The historical roots of cis men’s expression of feminism

Phoebe Finlayson on performances of masculinity and femininity.

The celebration of cis men’s expression of femininity has long-term historical roots. From early theatre, when women were unable to perform on stage, young boys with delicate figures and unbroken voices would don dresses and take to the stage as Juliet and Cressida—to famed drag queens such as Lady Bunny—to today where drag queen’s popularity has soared exemplified by the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, headed by another drag icon RuPaul himself. Surprisingly, or let’s be real, unsurprisingly, drag kings have not shared in the visibility or popularity of their drag sisters.

But Why? Well, considering the attitudes our society holds towards women and genderqueer folk and anyone that isn’t a cis man.. frankly I’m surprised you even had to ask.

Where is the RuPaul of the Kings? With a 10-season show to match? There simply isn’t the same following or public backing and yet the roots of drag kings have more relevance and meaning to the LGBTIQ+ community than perhaps many of us know.

Stormé DeLarverie was a butch, African-American lesbian woman who performed as a male impersonator in the 50’s and 60’s in Harlem, and is widely accredited (including by herself) as having thrown the first punch at the stonewall riots. Being bundled into a police wagon, bleeding from being hit over the head with a police baton, she repeatedly broke free of police hold and was re-captured. Fighting with police, she was heard to shout to the watching crowd “Why don’t you guys do something!” At which point the riot truly began. Delarverie disagreed with the epithet of ‘riot’ however, saying, “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil disobedience—it wasn’t no damn riot.” Her part in queer resistance, alongside other lesbians, trans-women and enbies is often played down. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the insultingly gender skewed and whitewashed film adaptation of the Stonewall riots ‘Stonewall’ (2015), that neglects the lesbians, trans women and enbies that have been and still are the backbone of queer activism.

The decline of lesbian bars in Sydney (and indeed globally) has given way to an inarguable gay male centred nightlife. Packed with shirtless muscles and every twinky, twunky and hunkey that ever danced to a Cher song. Clearly, it’s not men that society dislikes, nor masculinity, but women and genderqueer persons expression of masculinity in performance and in daily life. Which it is why it is so important as a platform of resistance and deconstruction of gender hegemony. Existing on the fringes of more popular drag queens may have given the king scene a chance to expand ‘Kinging’ from a performance that centred around ‘passing’, into a place where performance can truly be a means of freeing people from traditional ways of expressing masculinity. So, alongside binders and fake beards now sit boobs and glitter.

The fact that performances of masculinity just aren’t privileged the way performances of femininity are could have something to do with the way male-ness and masculinity is seen as something innate and natural. Perhaps it is easier to understand the constructedness of femininity in the drag queen world—where big hair, big makeup, big heels, big everything expose just how big of a joke gender can be. It’s perhaps less easy to expose the constructedness of masculinity. Or perhaps it is that for a long time what you do has only been valuable if you identify as a cisgender man. Hence men’s expression of femininity is celebrated whilst women’s expression of masculinity is denigrated. But things are changing and when I see drag-kings challenging what it means to be masculine and who is allowed ownership of that masculinity I feel prouder than ever of the women and the enbie queers that exist and fight to express masculinity, despite the rejection and criticism they face both inside and outside the queer community.

This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.

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