Got to Be Real: A History of Drag


For as long as people have worn clothes, they have been dressing in outfits designed for the opposite gender. However, drag as we know it began when it was adopted by LGBT pioneers who turned it into an art, rubbing more than a few people up the wrong way in the process.

In the 1920’s and 30’s, New York’s drag balls began as cross-dressing fashion shows and parties, where mostly white drag queens and gay men would congregate. Yet it wasn’t until the early 1970’s, when pageant queens such as Crystal Labeija started putting on their own balls for Black and Latino youth, that drag started to become what it is today. Post-stonewall ball culture was taken to new heights as the all-night, disco-fuelled extravaganzas became a place where reputations were fought, trophies were won, and legends were made. Houses such as the house of Labeija, Ninja, Omni, Xtravaganza, and Dupree were formed and grew to become families for LGBT youth. Walking in categories such as “executive realness” (in which participants were judged on how well they could embody the kinds of rich executives they would see on the street) enabled youths to live a fantasy of the society they were excluded from. Through painstakingly handmade or mopped designer label outfits, makeup, and hair, queens found ways to creatively subvert gender norms and re-appropriate popular culture. Whilst drag was about self-expression, it was also inherently political: they were gay, black, and poor in a straight, white world.

Whilst Harlem is arguably the home of modern drag, the UK has a rich history full of irreverent and innovative queens. Known for their tongue-in-cheek humour rather than pageantry, UK queens such as Lily Savage (Paul O’Grady) honed their act in northern pubs and London gay bars in the 1970’s and 80’s. When reflecting in a recent Radio 4 interview, O’Grady painted an overtly political picture of the UK’s drag history. At the height of AIDS, when much of the press vilified LGBT people, he describes how queens were the “frontline soldiers” in the fight against AIDS in gay clubs, raising thousands of pounds whilst making searing attacks on the gutter press.

With RuPaul at the forefront, the 21st century has seen drag become a part of mainstream pop culture. RuPaul’s Drag Race has provided a platform for over 100 queens across America. Outside of Drag Race however, queens are continually taking drag into new and exciting places, ensuring it is an art form which stays resolutely ‘underground’ and one around which LGBT communities are still being built.



Houses: surrogate families competing in balls together, with a ‘mother’ at the helm who provides guidance and support to the ‘children’, often young gay youth who have been rejected by their biological families.

Mopped: stolen.

Realness: to be convincing, authentic. In drag this can mean ‘passing’ as the opposite gender.

Walk: compete.

RuPaul, the producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is widely considered to be the most commercially successful drag queen in the US. Photo via Wikicommons.