing is, most people in the country have actually moved away from viewing homosexuality as a threat. Now why do they feel threatened? I don’t know. Nobody in the trans community, nobody in the gay community, nobody in the drag community is saying, “You have to give up your gender identity. You must have this gender identity.”

There’s also a stigma associated with drag about only being about sex. It’s the idea that somehow a man dressed as a woman, or a woman dressed as a man—because they’re also drag kings—are just sexual by nature even if nothing that they are doing or wearing implies sexuality. I think that’s what that is. I also think the backlash is about transness because it’s about crossing gender boundaries and saying that crossing gender boundaries is okay and acceptable.

Why should drag be embraced?

I think we should be embracing drag because we really do have a diversity of genders in the world, both culturally and cross-culturally. Different cultures have different gender values and different understandings of gender expression, but also because we have that in our own community. And I think there is a sort of revolution happening among young people, where more kids are identifying as non-binary, more kids are identifying as trans than there were ten or 20 years ago. To me, that is—to a certain extent—a reflection of feminism’s success in challenging gender as some rigid binary.

So, we have this diversity in our world, we have this diversity in our community. Transness doesn’t want to get rid of gender. It wants there to be flexibility in who gets to play with gender in what ways. Because of course there’s a way in which transness supports gender, right? Because it’s about saying, “I don’t feel like I fit into this category that has been given to me, that was assigned to me. I want to explore other parts of myself.” And I don’t see any problem with that.

There’s nothing wrong with playing with gender. We all need to be more open to different kinds of people and different kinds of expression and find joy in both that for ourselves and in other people. And drag does that. Drag is about diversity. It is about difference. And it’s about playing with those things and saying to kids, “Go explore. Go explore gender. Go explore race. Go explore all of these things that are a part of our world that are really complex.” And it doesn’t have to be bad, and it doesn’t have to be negative. It’s not a loss to you if someone else is playing with or exploring gender. And so why not let that happen? Also, it’s just fun.

There are all different kinds of drag, and one of the main kinds of drag is humor, it’s about poking fun at the artificiality of a lot of these big categories. Artificiality meaning, not that these categories aren’t real, but that these categories are constructed by people. And if you can construct something as a person, you can also deconstruct it and take it in a totally different direction. And that’s what drag does. It allows that freedom of really trying to figure out who you are and what you’re comfortable with and what gives you joy and excitement and a feeling of belonging. And I have no idea why we would want less of that. I want to live in a kinder, more generous world, and it feels very much like these attacks on drag are coming from a rigid perspective that tries to keep hierarchies of gender in place.

Also, people need to stop attacking the children, and they need to stop pretending that these actions—meant to rile up the conservative base with a culture war issue—aren’t going to have a cost. Queer kids are scattered across families, so it may have a cost in your very own family. When you attack the right to health care for trans kids, you—grandparent or parent—may be hurting the very children you are pretending to protect.