For Pride Month and beyond, NYXT chose to examine the history of drag culture in conjunction with our partners at New York’s LGBT Center. On the heels of the wildly successful season nine finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, what was previously subversive is now more popular than ever. According to drag icon and Drag Race host RuPaul, in these turbulent times, we need drag “now more than ever.” Because of this city’s “everything goes” nature, New York City and drag go hand in hand.
The opening seconds of Paris Is Burning, a look at the underground world of elaborate Black and Latinx gay and transgender drag balls in Harlem, epitomizes quintessential New York, and yet, is eerily prescient. An image of the Twin Towers at night forecasts loss and destruction to come, and the people who will bear the brunt of the consequences thereafter. A building with a glaring ticker reads news of a convergence of White supremacists, its shadow now looming larger and darker. A billboard featuring an animated Statue of Liberty, almost a parody of the loss of liberties our government seeks to take from its citizens. These images may have seemed innocuous in 1987, when the documentary was filmed, but this iconography seems all too ominous in 2017. Danger has always followed the LGBT community, especially for people of color, but through it all there have always been safe spaces. What was the catalyst behind New York City becoming the epicenter of drag culture?
Drag balls were the be-all, end-all for many in the LGBTQ community, as a place to be social, happy and open, and has an extensive history going back more than a century. But what brought this community to New York? Much of the drag culture consists of Blacks and Latinxs, though they were always open to everyone. The confluence of this culture in New York City was inspired by The Great Migration, wherein thousands of southern Blacks migrated northward, towards job opportunities, freedom and a sense of starting over, and away from centuries of slavery, terror and oppression. In the South, racial violence meant that one could lose their life at any moment with impunity, institutional poverty in sharecropping, which was just slavery redux, meant that there were few pathways to move upward. After Emancipation, the formerly enslaved found happiness in building their own families, communities, customs and religions, the specter brutality constantly hovered, and those openly within the LGBTQ community undoubtedly faced even more harassment.
Many Blacks gravitated Midwest to cities like Detroit and Chicago (which had its own Black Renaissance), some went west to California, but thousands ended their journeys in New York, and settled in Harlem, one of the few places open and hospitable to Black newcomers. With them, they brought culture and tradition, both old and creating new, the catalyst for what became the Harlem Renaissance of writers, artists, perfomers and creatives of all types. Queer artists, thinkers and writers like Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and legions more all made their marks here.
But the living wasn’t easy in the North either. People of color were often refused housing except in the most neglected areas where they were charged more money, and while there was an availability in industrial jobs as a result of World Wars, they were often temporary, dangerous, and caused extreme friction between workers of different races, as the influx of Blacks and immigrants threatened white workers. Now out from under the shadow of Jim Crow, while racism and segregation was still rampant, Black craftsmanship began to grow, and with it, gay culture and the heights of drag balls.
As far back as 1869, chronicles of expansive parties-- sometimes in banquet halls, sometimes in extravagant brownstones-- grew out of a need for entertainment in a space where people of color were welcome, but also where the gay, lesbian and transgender community could be openly expressive of however they identified. While these spaces were open to everyone who wished to partake; it was an oasis within a country that systemically dehumanized those non-white and non-heterosexual.
Drag balls and culture grew out of instilling confidence in themselves in a world that told them that they were less than human, it provided a family for the biological ones who may have rejected them for being honest with themselves. While some ball patrons were among the city’s richest, many participants were dirt poor, yet managed to conjure rags into glamorous frocks; in their imagination, this transformation was their way of being part of the rich, mainstream society that rejected them. In the words of famed photographer Fran Liebowitz, drag was “a very institutionalized showing off.” In Harlem, the world of the “Invisible Man,” where the marginalized are simultaneously “unseen” for being outsiders yet hypervisible because they are The Other, drag is a way of presenting one’s self in one’s own terms. Drag wasn’t just about dressing up, it was about creating a new language, an entirely new sense of expression, much like enslaved Africans created used songs as codes for escape routes or convey messages that would elude the watchful eye of overseers. The artistic dance form of Vogueing was borne of the LGBT community in drag halls as a way to resolve conflict. Movement replaced words as, instead of violence, arguments could be had and who ever showed the most ferocity on the dance floor was the winner.
In 1987, the gay patrons of Paris Is Burning may not have experienced the same circumstances and hardships of their Harlem Renaissance forefathers and mothers, but in the center of the AIDS crisis and a government that ignored them while they succumbed in droves in addition to gentrification that drove them from their neighborhood, the dangers were still quite high. Today, as the current presidential administration shutters government offices concerning LGBTQ- and AIDS-related matters, considers ending the census, and serves to penalize those infected with AIDS instead of rehabilitation, it seems like there is little escape from persecution for certain people existing as they are.
Survival has always been the priority of the most marginalized, and evolution has always been the key. Drag as behavior modification, learning to evoke mainstream sensibilities in the ballroom, is what pushed the culture forward, and the continued evolution of drag culture is the hope for LGBTQs and people of color to continue to rise. Under this administration-- a time when many are finding that this country has never been about “justice for all”-- drag culture is more popular than ever, as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” sees its highest-ever ratings topping 1 million viewers. Recent winner and queen of queens Sasha Velour insists that “drag is a form of activism.” Drag breaks down conventionality and remakes it into something modern as it mocks the mainstream. A drag queen’s search for “realness” is creating an illusion: nothing is what it seems and the rules don’t actually exist.
The drag ancestors of yore came to New York, transformed themselves and created an art form to help them survive. In what’s become the grand tradition of moving to New York, we come here to find ourselves, find our calling, and find a sense of release from our old ways. Right now, the world is searching for something new; our old ways have become obsolete because they did not serve to uplift us all. We must take cues from the marginalized and innovate. It’s time to shed old skins in favor of new drags that allow for the full spectrum of humanity.