From the front of Bushwick’s tiny Bizarre bar, the first piano notes of Céline Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” begin to play. The Missy Elliott that was just coming from the speakers has died down, as well as the chatter of young people around the bar ordering absinthe cocktails and burgers. The crowd here tonight, eagerly waiting to see the venue’s drag king performance show BEEF, is practically spilling out into the cold, rain-slicked street.
Drag king Lee VaLone, in a bulky coat and a long, blonde wig peeking out from a black felt hat, steps onto the spotlit stage, looking like an old-timey chimney sweeper. And to a cheering crowd, he lip-syncs along with Dion, running his fingers through the wig’s platinum strands, slowly tearing off pieces from his ensemble as the song’s momentum builds.
But the wig grows longer, and more voluminous, as VaLone twirls on stage. Suddenly, it’s absolutely massive. And as the song hits its last explosive chorus, VaLone tears off the untamed wig to reveal his short, natural mohawk underneath. He runs his fingers through it while flipping a middle finger to the now crumpled pile of hair on the floor, right as Dion sings of “the flesh and the fantasy” all coming back to her now.
Flesh and fantasy—the reimagining and interrogation of it—is BEEF’s bread and butter. Across the night, performers presented wildly different interpretations of male drag. There was Maxxx Pleasure, wearing tight, striped pants and a furry white coat Keith Richards might envy; he rocked out to Foxy Shazam’s “The Only Way To My Heart Is With An Axe,” at one point tearing his teeth into a bouquet of red roses and spitting it into the audience. There was Dorian Gaye as a cowboy type, line-dancing across the stage to a Garth Brooks mash-up. And Vic Sin who, in an oversized power blazer and teetering white platforms, performed a pitch-perfect, quivering rendition of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” ripping off the blazer to reveal neon-pink painted nipples.
“I call it a drag king show, but really it’s just a critique of masculinity and how we can mess with it,” VaLone, 30, says over drinks at Bizarre a few days after the show. A gregarious presence, VaLone, who works as a nanny by day and has a background in teaching, has been doing drag for three years and running BEEF for two. He is also a member of the House of Velour, RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 winner Sasha Velour’s drag house. “Masculinity can be just as broad and exciting and glamorous as femininity, but we don’t talk about it that much because it’s seen as taboo and othering,” VaLone adds.
When it comes to mainstream conceptions of drag, most undoubtedly think of larger-than-life performances of femininity. There are the legacies of drag queens and artists like Divine, Lady Bunny, and RuPaul, to name just a few. Queens perform at large venues and on world tours, if they have the following to do so. And in recent years, largely due to the commercial success of RuPaul’s Logo-turned-Vh1 reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag has become perhaps more mainstream and visible than ever.
But while articles on the subject tend to float the idea that performers are living in a golden age for drag, kings still perform on the fringes of mainstream pop culture. Even though the medium has existed, in different forms, for decades, performances of masculinity aren’t privileged the same way performances of femininity are. While it’s common to find all-queen showcases in cities across the country, all-king showcases are still a rarity.
“I meet so many people who don’t understand the draw of being a drag king, but then also on the other hand I meet people who are like: you’re the first drag king I’ve ever seen, this is crazy, this is so cool,” Maxxx Pleasure, 25, says. “I don’t think people have really been exposed to drag kings.”
Complicating things further, kings are still fighting for recognition not just from audiences beyond the LGBTQ community, but audiences within it. “We certainly have a lot more legwork to do in terms of telling people that we exist and what we are, just because we don’t have a reality TV show that already tells people that,” says Goldie Peacock, 32, a Brooklyn drag performer who also teaches drag king workshops. But as drag continues to find a broader audience, representations of what drag can be, and what performances of masculinity can look like, are also expanding. Hustling in every small space they can get, drag kings have refused—and continue to refuse—to be ignored.
