Toronto
3 min

How drag reinvented itself

Nary a gay bar is without its resident queen

One night at Zelda’s recently the audience for the drag show was almost entirely dyke. It wasn’t just a passive, long-suffering audience. They were really getting into it. “What’s going on?” I thought. “Dykes used to hate drag.”

Of all the twists and turns in the history of modern gay lib, the one that has surprised me most is the persistence of drag. Thirty years ago drag was supposed to be on its way out — dead, obsolete, an anachronism.

Most dykes considered it sexist and misogynist; gay men weren’t much more enthusiastic. It was the age of the butch clone, and nobody wanted to muss their plaid shirt and mustache with a smear of lipstick. Gay men were just getting into the whole butch-and-proud thing and they weren’t going to mess up their newfound freedom with an unnecessary reference to what people then saw as an outdated stereotype. Drag shows were around but they weren’t exactly universally beloved. Again and again in the bars, you’d hear things like, “If I wanted a woman, I’d have been straight.”

Yet here we are 30 years later and there’s nary a bar in the city without some kind of drag association. In fact the pendulum seems to have swung full cycle. A couple of weeks ago the most popular bar in the city became a full-fledged drag bar. On Apr 14 Woody’s launched a new revue starring Georgie Girl. It’s a regular Friday night event, meaning you can now catch drag four nights a week at Woody’s, from Thursday to Sunday.

The funny thing, though, is that no one is now likely to think of Woody’s as a drag bar, even though the place has built a highly profitable franchise around Sofonda’s deft handling of the key best-body-part contests. (Hope they’re paying you big, girl.)

At some level, drag no longer exists. The costumes remain as a distancing device, allowing performers to make the sort of outrageous comments they’d never get away with on the street, but drag in the old sense of an assault on normality is gone. The basic conventions — guy in dress with wig — are now so widely accepted that they’ve almost disappeared from sight. People may or may not like individual performers but they seldom dismiss the genre as a whole the way they once did. In that respect, it’s not much different than the movies. You may hate a specific flick but you’re not going to give up on moving pictures as a result.

Not so many years ago, drag was considered vaguely subversive and academics in particular spent many a happy hour debating whether it transgressed gender lines or merely recreated them. Now the whole debate seems irrelevant. What’s political about a genre that shocks no one except teenage girls looking to be teased about their breasts?

What it’s lost in political significance, drag has gained in entertainment clout. Year by year the performances seem to get slicker. A few years ago, I was watching a drag show when a British tourist standing beside me nodded at the stage and said, “Is it always like this? ‘Cause this is shite.” Apparently British drag queens do more of their own singing and are booed if they don’t. It was interesting to hear about national differences, but really who cares? Naturalism, shmaturalism. This is theatre, darling. The artifice is half the appeal. The fakery gives the performers the latitude to push other areas of the performance, whether it’s banter, comedy or self-parody.

I’m sure there are still people out there who pay attention to such classical virtues as costuming, makeup and lip-synching, but I don’t really care how well you imitate someone else as long as you entertain me while you’re doing it. On a good night, Michelle Ross gets more out of an old Motown hit than Diana ever did, and often with no more than a yearning crook of her finger.

I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more out-of-towners. It was a kick in the pants a few years ago to see New York’s Kitty Hiccups do her highly stylized drag at Woody’s. A variation on art cabaret, it was like nothing you normally see in Toronto.

But if there’s anything standing in the way of drag it’s probably just a residual defensiveness. Too often performers act like it’s still the 1960s and they’re still social pariahs; any show of indifference on the part of the audience is reason to get all iffy and make blunt demands for noise, applause or, worse, “love.”

That’s not how it works, folks. You do the job, then you get the applause. Yes, I know, it’s a tough crowd and a little energy aids the performance, but there’s nothing more annoying than being asked to put out before you have a reason to get stiff. Seduce me, baby, seduce me. That’s your job.