Monday, September 25, 2006

What's the deal with drag queens?

One of the big challenges I’ve tried to tackle is understanding so-called “gay culture,” particularly male gay culture (I’ve made less progress with lesbian culture, but that's for another post). Why are there certain gay male "types"? Why do some gay men act effeminate? Why is there a certain older generation that really digs stuff like operas and divas from the 1950’s? Because of some of the conservative social circles I've run in, I know I'm supposed to dismiss all this as evidence that gays are depraved and perverted and that the whole package is a part of their lifestyle choice, etc. But since it's pretty obvious to me that people don't choose to be homosexual, I figure there must be logical explanations for why certain phenomena crop up in gay culture .

I think I understand most of this stuff, except for one area. What is the deal with drag queens? When it comes to drag queens, that’s one planet that seems to have orbited off the chart of the known universe that I thought I shared with gay men. I’ve tried to ignore the phenomenon, push it aside as a bizarre interest for a bizarre sub-group within a sub-culture. But I’ve come to see that it’s a bit more mainstream than that. Just last week Andrew Sullivan was recommending a New York performance of drag queen Dina Martina to his readership, even though his readers are a largely straight male crowd. In 2004 Nia Vardalos made a movie (that I didn’t see) about a couple of women who posed as males doing the drag queen thing (women posing as men posing as women).

Then a few years ago I was at a gay and lesbian Christian conference with some friends and listened to a guy who mixed in drag queen humor while giving the most moving Christian testimony of the night. Before he got to the testimony part where I almost cried, I was laughing really hard. Then one of my friends who is about as straight-laced a person as you’ll ever meet leaned over and said, “Yeah, you should see this drag act he does called ‘Momma.’ It’s really good.” I looked at him and thought, “If B— likes drag, then this appeals to a broader gay crowd than I thought. And look at me. I’m laughing too and I don’t even know why.”

So now I will make a better effort to try to rope that planet back into the rational part of my known universe. Here is one explanation about drag queens that I’ve heard of. Only one, because only one brave soul has ever tried to explain it to me.

Imagine yourself as a gay male growing up in this heterosexual-dominated world. There you are standing on the sidelines looking with frustration at all the great-looking men who will never pay any attention to you. Why? Because they are hetero and they are too busy chasing after women. And who are these women anyhow? Strange creatures with their high heels and heavy make-up and big hair and busty dresses and swishy walk. Yet the straight guys are inexplicably going ape over them. Meanwhile you are a man, you don’t have all the “accessories,” and so they will never go ape over you. So while you stew in a mixture of frustration and envy and puzzlement and disgust at the whole situation, along comes the drag queen. The drag queen makes a mockery of all that. He is a mixture of a gay man’s fantasy of “why can’t I be like that?” and his disgust of “why would I want to be like that?” and makes grosteque fun of the whole kettle of soup with his exaggerated femaleness. And now you get to laugh at the drag queen, at yourself, and at the whole ridiculous situation.

I consider that a good, rational explanation. However, it doesn’t explain everything. Like, why its popularity among gay men grows and grows. I mean, after awhile wouldn't people settle down with their partners, buy a house, get some pets, live a quiet life, and eventually get over the antics of those crazy straight women? Why the need to keep up the perpetual mockery? Nor does it explain why some straights apparently are getting into it. What does drag have to offer that they can relate to? I remember laughing at the conference, but I can't pick apart why I thought the humor was so funny. Will renting the Nia Vardalos movie help to explain it?