Defying Gender in New Orleans: Drag

By Carleigh Ebbers

 New Orleans has always been known as a go-lucky, wild city that is unafraid of accepting things others would not. Like it or not, the city and its denizens have earned the laissez-faire attitude that the city is now known for. From the recklessness of Bourbon to the high-spiritedness of Mardi Gras, New Orleans has cemented a special place in the South and the United States as a whole. Part of this identity comes the acceptance of the LGBT+ community that found home in a place that was always willing to be a little different. Even though New Orleans, like the rest of the South, was slow to accept gay rights, it quietly accepted gay individuals who refused to hide. New Orleans welcomed its first gay krewe in 1958, as the Krewe of Yuga made their debut. After all, isn’t having a Carnival krewe to identify with the real sign of New Orleans living? That history of performance and confidence seen in krewes and Mardi Gras Indians can also be seen in the art of drag, which finds a home in New Orleans just like anyone else.

As Vinsantos, the Head Mister-ess of the New Orleans Drag Workshop, said about drag: “It’s fashion, it’s music, it’s visual art, it’s comedy, it’s drama.” Drag embraces the very New Orleans vibe of flamboyance and joy that’s often reserved just for those special holidays. Drag, in the simplest terms, is donning and exaggerating fashion typically ascribed to a gender. Once, “drag” was reserved for those men who dressed to the nines with ideas of what femininity was. But as the phenomenon grew, women dressed as exaggerated men (“drag kings”), men dressed as exaggerated men (“faux kings”), and women dressed as exaggerated women (“faux queens”); there are also those who do not assign a gender to their drag persona, giving that character an existence that is as diverse as the practice itself.

Sharisse Johnson, a pansexual woman with a penchant for protesting in defense of LGBT+ rights, thinks drag is beyond sexuality, saying “the orientation of the person doesn’t matter. Their ability to create, on top of the willingness to share that with others, is really the point of drag.” Drag is almost always focused on one’s confidence, gender-exploration, and creativity. It crosses genders, socioeconomic classes, ages, and sexualities, all in the hope of embracing creativity and costuming. Drag empowers people, by simultaneously eschewing gender norms while proving that femininity and masculinity are not things to be ashamed of. Performers who don drag often advocate for self-exploration and acceptance, no matter what clothes someone wears or what gender they identify with. “It’s not only great entertainment, but a strong tool for social justice and building community,” Vinsantos said. But drag is not reserved for just drag queens; there are drag kings, too, for women who embrace masculinity just as drag queens embrace femininity. As long as its exaggerated, enjoyable, and elaborately costumed, it can be drag.

Before makeup and flashing lights, drag could not be distinguished from cross-dressing, which does not rely on exaggeration and performance. Cross-dressing first become noticed in New Orleans with the expansion of an Irish gang into the United States and, locally, into the Irish Channel. The Molly Maguires were often known for donning women’s clothing and asking for donations in disguise; if one refused to donate, it could and often did end with a shop being ransacked. Probate records from 19th century New Orleans reflect the gang’s introduction, as more and more Irish men were being arrested for assault and burglary in women’s clothing. For a time, dressing in women’s clothing wasn’t just unacceptable for its defiance of societal expectations, but for its ties to this gang’s activities, too. Soon enough, cross-dressing and crimes committed while cross-dressing became one and the same in the public’s eye. Newspapers were publishing records of men who were found drunk in the Irish Channel, wearing their wives’ clothing. More and more, New Orleans started to judge cross-dressing as morally wrong.

In 1890, The State of Louisiana passed two acts that were used to criminalize cross-dressing, believing it immoral. Places where people could gather to engage in “licentious” behavior were targeted, as an 1890 act endeavored “to close and prohibit all dance houses, free and easy gambling dens, barrel houses, shandangoes, and like places, to provide penalties and means for enforcing the provisions of this act.” In order to protect “any women of previous chaste character”, Louisiana passed a bill that allowed for the penalization of “any persons who shall fraudulently, deceitfully or by any false representation, entice, abduct, induce, decoy, hire, engage, employ or take any women … for the purpose of prostitution or for any unlawful sexual intercourse.” While the latter act was designed to defend against the abduction of women, it was not always enforced as such. By deciding cross-dressing could be called “fraud” (or “deceit” or “a false representation” or “decoy”) and by deciding that cross-dressing was a precursor to “sodomy” as they were wont to do, law enforcement effectively criminalized cross-dressing.

