San Francisco Chronicle
Time for queens to call on attitude
Drag has been a part of our history since there was a history.
My family may or may not start the Sabbath in church, but by the afternoon, we’ve made our way to the Diamond Heights Safeway. Our sons, Zane and Aidan, no longer join us, so it goes faster without them throwing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Oreos into the cart. My husband, Brian, and I start with the butcher aisle and end with produce.
After we’ve added in baby carrots for Moxie and Queenie (the dogs do not care for adult carrots), Brian keeps his eyes down as he calculates the shortest checkout. But inevitably we hear, “My queens!” This is the woman who scans our groceries. She beckons us even if her line is 10 carts deep. She is our checkout lady, and we are her queens.
It’s her term of endearment. For the record, I’ve rarely been a drag queen. As Camille, daughter of Cliff ’s Variety’s Terry Asten Bennett, says, “It’s not that you’re ugly, but you just don’t have the attitude.”
My husband, however, has been a professional drag queen. When we first met, he was playing Nicole, a chorus girl in “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway, performing the cancan. And though his 40-year dance career is now over, he’s never lost the attitude.
But now, they’re coming for the drag queens.
Drag has been a part of our history since there was a history. Some will say that drag originated with Shakespeare, when men played the roles of Juliet and Lady Macbeth. But the tradition goes back at least to the Greek theater, when “Thespis first stepped out of the chorus” and female roles, such as Lysistrata, were played by men, consistent with the religious ceremonies of the time.
Drag is one of those terms whose etymology is tough to discern. Most think it comes from British theater, where the pantomime dames complained that the long feminine dresses dragged on the floor.
In the 1880s, William Dorsey Swann, a formerly enslaved individual, became the first person to claim the title Queen of Drag. He hosted balls in Washington, D.C., for “former slaves and rebel drag queens.” On April 12, 1888, he became the first person documented to have been arrested for female impersonation in the United States. Twelve other men were arrested that night, but history does not record their names, only his, because he was the only one who stood up to the arresting officer, saying, “You is no gentleman.”
Somewhere along the line, drag became popular entertainment. I grew up on Flip Wilson playing Geraldine, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” and Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.” When Robin Williams appeared as “Mrs. Doubtfire,” I thought any debate about drag was over.
But this month, Tennessee banned drag shows in public spaces. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, who may or may not have appeared in drag while in high school.
It’s not the only state to consider such legislation. Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky,
Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas are all deliberating antidrag laws.
“Well that couldn’t happen here.” But San Francisco passed a law against cross-dressing in 1863 that wasn’t repealed until 1974. Legendary San Francisco drag artist and activist José Sarria, the Widow Norton, handed out labels that read “I am a boy” for her fellow performers to wear so they wouldn’t get arrested for female impersonation. As recently as 1968, San Francisco police raided drag balls.
But it was the fabled drag attitude that prevailed at Compton’s Cafeteria and at Stonewall.
The Tennessee law bans adult cabaret performances in public or in the presence of children. You could go to jail for a year. The proposed law in Arizona would subject drag queens to 10 years in prison. Tennessee also passed legislation that bans transgender minors from receiving genderaffirming care.
The concept behind these laws, supposedly, is to prevent drag queens from recruiting minors into our lifestyle. But here’s the deal: We don’t recruit. We don’t indoctrinate. We’re a volunteer army.
If you want an unscientific study as evidence, try this. In the more than 20 years that Brian and I have been involved with foster adoption, we’ve met a lot of other LGBTQ parents. We did drag fundraisers at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, and still, overwhelmingly, our sons and daughters turned out straight. In our case, we can’t even get Zane or Aidan to watch RuPaul.
As for my drag endeavors, it’s not that I’m ugly. I just don’t have the attitude. Still, it’s consoling to know that, if only in Safeway, Brian and I reign as queens.
Gov. Lee, you is no gentleman.