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What Is a Drag Show?
A drag show is entertainment put on by drag artists, or people who put on clothes and makeup that amplify the appearance of gender. Historically, drag queens are gay men dressed as female impersonators, or transwomen that exaggerate their appearance. However, gender identity is now less important for drag—cisgender women, transmen, and non-binary people are all welcome in the drag community.
Drag shows typically consist of lip-syncing songs, comedy acts, live cabaret, dance routines, group numbers, or a combination of all these. They are typically hosted at gay bars or clubs but have since expanded to larger theaters and arenas due to their growing popularity.
Large cities, like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta are known for their drag shows in the United States, but drag can be found in most cities across the country. Look up your local LGBTQ+ bars online to see which nights they host drag shows.
The History of Drag Shows
The art of drag has only recently come into popular culture, but it's an art form that's been around for centuries. It’s not hyperbole to say that for as long as there’s been a stage, there’s been someone in drag performing on it. The history of cross-dressing stretches all the way back to ancient Greece when the very idea of theater was first born. Women at the time were barred from participating in productions because of the perception that acting was too dangerous, meaning men acted all of the roles.
The modern drag movement can be traced back to Julian Eltinge, an American vaudeville performer, singer, and actor in the early twentieth century who brought a new level of artistic cachet to the act of female impersonation. In the United States, these performers had to contend with a legal system that punished non-normative gender expression. Between 1848 and the lead up to World War I, 45 cities passed laws against cross-dressing. But in spite of all this, the drag tradition continued to flourish, with queens playing a significant role in the Stonewall riots (a catalyst of the gay rights movement) and gay liberation.
In the ’90s, the documentary Paris Is Burning offered a searing look at what it takes to become a drag performer at Harlem drag balls. The decade also saw the first international Drag King extravaganza—in which women dress as men—and the play The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which starred two drag queens in lead roles. In 2009, drag superstar RuPaul Charles began the reality-competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race, and over the course of 10 seasons, the series has introduced drag to an entirely new generation. The rest, as they say, is "herstory."
What to Wear to a Drag Show
Drag culture is all about personal expression. Whether it's drag brunch at a restaurant or a performance at a gay bar, wear whatever expresses you best as a person. This could mean an opulent ensemble with feathers and sequins, or simple jeans and a t-shirt.
Check the venue's website or social media before you attend. Some bars may have regular drag shows, while others could be hosting themed-nights or parties. This way you'll know whether to dress up for a theme.
5 Tips for Attending a Drag Show
Below are tips to consider before attending your first drag show.
- Tip your drag queens. Drag performers are freelance artists and often rely on tips to financially get by. Before arriving at the show, be sure to have some dollar bills handy. If you don't have any single bills, kindly ask your bartender to make change for you.
- Consent is key. Drag entertainers are people. Never behave in a way that makes the performers feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Treat drag queens with respect, and always ask for consent before touching them or taking a picture.
- Be supportive of the queens. Even if you aren't a fan of a drag queen's set, don't boo them. Drag performers work meticulously preparing their looks and routines, and booing anyone brings the mood down.
- Support your local drag queens. TV shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and The Boulet Brothers' Dragula have launched the careers of many successful drag queens, like Bianca Del Rio, Bob the Drag Queen, and Sasha Velour. However, there are lots of performers who aren't former contestants that need support. Consider attending local shows to support your hometown queens, in addition to bigger events like DragCon.
- Have fun. Drag was never meant to be taken seriously. Drag queens want audience members to have as much fun as they are.
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