The official history of drag kings is a fairly recent one, which ultimately comes down to the lines between lived gender expression, male impersonation, and king performances. Jack Halberstam, professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, writes in his 1998 book Female Masculinity:
Male impersonation has been a theatrical genre for at least two hundred years, but the drag king is a recent phenomenon. Whereas the male impersonator attempts to produce a plausible performance of maleness as the whole of her act, the drag king performs masculinity (often parodically) and makes the exposure of the theatricality of masculinity into the mainstay of her act. Both the male impersonator and the drag king are different from the drag butch, a masculine woman who wears male attire as part of her quotidian gender expression.
“If we go back to the early part of the 20th century there were lots of kings around, but I think that word meant something very different. In those moments or even in that literature, it seems that a king was something akin to what we would call butch,” says Bobby Noble, 58, associate professor of gender studies for York University and co-author of the 2002 Drag King Anthology. “Someone who lived masculinity but didn’t perform it on a stage. Drag queens and drag king performances are those that are on a stage and meant to be over the top.”
There were singers, like Vesta Tilley and Annie Hindle, who performed as male impersonators in the late 19th century, mocking how vain and womanizing men could be through their acts. Stormé DeLarverie, who is widely credited as throwing the first punch at the Stonewall riots, performed as a male impersonator in the 1950s and 1960s as part of the traveling Jewel Box Revue. And drag kings are quick to cite the influence of popular comedians who critiqued masculinity in the 1970s and ’80s, like Tracey Ullman, who has performed a variety of male characters including flight attendant Trevor Ayliss, and Lily Tomlin, who performed in drag as characters like “Vegas lounge lizard” Tommy Velour and R&B singer Pervis Hawkins.
But specifically drag king performance rose in the 1990s, coming to prominence in tandem with the birth of contemporary queer theory. Theorists like Halberstam, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick began to complicate and expand studies of gay and lesbian culture, not just within academia, outlining how performative and fluid gender can be, in ways that feel established today, when more people are aware of what it means to be genderqueer.
“We recognized that we were new, a very young group and young movement,” says Mo Fischer, 52, formerly known as the drag king Mo B. Dick. Fischer first started performing in 1995 after seeing some shows and coming across an article about the San Francisco drag scene. She didn’t think she could be a drag king herself until she read the article. “In the article there was a bisexual woman—secretary by day, drag king by night—and the transformation before and after was really astounding,” she says. “I thought, oh my god, anybody can do this. You don’t have to be a lesbian, you don’t have to be butch.”
Fischer would go on to appear in documentaries about burgeoning drag king culture like the 2000 documentary Venus Boyz and an MTV mini-documentary on drag kings, as well as having a cameo in John Waters’ 1998 film Pecker. She eventually created Club Casanova, a weekly drag king party in New York City where kings were doing everything from go-go dancing to taking tickets at the door. She wanted kings to have their own nights, but she was also motivated by hearing too many people say they had never seen a good drag king. “I was like, I’m an Aries and I love a good challenge,” Fischer says. “This is gasoline on my fire.”
During this era, drag king culture began to grow in visibility—but also, and perhaps more importantly, grew as a community. Drag king contests began to pop up in the early 1990s in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia. The late performance artist Diane Torr began hosting “Man For A Day” drag king workshops across the country. Jack Halberstam and photographer Del LaGrace Volcano published The Drag King Book, a collection of Volcano’s photos of drag kings and accompanying interviews. The creation in 1999 of Columbus, Ohio’s International Drag King Community Extravaganza (IDKE), a three-day event, solidified for many kings that what they were doing had a far longer reach than the clubs where they performed.
“We felt like there was a resurgence of drag king culture in the 1990s and we wanted to shape that community in a way that was built on collaboration and community, not on competition,” says Julia Applegate, 47, co-founder of the IDKE and a former drag king. While a grad student in Columbus, Applegate says there weren’t a lot of nightlife activities in the city’s lesbian community at the time. She and a few friends got together to create a drag night at a local bar, advertising through flyers and word-of-mouth.
