Drag kings - essentially women, transgenders, or transsexuals who dress as men - have, as usual, been sidelined by their male counterparts throughout history. While they have been present as male impersonators from the 17th century to the 1900s, they emerged as a subculture of drag during the 1980s, mainly in London and San Fransico.
A male impersonator merely dresses in conventionally masculine attire, whereas a drag king makes a performance out of the impersonation, in which cross-dressing is one aspect of his portrayal of masculinity. The term is thought to have been coined in the 1990s by Johnny Science, a transsexual performance artist from New York.
Drag kings form a part of the LGBTQ community, with most kings identifying as lesbians. However, like with the queen community, homosexuality is not a necessity; kings are also transgender, transsexual, androgynous, or heterosexual women. Due to these varying gender and sexual identities, different drag kings display different characteristics on and off stage. Therefore, transgender kings usually maintain their male personas off stage, while those who identify as female would probably shed them after a performance.
Drag king performances involve a great deal of singing - with a diverse range and no fixed genre, because, as Jen Powell who performs as 'Adam All' explained, the audience hardly knows what to expect as these shows are such a new phenomenon. Comedy is often present too, including the use of props and and story-telling.
As I had mentioned in my previous article, the art of drag continued even after women were allowed to act on the English stage. However, it now also involved women in 'roaring girl' roles - wearing breeches and impersonating men on stage. Like female drag, its counterpart has made a mark in the theatre, film, and music world, such as the performances of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, the operatic convention of travesti - in which male roles are sung by mezzospranos - and movie actresses such as Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Julie Andrews performing in male attire.
Historically, male drag or more serious male impersonation also has its roots beyond the field of performing arts, as the only path to success, adventure, or safety in an intensely patriarchal and parochial world. For example, writer George Sand and painter Rosa Bonheur created male personas in order to be taken seriously in the professional word; as, of course, the men already dominating their fields could not (and often still cannot) comprehend that a woman can think competently with her silly little head. We also have the more dramatic tales of pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Chinese warrior Hua Mulan, and physician James Barry.
The Victorian era of drag kings saw Hetty King as the leading male impersonator of the British Music Hall, in the 1900s. King started her career in music hall in 1897, and was successful worldwide, sporting top hats and tails, and military uniforms during the two world wars. She was often picked to perform principle boy roles in pantomimes, but continued working in summer and variety shows till old age; her career lasting seventy years.
Then came the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, during which drag balls came to be publicly known. This wove the LGBTQ community into the fabric of American life before the Stonewall Riots of the 1960s, with newspapers reporting of well-known individuals as spectators at balls.
Women dressed for a drag ball at Webster Ball. (Photo: Public Domain)
While men who dressed as women were often called 'pansies', women dressed as men were referred to as 'bull-daggers' or 'bull-dikers'. These balls, though more famous for their queens, involved kings as well. In the 1930s, the openly bisexual drag king Gladys "Fatso" Bentley played the piano and sang the lewdest of lewd songs and parodies using popular tunes and blues music.
Often in a white tuxedo and hat, she exemplified the 'bull-diker' image of a king. Interestingly, one's class had a role to play in one's participation in homosexual and drag culture at the time. Working class men and women could more freely explore their sexuality, gender, and interests in drag, while upper class homosexual individuals may be a part of the straight audience but never perform out of the fear of being exposed.
What's a story about an underground subculture without the Mafia? By the 1930s, all gay bars were run by the Mafia, mainly in Greenwich Village, New York City. There was a strong alliance between lesbian women and the Mafia, as being gay and cross-dressing could get you killed, and the mafia protected these women; albeit with the possibility of moving them into prostitution.
Gail Williams, a performer at Club 181
These Mafia-run clubs were elegant, frequented by movie stars, and most of them were for lesbians. However, the attacks on the Mafia in the 50s led to the end of these clubs.
Moving east, an all-female Japanese theatre group - Takarazuka Revue - founded in 1913, served as inspiration to its fan clubs that rose to popularity in the 1980s. Here drag kings reigned as women performed both male and female roles.
