The changing face of drag: 'Not exactly a woman but I don't want to be a man'
Once a month, 90-year-old John Chaney dons a blond wig, dressy suit and heels — and transforms into a Tammy Wynette look-alike who lip-syncs to country music.
Several times a week, 28-year-old Maxi Glamour also puts on makeup and a skirt. But Glamour forsakes the falsies and is proud to show a flat chest through the opening of a sparkly vest.
The two performers — more than 60 years apart in age — use the same word for their brand of performance: drag. But while Chaney’s act celebrates so-called femininity, Glamour’s show pierces the notion that male and female are two distinct categories. The perspective is increasingly being embraced by wider culture as more people identify as non-binary, or neither male nor female. It’s also reshaping an art form rooted in gay culture.
“When I first started doing drag I was like, ‘Well, I'm not exactly a woman but I don't want to be a man either,’” Glamour said.
‘It brought the house down’
Chaney has performed as Bonnie Blake for the past 60 years. Becoming Bonnie is a process that began during his rural Arkansas childhood as the middle child in a brood of 15. Chaney began trying his sister’s clothes at age 6.
“My sister would tell Mama to, ‘Make him stop,’ but Mama said, ‘He’ll outgrow it,’” Chaney said.
After leaving home at 17, and serving in the U.S. Navy, Chaney settled in St. Louis and found the local gay community. A decade later, he took the stage the very first time.
“It brought the house down,” Chaney said. “The girl that was running the show there said, ‘Bonnie, how about coming back and Saturday and doing this show with us?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, yes, OK.’ And I was hooked on it.”
That was in the late 1950s. What Chaney was doing was illegal in Missouri at that time. Until 1985, state law prevented people from dressing in drag, specifically outlawing anyone from, “appearing in public in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Now, drag kings routinely perform in “masculine” attire — suits and ties, sometimes with added facial hair — alongside the queens. Chaney gets that. But when others appear with both a beard, and a dress, he has another thought.
“That's not drag, I don't think,” Chaney said. “That's my opinion.”
Just ‘do it’
Maxi Glamour, who identifies as gender-queer and uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” was an active child who grew up in north St. Louis County and St. Peters.
“The first time I got suspended was in kindergarten when I mooned my whole class,” Glamour said.
In middle school, they still felt different from their peers but blended in with the Goth crowd. As a young adult, they began a career as a designer of T-shirts and other clothing, started performing as the self-described Demon Queen of Polka and Baklava and began using their stage name full time.
Unlike Chaney, Glamour never knew a time when drag was illegal. But they have known discrimination, as an African-American and someone who places themself under the transgender umbrella. Glamour sprinkles activism into their act, asking audiences to combat transphobia and racism, in between high-kicking and stripping down to a G-string.
“When I'm performing ... and I'm doing booty pops and handstands, I don't have to worry about, ‘Oh, did I pay my cell phone bill?’ You know, if I forgot to floss that morning,” Glamour said. “I don’t have to worry about anything at all. It’s beautiful.”
That kind of magic is something Chaney aka Bonnie Blake knows well. When he really thinks about it, Chaney said, there’s room for everyone in drag, including those who don’t make a choice between what’s considered masculine or feminine attire. After all, he knows that few people understood why he performed dressed in traditional female clothing more than a half-century ago.
“Yeah … if that’s their bag, I say, ‘Do it,’” Chaney said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
‘Parody of gender’
The two different brands of drag performed by Chaney and Glamour have much in common, according to Washington University lecturer Cynthia Barounis, whose expertise includes gender studies.
‘At its core, drag has always been understood as a parody of gender,” Barounis said.
From its early days, drag has depended on the juxtaposition of what society considered male and female.
“It takes ideas or concepts that seem different and puts them together,” Barounis said.
Historically, drag queens presented a kind of exaggerated performance of femininity. Drag kings eventually did the same, with masculinity. More recently, drag took a different turn. Cisgender women, or those labeled female at birth and living as women, now create a super-femme appearance for the stage.
Then there are non-binary, androgynous performers like Glamour, who blow up all notions of gender as a fixed entity.
“It’s about refusing to present any sort of coherent notion of masculinity or femininity, showing that masculinity and femininity are not unified images,” Barounis said. “What does it look like to perform masculinity or femininity? Which masculinity or femininity?”
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