“We had 250 people in a bar on a Friday night that would normally have 14 people sitting in it,” Applegate says. The night evolved into Applegate and her friends forming a troupe, H.I.S. Kings, and it grew from there. By 1999 the city was hosting the IDKE, pulling together performers from across the world for performances and conferences on drag.
“At least half of us were in the women’s studies department, and that was at the height of identity politics,” says IDKE co-founder Sile Singleton, 56, who performed both as the drag queen Lustivious Dela Virgion and the drag king Luster Dela V. “We did a lot of talking about what we were presenting and how were we presenting and in our minds we were very much trying to show a deeper aspect to masculinity.”
Drag kings have always been trying to prove that performing masculinity can be just as captivating, intensely costumed, and fun as larger than life performances of femininity, which, while varied, can be easier to identify. “There have always been the Judy Garlands, the Barbra Streisands, the Whitney Houstons, the-over-the-top performances,” Noble says. “Successful performances of masculinity, at least in terms of the narratives of masculinity, you’re not supposed to be big you’re supposed to be the quiet and understated, strong silent type. It’s difficult to think about dragging that type.”
“I really liked this idea of helping each other get better and not only get better on stage but helping each other feel better as people,” says drag king Ken Vegas, 44, who says the culture of IDKE in part inspired his drag troupe DC Kings, which he began in 2000 in Washington, D.C.. “I think with being genderqueer and having the interest in performing male drag, [for] some people it was a gateway for transitioning. There was something about it that they didn’t have the language for, and by performing it as a drag king got them to understand something more about themselves.”
There was a groundbreaking drag king boom in 1990s, with performers, artists, and writers coming together to witness and expand this new movement of creativity. There were photography exhibits and festivals, books and documentaries. But while kings were getting press here and there for their work, kings still weren’t receiving the attention of mainstream pop culture.
“We talked a lot about the fact that we didn’t have a RuPaul,” Applegate says. “I think there were moments where mainstream culture took an interest in drag kings but they were isolated and not consistent. It was this thing of there’s going to be a drag king on Sex and the City, there was a drag king in The L Word for a short moment. And even in that show, that was supposed to be reflecting lesbian culture, they didn’t get it right. They didn’t reflect back what drag culture was really like.”
By 2010, after the conference moved around to different cities, the International Drag King Community Extravaganza had shuttered. Vegas’s drag troupe DC Kings disbanded in 2015. Many kings who came up in the 1990s note that some performers eventually transitioned and basically retired from drag. “Often times they start looking at it as a farce,” Singleton says.
But while there may have been a perceived dip in the thriving drag king culture of the 1990s (people have been asking where are all the drag kings for years, after all), drag king performances have far from disappeared. In Brooklyn, at shows like BEEF and Switch n’ Play, drag kings fuck with gender norms frequently on stage. San Francisco’s drag king scene is thriving, too, and drag king conventions like the Austin International Drag Festival’s Kingfest and Columbus, Ohio’s King Con now exist. Online, in Facebook groups and on Instagram, drag kings follow the work of their peers in cities across the world, replacing the ’90s festival-based community with something more expansive on social media. Mo Fischer and Ken Vegas, along with Toronto drag king Flare, are starting a new forthcoming website called Drag King History, intended to shine a spotlight on the history of male drag.
Despite the excitement around drag king culture, it still pales in comparison to the wide attention given to queens. And the reasons why have little to do with the talent and craft of drag kings and more to do with the space they’re afforded in LGBTQ nightlife and culture. “Femininity is stereotypically very performative. It’s about being looked at. With masculinity people don’t have those same ideas,” says Maxxx Pleasure. “Masculinity isn’t about being looked at so [it’s] interesting to find a way to portray a masculine man while still being performative and something to look at.”
Performing femininity is arguably seen as more exciting than masculinity, in large part because people can’t conceptualize masculinity as being a performance. When we think of what it means to present as stereotypically feminine, there can often be a lot of accoutrements; big long hair, bold makeup, high-heels, etc. But masculinity is largely seen as being innate or neutral. Lee VaLone uses the example of doctors, who are still culturally coded as men. “Whenever we see a doctor who is a woman, we call her a lady doctor,” VaLone says. Similarly, he says, we think of nurses as women, so nurses who are men become “male nurses.”