Drag became a part of New York City nightlife by the 1990s, with an emphasis now on personality and creating new characters rather than playing old celebrities. Around this time, Mo B. Dick started Club Casanova, the world's first weekly drag king party.
In the 2000s, drag king troupes became popular in the US, and performed highly choreographed numbers, often inspired by boy bands. Beyond 2010, drag kings have been pushing the limits of celebrity impersonation, character illusions, and makeup.
The drag world has always, and continues to be, ruled by queens. And deceptively enough, this is really nothing new; a sort of microcosm to a male-dominated society, in which kings are a marginalised group of an already marginalised community. As present-day king Havok Von Doom comments, "It's still a man's world...Even though they're dressed as women".
By 2013, the number of drag kings and troupes in Portland, USA, had drastically reduced. Those who rose to stardom soon burnt out, such as Little Tommy Bang Bang (Korin Schneider) who started the troupe Drag Mansion.
Little Tommy Bang Bang
Schneider explains the lack of recognition and respect given to kings due to the dominance of queens, “Part of why I think it is harder for kings is that, in 2013, there isn’t something intrinsically radical about seeing a woman wear pants or a suit. But put a man in a dress, and that is still shocking to most people....It is hard for a drag king to be as sparkly, glamorous, and fierce-looking as a lot of the drag queens are."
A crowdfunded documentary currently in progress highlights the issues faced specifically by kings and exposes viewers to the process of transformation, whether into an ordinary working man or a character out of a fantasy novel. Nicole Miyahara's The Making Of A King brings out the problems of equal pay, equal access to showtime, and equal respect within the LGBTQ community.
One of the kings featured is Landon Cider, who created this persona after a bout of cancer. He hosts or produces many monthly drag king shows and has performed with queens of RuPaul's Drag Race. Another is Phantom, a stay-at-home mother with two autistic children, who performs drag at night.
Phantom works with his male partner and uses drag as a sort of art therapy for his own stress and for his children.
In the UK, drag kings have increased exponentially. British king Jen Powell (a.k.a. Adam All) says that in 2013, only around 3 kings were really known in London, whereas in 2016, there were around 60 performing. According to Jen, social media is the biggest reason for this, as kings can learn from each other by watching videos they post online.
Jen started at 17, and describes Adam as shy and metrosexual. Identifying as gender neutral, Jen runs a drag king showcase and open mic night, 'Boi Box', at SoHo lesbian bar She in London.
UK king Richard Von Wild began with cosplay and soon found his passion in drag, which has helped her original self Zoe Wild cope with the social anxiety that manifests itself on public transport and other everyday activities.
Richard Von Wild
Through drag, she revels in becoming someone she has always wanted to be, and someone who is not afraid.
India's love for maharajas defeats societal stigma, as our first drag king theatre show Tape premiered in Mumbai in September 2015. The show is produced by the Gaysi Family, and devised and performed by the Patchworks Ensemble - made up of Puja Swarup (who plays a Shammi Kapoor-type character), Sheena Khalid, Rachel D’Souza, and written by Vikram Phukan.
The Gaysi Family is a safe space for the desi LGBTQ community. Its founder, Priya Gangwani, comments, "When we think of drag, we usually think of a man in a dress, but men aren't the only ones who lampoon the culture's definition of men and women. The Indian queer scene is blind to the female counterparts - the performers who inhabit overtly masculine personas as drag kings." Based on improvisation, the actors work together without a formal script to showcase the world of drag.
The treatment of the drag king community brings out the pervasive sexism that still hangs over our world. Why can't we have a drag king reality show that we can easily watch on TV? Its increasing popularity shows us that we're on the right track, but there's still a way to go before the kings' throne is in its rightful place alongside the queens', and not in its shadow.
Women Transform Into Drag Kings (video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK98jrF_0Og
Under The Mink (book) by Lisa Davis.