What is a Drag Queen?


f622_1267What makes a drag queen tick? Angela Brown goes hunting on their trail…

When I started to think about this article my first problem was to decide what a drag queen actually is. I know the name conjures up a vision in my mind, and no doubt in yours, but is it the same image? Is it a true image or one clouded by appearance and missing the underlying character?

I felt I needed a definition to work from, so I talked to an ex-music hall performer now living in retirement. He was at first quite adamant about the definition.

“A Drag Queen” he said, “is a man who performs as a female and never as a male. The difference between them and female impersonators is that a female impersonator will also appear as a man on occasion.”

During the conversation I got the distinct impression that he thought drag queens also dressed as women off-stage and were all homosexual.

This made me wonder how accurate my friend’s observations really were and it struck a chord in my mind about the general image of transvestites and drag queens. It appears that most people still consider both groups as homosexuals.

One of the earliest practitioners in dealing with sexual problems, Kraftt-Ebbing, a 19th century German psychologist, considered that transvestism was a link between an ordinary fetish and homosexuality, and went so far as to say that homosexuality was always involved.

Later studies by Magnus Hirschfeld, also a German working in the early part of this century, indicated clearly what I think all transvestites will agrede with: that the incidence of homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality is as diverse in transvestites as it is in the rest of the population.

Hirschfeld’s students did a study of his cases which showed that 35% were heterosexual, 35% homosexual, 15% bisexual and 15% monosexual.

But it must be remembered that his case files were confined to patients who felt they had a problem and had come for help. There was bound to be a bias towards homosexual cases, as Hirschfeld first became known in Germany for writing a book in 1896 called ‘Sappho and Socrates’, which dealt with the suicide of a homosexual army officer.

In a much more recent survey by ‘Accord’ magazine of its transvestite readers, they discovered that 44% claimed to be heterosexual, 34% bisexual, 19% monosexual and only 3% homosexual.



While all these surveys were nominally conducted amongst transvestites rather than drag queens, it would be impossible to say how many readers of Accord who took part could be called drag queens, and I suspect that the figures would be valid for them also.

To pursue this matter further, and in the interest of research, I attended a “Fashion, Fetish and Fantasy” night in London. I went, as one charming drag queen put it, under cover – i.e. dressed in men’s clothes.

From the moment I entered I found everybody friendly and the atmosphere relaxed. It soon became obvious that over ninety five per cent of the patrons were wearing female clothes, at least ninety per cent were male.

The crowd represented every facet of cross dressing, from some male transvestites wearing women’s clothes but making no attempt to look like a woman, to drag queens dressed in long evening gowns covered in sequins, with beautiful wigs and perfect make up.

Two well-built drag queens who were obviously friends were dressed in the shortest of skirts. One was in a pale purple leather skirt with a “V” cut in the bottom back-seam, through which you could catch glimpses of stocking tops.

This lady had a bouffant wig, again in pink, which was at least twelve inches high and a see-through blouse with a black pattern. She wore a mass of heavy jewellery including a thick choker covered in diamante and other gems, and large drop earrings.

Her friend favourted the leather look. A black leather waistcoat over a tight black and white, off-the-shoulder mini dress which displayed her thick chest hair. A leather collar, arm band and cap perched on a platinum blond wig completed the picture except for her neatly trimmed black beard and moustache. These ‘ladies’ were charming, but definitely caricatures of a woman, and quite definitely drag queens!

As a complete contrast two ladies stood out not as drag queens but as true transvestites. Both were dressed in long evening gowns, one in pink and the other in silver with a blue flower pattern. With their make-up perfect but not overdone they would have both passed as ladies at a normal dance.



However, the stars of the show as far as I was concerned were three ladies all dressed in long evening gowns. Two, standing nearly seven feet high in their heels, wore sheath dresses with splits up the sides to the thigh. One was in white and the other in turqoise, and both covered every inch in sequins. With silver wigs and perfect make-up they would have passed for ladies except for their height and, even under the dresses, obvious masculine build.

The third lady had a red gown, also covered in sequins, with short sleeves and a large ‘puff’ at the shoulder. Smaller and of a slighter build she would have passed for a woman but with the slight touch of the over-dressing which I feel characterises a drag queen.

There were also a number of costumes which, although they did make their wearer appear as a caricature of a woman, did not make them in my opinion drag queens.

Typical of these were a PVC maid’s dress in red with a black apron, a schoolgirl’s uniform and a very skimpy red teddy costume. These I felt reflected more of the fetish nature of the wearer’s character than an attempt to be flamboyant.

So what, if any, is the difference between a transvestite and a drag queen? By strict definition a drag queen must be a transvestite since he dresses in woman’s clothes, which is the meaning of the word, but in my opinion what makes the difference is in the motivation behind the need to “dress”.

The origins and causes of transvestite behaviour are complex to say the least, but two factors seem to be quite common. A mother with a strong and often dominant personality and a job in middle management or the equivalent. I suspect the management element is there because some of the mother’s strong personality is inherited.

In general, a transvestite will make every effort to appear as convincing as possible, taking great trouble with make-up, body shape and dress sense. Drag queens take just as much trouble and in many cases far more with their dress and appearance, not to appear as a woman but as a caricature of a woman. Their dresses are flamboyant or very stylised. In many cases their wigs are over-elaborate and their make-up lavish.

One factor which appears to separate drag queens from transvestite is that drag queens are all extroverts, a trait which probably takes a lot of them into show business.

It is also possible that in many cases the motivation is not so much to look like a woman as to poke fun at women in general in much the same way as a pantomime dame does. To discover why someone would go to such lengths to make a visual statement in this way would need some deep psycho-analysis…

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