“It’s surprising how many people, even in the queer community, aren’t willing to understand masculinity as something that is also constructed,” writes K.James, a drag king performer with the Brooklyn group Switch n’ Play, in an email to Jezebel. “But because of the power and privilege associated with masculinity, it is especially important to deconstruct and challenge it.”
Florida drag king Spikey Van Dykey, 35, has a similar interpretation. “We are shedding light on our perspective and interpretation of the male persona that might not make others comfortable, but art is not meant to make others comfortable,” he says via email. “It makes a lot of men uneasy when their wife or girlfriend is at a show, and they want to take the drag king home.”
Some kings argue that the idea of a man or a masculine-appearing person performing feminine drag is more fetishized by wider audiences than a woman or feminine-appearing person performing male drag. And a disinterest in drag kings often comes down to pure sexism. “Lesbian identities have always been sidelined...we’ve always slid under the radar,” Julia Applegate says. “I don’t think people are as interested in what women do, period. I don’t think we’re as interesting to people because we’re not as valued.”
But the spectrum of drag king performance is remarkably vast, and sometimes kings’ conceptions of masculinity exist in direct conflict with one another. Older kings often seek to perform and critique the sleazier, more aggressive aspects of masculinity, but younger kings speak of wanting to present something softer and sensitive to the audience, performances that push back on stereotypes of what LGBTQ and feminist audiences think of when they think of (typically toxic) masculinity.
“There are some performances that I think are really great and interesting and then there are other ones where I think, oh, you’re taking on this macho kind of performance and getting to assert power in a way and not be respectful of people’s boundaries in the audience and touching people,” says Dorian Gaye, 27. “That’s not a great performance of masculinity.”
“Some kids today who say, oh I’m not doing toxic masculinity, and it’s like, why?” Fischer counters, comparing Mo B. Dick’s outspokenness to Donald Trump. “It seems like the ones who are getting recognition are putting restrictions on it and it’s like no, no, no. When I was doing it, it was like anybody who wanted to try it got an A-plus for effort.”
Some kings, like Sile Singleton, have clear ideas about drag realness. “Realness” is a term harkening back to drag ball culture in which contestants were judged on their ability to pass as the sexual identity or gender they were performing. “When we did H.I.S. kings, all of our kings were male impersonators. Very rarely did people reveal their breasts,” she says. “Our slogan was, we’re the best looking boys who just happen to be girls, but you only knew that from our slogan, you didn’t know it from anything else.”
“I felt like I was doing my job at the end if people were saying, are you a man or a woman?” Singleton adds.
But the spectrum of what male drag is has grown and expanded with time. Whereas judging kings (and queens) on realness was a large part of 1980s ball culture, and is still a large part of the drag pageant circuit which caters to male impersonators and illusionists specifically, many young drag kings have different ideas of what constitutes performing masculinity in 2018. Gender is more fluid today in every day life and so it’s naturally becoming more fluid in drag.
Kings now incorporate glitter makeup and long wigs as they please. Some bind, pack, and meticulously craft their own facial hair, but there are plenty of those who don’t. And for many kings, performing in drag allows themselves to express a part of the gender identity that they don’t necessarily perform in real life; their drag identity isn’t something they wipe off completely at the end of the night.
“A king is a performance artist,” says Landon Cider, 37, a drag king who has been performing for roughly nine years as a regular at Hamburger Mary’s in Long Beach. “And as a performance artist, and in art in general, there aren’t any rules.”
But Cider does admit that in order for kings to get on track to having the most financially successful and visible career that they can have, they need to do “everything the successful queens do.”
“They need to create a brand for themselves, they need to do all of that hard work for years of not getting paid, they need to do head-to-toe illusions including hair and headpieces or wigs, full faces of makeup, they need to have costuming that is either made or made for them,” he says.
