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With Toronto’s pride parade kicking off today, everyone’s in a festive mood. While it’s great to celebrate the now, it’s also important to understand the past and what people went through to ensure celebrations like these could happen.
From the 1600s till now, there’s no denying drag has come a long way. From only being allowed on the stage to men and women being kicked out of communities because they choose to wear clothing that made them comfortable, you have to understand what they fought for to appreciate it today, so here’s a little history lesson on how drag came to be.
In Japan, classical dance-dramas called Kabuki was a women-only art form. It was popular in the red-light district and featured new fashion trends and current events to a diverse audience, initiating pop culture in Japan. Once females were banned from performing in 1629 for being “too erotic,” males took over the roles.
The first widespread acceptance of drag was seen in early forms of theatre plays. Women weren’t allowed to participate in theatre, among other things, and men, usually adolescent boys, would dress as females to play required roles. This was popular in Shakespearean plays as the first performance of Romeo and Juliet was played by two men.
Opera in the Baroque and Romantic eras were less concerned with gender than the vocal range of the performer. Men who could sing soprano were at times cast in female roles, while women who sang alto and soprano would play young boys.
Under the reign of Queen Victoria, theatre started to blossom and became very popular with the masses. This brought along a shift from a presentational style of theatre to more realistic comedies, as Oscar Wilde became the most prominent playwright at the time. Men would typically play men and women would play women, but in the unique case of Peter Pan it was expected that a female play the title role.
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Julian Eltinge made his name for playing female characters. Unlike other female impersonators of the time, he didn’t present an exaggerated version of feminine stereotypes and would be mistaken as female for his realistic impression.
After World War Two, U.S. Senate Joseph McCartney played on the paranoia of Americans by citing ‘subversive’ communist groups as a national risk and considered the LGBTQ+ community a part of them. Wearing clothing of the opposite gender was banned, which prevented Julian Eltinge and other performers from playing their usual roles. This led to drag becoming an underground platform only performed in nightclubs.
In 1969, The Stonewall Bar in New York changed everything. Police tried to conduct a raid of the only LGBTQ+ bar in the area at the time, but their plan was fouled by the brave men and women who fought back. This ignited three days of riots, with drag queen Marsha P. Johnson being among the first to put up a fight. It was the first time the LGBTQ+ came together as a community and sparked worldwide activism.
The lines between political and entertainment continued to blur for the drag movement, but the important thing was they no longer had to hide. Founded in 1969, psychedelic theatre group The Cockettes preformed with glitter eye-shadow and beards. The Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries was created in the early 1970s by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two drag queens present at the Stonewall Bar riot. In 1974, Andy Warhol created a series of polaroids centred on prolific drag queens. One year late, The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered and has since become a cult classic. In this era, RuPaul, Lady Bunny and Stormé DeLarverie became well-known drag royalty and have made a lasting impression in pop culture.
Drag also made its way into music with the creation of glam rock. David Bowie, The New York Dolls, Boy George and Annie Lennox were known for performing in semi or full drag. It is this era that led to the drag performances we know and love today.
Drag is now seen as an art form and can take hours for the person to prep for their performance. Drag Kings often perform in troupes or theatre groups, but because of their popularity have begun to perform solo acts.
Drag Queens have become their own culture, which includes elaborate costumes and makeup. RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the most successful competition shows of all time, currently spanning over nine seasons.
Drag has come a long way since it’s inception and continues to evolve. In the Western world, the most important thing is that men and women can don clothing of the opposite gender without legal repercussions. The veil of negative stigma and fear around the LGBTQ+ community is slowly being raised from the public’s eyes, but there’s still a long way to go. On that note, get out there and have a happy Pride!