 It was difficult for cross-dressers as they were either viewed as violent criminals or a corrupting influence, but it continued. Whether these people cross-dressed because they loved aspects of femininity or because they identified as women before the word transgender even entered the popular lexicon, they were both regarded as “other”. That would change as these pioneers had access to more things to enhance their femininity. As makeup and fashion expanded, people who chose to do drag found themselves with much more flexibility. As makeup entered the scene in the Roaring Twenties, it gave these men even more freedom than just clothes. With makeup, they could change the appearance of facial structure. Now, makeup plays a vital role in drag culture as now-popular makeup techniques were introduced for men to become more feminine in their appearance. Techniques like contouring, baking, and blush draping were once only used to enhance feminine features on a more masculine face. Strong Roman noses can be transformed into a cute button nose and cupid’s bow lips can be created out of nothing. Masters of drag are masters of illusion, knowing exactly where to put shadows and light to create an entirely new persona. With makeup’s introduction, cross-dressing developed itself more as an art.

Still, though, drag didn’t have much of a place with the gay community yet.  Though many early drag practitioners were gay men who found more freedom by presenting as a woman, non-drag gay men loathed the practice. They, mistakenly but understandably, viewed it as yet another means for ridicule from society. But as more drag performers have taken the stage, more people have come to accept drag as more than just putting on different clothes; it’s self-expression. With performers like RuPaul and Big Freedia, people outside of the community have their eyes opened to just how freeing it can be to be someone completely different. Drag couldn’t exist without the gay community, but it is growing beyond it. Johnson says, “you have to give recognition to the gay community for its creation and perfection of the craft, but artistically, you close a lot of doors for a lot of talent by giving the label ‘gay’ to something so free.” Drag is beyond sexuality and beyond gender. It’s an embrace of both, but adherence to neither. Its relationship with both is interesting. Vinsantos says, “It’s playing with gender. It’s magnifying aspects of gender. It’s putting gender in the blender then throwing it all into the compost pile. It’s making gender fluid and, at the same time, obsolete.”

It’s true, New Orleans has a tarnished history with LGBT+ individuals. From the Upstairs Lounge arson in 1973 to the murders of drag performers and transgender individuals that occurred as recently as February, LGBT+ people in New Orleans may feel less than welcome in their own home. This, in addition to the fragmentation that happens in the LGBT+ community, can be a breeding ground for feelings of persecution. But drag, with its message of acceptance, could be the bridge. Vinsantos put it best: “It is a very powerful thing when our people come together to fight back against any injustice presented to us.” Whether its drag shows at bars, gay or otherwise, or Southern Decadence as people take to the streets to express themselves, New Orleans needs to accept that drag is a part of its very identity. Isn’t there a drag performance to be found in the Quarter almost every night? Don’t we all flock to the floats where men in tights and gowns throw us doubloons? How many Beyoncé features does Big Freedia have to do for people to accept that our city has a history with defying gender?

 New Orleans offers a lot to the world of drag and those curious about it. That curiosity can be sated with drag shows almost every night around the city and the New Orleans Drag Workshop, which walks members through drag and allows them to “Draguate” at the end of their ten-week intensive course, called a Cycle. These Cycles, which happen two or three times every year, let lay-people go through the same intense regimen drag performers experience in preparation for their shows. “One of my favorite Workshop moments was when I got to shave off the eyebrows of an unprepared queen just hours before she was set to Draguate. The glue just wasn’t working and she was out of time, so there really was only one solution,” Vinsantos laughs. Outside of the Drag Workshop, bars like Oz New Orleans cater to a clientele with drag shows and an open call to drag performers. There’s reason to get involved with drag, Johnson argues, saying “through being educated about drag, people can gain skills and confidence and learn to understand others and themselves.” At least in New Orleans, the New Orleans Drag Workshop will always be there to encourage the curious. Vinsantos offers this advice: “If you are interested in the art of Drag, get out there and see as many shows as possible! Go to shows at different venues and see the variety that Drag has to offer! Oh, and tip your performers!”

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