Even though kings have proven that their performances can be just as intensive and theatrical as queens, they have long faced another obstacle: finding spaces where they could to actually perform. But this dilemma has also shifted depending on the era. For kings coming up in the early 1990s, it could be difficult even for some performers to get booked at women-only spaces and lesbian bars.
“The lesbian community supported Club Casanova but it was the younger, crunchier lesbians that did, not the old-school ones,” Fischer says, who explains that a few lesbian bars turned her down when she was first shopping the show around in New York City. “[They rejected] any type of maleness, whether it was toxic masculinity or not. [The idea was] why would you taint a lesbian environment with any bit of maleness?”
But while many drag king nights came up through lesbian nightlife, those same bars and clubs have largely disappeared across the country. “What we’re losing are places that young, shy, queer kids in new cities can go to, knowing they’ll be surrounded, maybe for the first time, by people like them,” wrote Krista Burton in a New York Times op-ed titled “I Want My Lesbian Bars Back.” In 2015 there were 53 LGBTQ bars alone in New York City, compared to 86 in 1985. And the noted disappearance, in many cities, comes from a combination of gentrification and a lack of finances.
“Financial access for queer-identified women and the trans community is not there,” says Alana Integlia, co-founder of the New York group Queer Visibility, which hosts a “Dyke Bar Walking Tour” of the city’s long-gone lesbian bars. “Unfortunately it’s not that queer identified people don’t want to go these spaces, it’s that the space is not accessible and the space that does exist is cramped.”
LGBTQ nightlife is still arguably centered around gay men. And in the place of bars that cater specifically to gay women are spaces that are generally less binary-oriented, Dorian Gaye says. “If it’s like, here’s a gay bar, here’s a lesbian bar, and if you don’t identify as either female or male, lesbian or gay, those places are going to be alienating to anyone, even if you’re a part of the LGBTQ.”
While drag kings perform at drag festivals across the world and frequently alongside queens, one place they’re not performing is on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Making a living as a drag performer, whatever drag you perform, can be nearly impossible. Most of the kings interviewed for this piece work day jobs, whether in or outside of the arts, and do not rely on drag as their primary source of income. The more visible performers who tour and travel for events, like Spikey Van Dykey and Landon Cider, say that drag is their primary source of income. But as a queen, competing on Drag Race can result in an unprecedented kind of exposure; even if you don’t get the crown, it bolsters your visibility, your social media following, and thus your ability to tour and make even more money than you would at the local venues in your town.
But the question remains: do kings even want their own Drag Race?
In 2016, RuPaul gave a wide-ranging interview to The Advocate. One of the questions the reporter, Daniel Reynolds, asked RuPaul was whether viewers would ever see cisgendered women perform drag on the show.
“The idea of drag and why drag resonates so much in our male-dominated culture is there is irony in a man dressing up in the synthetic version of being a female,” RuPaul responded. “It has power because we’re not only mocking the synthetic version of a female, we’re also mocking this revered idea of what masculinity is, because we’re men... If a female were to do drag, it loses the irony.”
It was unclear if in his answer RuPaul was referring to drag kings or bio-queens (also known as faux queens), which are cis women who perform female drag. And he recently told The Guardian that queens who had begun or received surgery to transition would probably not be accepted on drag race. But when asked by The Advocate if we would be seeing kings on the show in the future, RuPaul responded: “Maybe on another show, but if you mix it up it’s like trying to make a Mac computer compatible with a PC. It’s a different animal. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other, but they don’t really mix.”
The answer was enough to make Landon Cider write an op-ed response for The Advocate, arguing that kings should get to perform on Drag Race. “I refuse to believe Ru meant to offend my brothers who have worked so hard to be treated equally in the drag community,” he wrote. “But I do invite him to consider that a king has yet to be cast, because he simply thinks he has yet to find a king ready for the challenge.”
