So I’m gay. Most people probably know that because I’ve been shouting it around the dental school for the past three years. But what people might not know is that I’m also a lover of queer history and the progression of the LGBT community since before there was an LGBT community. And there would be no queer history without drag queens.
I first discovered drag at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge as an undergrad in Philadelphia. Founded in 1969, Bob and Barbara’s is one of America’s oldest drag bars, where queens have been performing regularly for the past 50 years. Coincidentally, Bob and Barbara’s is also the originator of the Philadelphia “Citywide Special” – a can of PBR and a shot of Jim Beam for $3 – another one of my favorite college pastimes. So every Thursday after two or three Citywides – smoky eyes, cherry lips, stilettos on – my friends and I would watch as the Philly drag queens flipped, tripped and twirled their way through iconic gay song after iconic gay song.
When I moved to Pittsburgh for dental school, I stumbled into a dive bar close to my apartment on a Monday night, where they happened to be doing a drag show. There were about four other people in the bar and I watched three drag queens in terrible makeup poorly lip-sync to awful songs. And I fell in love. I’ve gone back to that bar every Monday for almost four years, where I’ve met some of the greatest people and watched some of the greatest performers grow and thrive.
Drag queens have been essential to the LGBT rights movement in America since the beginning. People do drag for many reasons: self-expression, art, political statements, comfort. Many early drag queens performed in drag to play with the boundaries of gender and sexuality, and drag was the outlet for them to do that in a safe space. Drag was often the only way transgender women could express their gender identity safely and acceptably for so long. LGBTQ bars became havens for people wishing to explore their sexuality and gender, and as these spaces were attacked, drag queens were the ones who fought back. The Stonewall riots, probably the single most important event leading to the modern LGBT right movement, were started by drag queens. And drag queens in history like Marsha P. Johnson, Lady Bunny and RuPaul were the initiation and continuation of the rights LGBT individuals have secured over the past few decades.
I love watching drag queens because they’re entertaining. I’ve watched a drag queen sew an entire dress in five minutes on stage, and then change into that dress mid-performance, all while lip-syncing. I’ve watched a drag queen slowly chop an entire onion on stage and eat it raw while sobbing to Adele. I’ve seen drag queens douse themselves in fake blood while Marilyn Manson played and I’ve seen drag queens eat twenty chicken nuggets in five minutes on stage. But mainly I love watching drag queens because of the collective history we share. I love watching them because they remind me of the rights that people older and braver than me fought for. Because they remind me that the relative safety I feel at most times as a gay person in 2018 was not always a given. I love drag queens because they represent how far the LGBT community has come, and how far we still have to go. Dance on, sister.