Drag is serious grown folks business in the gay community, and I’ve recently noticed a generation gap around issues like queens who don’t wear padding or who keep a full beard, but most of all I’ve noticed stark differences in the way we respond to “bio queens,” which are women who perform drag as women. After all, until relatively recently “drag queen” was synonymous with “female impersonator,” and the art was the illusion.
I enjoy a good drag show, and love a bad drag show, but the first time I saw a cis woman on stage lip syncing and carrying on I was confused. In the following months I initiated discussions with numerous friends and acquaintances on the topic, and heard a variety on opinions which largely, but not always, broke down along generational lines. Over 35 and you’re probably not a fan, but for Millennials it’s perfectly normal.
My forty-something friend Jack in Pittsburgh doesn’t get it. “I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it, but I cannot understand what they are trying to express or add to the art form. While cis women have their struggles I think coopting another minority’s art form is just bad form. Kind of like white rich kids thinking they can be hardcore rappers.”
31 year old Brian Ray, who performs as “Suzy Cydal” in St. Louis, finds nothing at all strange about women performing drag. “Fundamentally I’ve never ever thought drag meant a dude trying to look like a girl. Suzy doesn’t have boobs. A drag queen to me is a larger than life character, living art, so it never crossed my mind that a woman couldn’t do that.”
I decided to reach out to my absolute favorite drag queen of all time, star of stage and screen, Miss Coco Peru. I caught up with Coco at her home in Los Angeles and for the first few minutes she thought by “bio queen” I meant biographical, which she certainly is with her colorful life stories. We got that ironed out, and then she explained how, like bio queens, she was also new and different when she hit the scene around 1991.
“When I created Coco my vision was to not pretend to be female. Back then drag queens didn’t talk or tell stories” Coco began, explaining that even in her stories she’d say things like, “When I was a little boy…” She wasn’t interested in creating the illusion of being female. “Drag was like a suit of armor, a safety net for the audience, and I think it made the audience more comfortable.”
Miss Peru recalled working with a female queen at a show in Texas. “It was delightful. I thought her whole energy was ‘other.’ She probably felt she didn’t belong anywhere either, and I was happy she found a way to navigate through that.”
I asked if she thought women performers need to do something above and beyond, since they don’t have to create the same illusion.
“Like what?” she asked.
“I know a female performer, Charlotte Sumtimes, who’s literally glued rhinestones to her eyelids. She puts on a spectacular show and nobody mentions or event thinks about her gender. The complaint I hear often is that many female performers come off as a Jr. High talent show act.” I replied. “But even the worst male drag queens can be fun to watch, seeing how wrong it all is” I said.
She said both male and female performers should go above and beyond, and confessed to sharing my guilty obsession with really bad drag.
“My favorite bad drag queen is in Spain and she’s so awful and so much fun. I craw from bar to bar just to find her” she said.
Regarding the accusations of cultural appropriation, “All of us in the gay community have been survivors. We’ve done so much that did get appropriated, and that we didn’t always get credit for. But anytime someone wants to self-express I don’t want to stand in their way.” Coco said. “And if the performer is no good, you can always get up and go for a drink.”