Cider says he has auditioned for Drag Race three times. “I wanted to be on the show to exemplify that a king can be seen, share that platform, and can earn the respect and entertain an audience at the level of that platform,” he says. But Cider, who prefaces his comments by stating that he still has the utmost respect for RuPaul and the show, stopped auditioning after hearing his comments. “I just kept thinking I wasn’t getting cast on the show not because of what was in between my legs, but because they didn’t feel I was ready.”
While most of the kings interviewed for this piece say they have been supported by many queens they work with, the idea that drag queens and kings just don’t mix is a mindset that can permeate, in subtle ways, throughout the drag community.
VaLone recounts a story of when he and another king were at a drag convention. “As soon as we walked in to the dressing room, queens started asking us for help, asking us for things like, would you mind zipping me up, would you mind asking so and so about this, can you hand me that I can’t bend over in my heels,” VaLone says. “They see us as there to help them.”
Ken Vegas recalls getting “measured up” by a D.C. queen after squeezing himself into a men’s suit for a show. “I definitely have a butt and some thighs... I definitely looked like a woman in a suit,” he says. At the show a drag queen criticized Vegas, asking why he didn’t do more of an illusion. “I looked at that as an important pivotal point for me. Here was another example of a man trying to tell a woman what to do and how they should behave. I said fuck that shit.”
“There’s this weird thing that happens where queens will often try to dispel the myth or the illusion of a drag king,” Singleton says. “Now if you were to say to a drag queen, ‘he’ or ‘him,’ you’d probably get knocked off the stage. But they will do that to kings time and time again and then be like oh, honey I’m sorry, or [say] oh, isn’t he such a little man.”
But there are plenty of queens who do respect drag kings’ craft. Sasha Velour, who accepted her Drag Race crown last season with a rallying cry to “change shit up,” has been particularly supportive of drag kings, often booking them for her shows in Brooklyn. And fellow Season 9 contestant Peppermint, who came out as trans while competing on Drag Race, told Gay Star News that she supports kings who want to go on the show. “Gay men don’t own gender and genderfuck and playing with rules. Humans do. Everyone has a right to it,” she said.
For Vincent Von Dyke, 33, a Drag Race for kings is more than a dream but a reality. The Tucson, Arizona-based drag king is the creator of the Youtube series King Me: Rise of a Drag King, an online king competition. The show, now in its second season, is extremely DIY: the weekly challenges (which have ranged from “best animal look” to impersonating their favorite rock stars) are filmed at home by contestants remotely and compiled together. But Vincent Von Dyke says the show is just the beginning.
“Everyone talks about how we need a Drag Race, RuPaul’s out there and we need this, and I don’t know I’m just a do-er,” he says. “Nobody was doing it and I was like let’s just do it, because I want to compete on a race someday, but I can’t if one doesn’t exist.”
But while some kings say they would love a TV show for the performers who desire it, others are disinterested in being on that kind of show themselves.
“With the drag king community that I’ve fallen into... it doesn’t feel competitive, it feels really friendly,” Maxxx Pleasure says. “I think when you get into adding a competitive edge, it would ruin it for me.”
“I am a Southern loud mouth, fresh out of the trailer park, kind of guy. I’ve got a temper,” says Lee VaLone. “I have gotten into many fights with drag kings on the internet just because they have different views on gender than me...it always goes back to binding your breasts, it always goes back to what kind of masculinity you can perform. And if that is a sample of what it would be like to have a Drag Race for kings I want no part of it.”
“I definitely think drag kings need to have more visibility but I don’t know if the model of a king race is the answer,” Ken Vegas says. “I don’t feel it would be within our own best interests trying to self define ourselves to follow that model. It’s a blueprint that a man has developed. And for a woman or a queer spectrum identified person, I think we need to invent what it is we’re trying to do and make it ours.”
Whether drag kings end up with their own show on a major television network, or keep performing in, as Goldie Peacock said, “all the crevices they can,” one thing is clear: drag kings are out here, performing and existing on their own terms.
“Drag kings have to be the best of the best of the best in order to get a fraction of the recognition that a drag queen does,” says VaLone. “But if there’s anything I know about my king community is we just say bring it on, you can’t ignore us forever.”