Not all Drag Queens are Born Equally: The Gender Identity

Caitlin Greaf
Caitlin Greaf

Heteronormativity within our society has a significant impact on how we come to view and understand gender identity. Drag queens allow a break in the heteronormative gender guideline while also reinforcing the social image of what it means to look like a woman.

Although drag queens merely reflect the preexisting image of a woman, they still present an image of both gender bending and the ways that gender is socially taught.

This ethnographic research explores how gender and sexual identity is socially taught in the public and private space. Ultimately, gender identity is socially influenced when determining our social identities based on social influence.

My personal experience in deconstructing my own gender identity has allowed me to explore my social self-identity and how powerful our social heteronormative gender guidelines are. By dressing in male clothing for the first time in a public space, I challenged the daily heteronormative idea of gender while shattering my own self-identity. The gender constructions and guidelines that were socially taught to me throughout my life were broken when I put on a fake beard.

When it comes to drag queens, people may first think of individuals adopting a persona and appearance in the LGBTQI community. Throughout my life and experience within the LGBTQI community, I have befriended drag queens and witnessed dozens of drag performances.

At the beginning of my research, I held on to an essentialist position while exploring drag identity. As my fieldwork expanded, my essentialist understanding was replaced with a deconstructionist perspective as the focal point shifted to gender identity within a heteronormative society.

Drag queens take gender characteristics from both the heterosexual and LGBTQI communities in order to create their persona, self-identity, and their stage performances. Drag queens are one type of symbol exposing gender as merely a social construction. In other words, “gender is the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category” (West & Zimmerman, 1987, p. 44).

Drag queen performances possess a dual role of undoing heteronormative gender ideals while also reinforcing the current heteronormative social image of a woman. Through their performances, persona, and identity, drag queens illustrate Judith Bulter’s argument of gender performance.

As the dichotomous categorisation of sex is both socially constructed and a performance, Butler indicates that gender is equally used as a social performance when accepting and/or denying an individual’s gender identity. Although drag queens are often first thought of as a community whose gender bends, they in turn also recycle the heteronormative ideals of feminine gender performances. Thus, through their feminine performance, they are justifying the pre-existing social ideas that femininity means to have a select type of stylized hair, makeup, clothing, and body language.

Our heteronormative society’s field of vision is that “we see someone who looks and acts and sounds like a man, we assume that he is also a man. We see someone who looks and acts and sounds like a woman, we assume that she is a woman” (Devor, 2002, p. 528).

As drag queens encompass a different gender, many place assumptions on their gender identity; such as a drag queen identifying as a transsexual. Unless a drag queen identifies as being transsexual, drag queens and transsexuals are two separate identities.

One common definition of “drag queens are gay men who perform in women’s clothing, although they are not all necessarily female impersonators” (Rupp, Taylor, & Shapiro, 2010, p. 276). However, this exclusive characterisation leaves out those who identify somewhere else on the sexuality spectrum and/or those who may have breast implants but still identify as a male.

This definition exposes the way in which both society and some literature simplifies complex identities such as drag queens. Through the use of heteronormative guidelines, Western societies socially blur the lines between gender, sex, and sexuality when trying to comprehend identities such as drag queens (Asiso, 2010).

Many drag queens may aim for the ability to pass as their female personas, but many only convey the authenticity unless they self-identify as transsexual. “Passing” describes a situation in which the perception of the gender of the subject is actually misread. It is a question of public and private, clarity, and it requires a spectator in order to legitimate passing (Maltz, 1998, p. 276). On the other hand, “realness” extends beyond gender expression alone (Maltz, 1998, p. 256).

Within this article, I use the world “realness” in terms of one who encompasses the gender they are displayed as and seek to be that gender “without reliance on surgical or hormonal intervention” (Maltz, 1998, p. 276).

Masculine and feminine gender qualities and characteristics are placed on everything and everyone. These dichotomous qualities of appearance result in one of two understandings: are you more male and masculine or female and feminine? Deemed by your peers, your position on this heteronormative binary spectrum will have a significant impact on how one self-identifies along with how others identify you. However, as drag queens demonstrate, gender identity is something that is created, changed, and ultimately performed because it is our peers who judge our choice of gender and our ability to pass within that said gender.

Literature on drag queens continues to expand with the popularity of gender and queer studies, and it heavily focuses on their performances on stage and/or gender performances (Berkowitz & Belgrove, 2010; Murnen & Byrne, 1991; Rupp et al., 2010; Taylor & Rupp, 2006). Rupp et al., state that drag queens “challenge hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity” during their performance (2010, p. 289).

Rupp et al.’s research found that drag queen’s performances lead some audience members to challenge their pre-existing views of gender (2010). Berkowitz and Belgrave’ (2010) research presents a similar stance on drag queen’s stage performance. They state that “drag is a very powerful performative act, and a successful drag queen can hold a unique form of power over her audience” (2010, p. 160).

“Hyper-femininity” and female impersonators are terms often associated with drag queens. Murnen and Byrne (1991) explain hyper-femininity as an “exaggerated adherence to a stereotypic feminine gender role” (p. 480).

The choices that drag queens make, with the elaboration of their wig or amount of make-up to wear, may be considered an example of hyper-femininity performed by drag queens. However, by using the term “hyper-feminine” it is then believed that non-hyperised gender characteristics are natural.

From Butler’s standpoint, it can be argued that because gender is simply a performance, these characteristics cannot be over exaggerated. Instead, they are placed on the socially constructed gender binary spectrum.

Gender is not a dichotomous category of feminine/masculine or non-hyper/ hyper but a social performance done by all. On the other hand, some drag queens possess the ability to “pass” in their persona. Robin Maltz (1998) found that passing, as used in the context of both race and gender, describes a situation of intelligibility in which the perception of race or gender of the passing subject is actually a misreading (p. 277). “To pass effectively, a subject is (mis)read as ‘real’” (Maltz, 1998, p. 277).

Even though not all drag queens have the ability to “pass” it may not always be due to their masculine physical features. Social acceptance of one’s gender appearance determines one’s “pass-ability” in that gender. As drag queens use pre-existing feminine gender qualities, they are accepted or denied with that gender. By labelling drag queen’s gender performance as “hyper-feminine,” we fail to account those who have the ability to pass.

Gender is an act and performance that everyone does. Through these appearances, the Western society constructs gender roles.

Butler (1988) states, “as a given temporal duration within the entire gender performance, ‘acts’ are a shared experience and ‘collective actions’” (p. 525).

In terms of gender identity, those who self-identify with similar genders will encounter similar experiences. In their personas, drag queens will gender identify as female. While presenting their female gender identity, drag queens may receive similar reactions and treatment that women in our patriarchal society receive if they are perceived as “passing.”

Outside of the club without their drag queen persona, their treatment and reactions will revert back to our society’s treatment of homosexual men. The duel gender identity that drag queens experience exposes our social arrangement of gender boundaries and divisions. Gender is a performance that constructs our identities. Western patriarchal societies use heteronormative gender ideals as a tool to simplify complex identities.

Butler (1988) states that “gender is a performance insofar as it is the effect of a regulatory regime of gender differences in which genders are divided and hierarchized under constraint” (p. 210). Genitals do not make one socially a female or male, it is the gender box we live in that consciously constructs our gender identity.

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