You’d be stumped to find a woman or non-binary person taking to the stage as a drag performer in a gay bar. To the average person, drag is a man dressing up as a woman and nothing much else.
When discussing the role of women and non-binary performers in the drag scene, many argue the role of male performers dressing in traditionally feminine clothing is key to drag’s objective to break down gender barriers. Women in drag have been labelled “faux queens” or appropriators of gay culture.
For this year's Melbourne Fringe, the conveniently-named actor and comedian Lou Wall (It’s Not Me, It’s Lou) has produced Lou Wall’s Drag Race, a satirical take on the popular program hosted by RuPaul. The show, co-produced by Wall and Jean Tong (Hungry Ghosts, Romeo is Not the Only Fruit), features a predominantly female and non-binary cast of performers.
Most of the songs are composed by Wall and sound designer Sidney Millar, and feature the cast banding together to take down the forces of discrimination. In one number, a character defeats misogyny by taking on a drag performer known as Miss Annabelle Ogyny. Another number lists 100 dumb ways to die while in drag. For instance, tearing off 11 outfits when you only prepared for 10 (the 11th is your skin). Some classic numbers are also included in the production for long time drag fans.
Speaking to Time Out, Wall says her production celebrates what is great about drag, without the competitive nature commonly seen on screen.
“The reality show [RuPaul’s Drag Race] is a parody of reality in itself. We started making our production this competition, but it got toxic. We asked ourselves ‘why are we turning art into sport? This has been done enough,’” Wall says.
“It’s a variety show where we are social justice warriors trying to take on the world. It’s very satirical and very ‘fuck you’ to the system.”
Outside of gay bars and public spectacles, many people catch a glimpse of drag queens by watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, which just wrapped its tenth season. RuPaul recently sparked backlash online after suggesting trans women should only be permitted to compete in Drag Race up until any surgery. Critics were quick to call RuPaul’s remarks transphobic, saying a person transitioning their gender is not conditional on a medical procedure.
When recalling the legacy of RuPaul, Wall says the production stemmed from his statement on trans performers, but then shifted away to become an overall statement on how the drag scene is a male-dominated environment.
“RuPaul is a queer hero, he’s amazing and all the things he’s done for LGBTQIA rights wouldn’t have been done without him. However, the comments were offensive and although he took them back it opened a discussion and it made people angry,” Wall says.
The Fringe production isn’t necessarily a direct response to RuPaul’s remarks, Wall says, but it does give a statement that drag shouldn’t be an art form exclusive to cisgender gay men.
“Drag has never been about body parts, it’s so much more than that. [The production] started as a fuck you to RuPaul before we realised that it’s stupid to tear one person down. It’s more to inspire people to believe drag is more than just men in wigs,” Wall says.
“If we think of drag as queer performance activism, every time a queer or gender diverse person performs their identity, its drag. Men don’t have a monopoly on performing femininity, especially cisgender gay men who for, at the moment, drag is a gentleman’s sport.”
This isn’t a concept shared just by Wall. In The Guardian, Melbourne-based drag performer Dani Weber shared their experiences and passion as a drag king in Melbourne. For Weber, who is non-binary, drag is about adopting a gender identity unfamiliar to them and exploring their masculine side.
“[I learned] drag performers had a legacy of busting the gender binary (instead of upholding it with misogynistic stereotypes, as we often see in mainstream drag cultures), that many drag performers were trans and non-binary, and that drag could be used as a vehicle for political expression and community activism,” Weber said.
On the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That, Sexy Galexy spoke about her experiences as a drag king and how it further cements this notion as drag not being about men dressing as women, but as dressing in a way that allows you to step outside of the confines of your gender.
“When I first heard of a drag king I went ‘oh right!’ so I can be a drag queen, add a beard and be as fierce I want to be,” she said.
“I could express myself without having the rejection of ‘you can’t do this because you’re a girl’.”
Wall hopes to see women performing in RuPaul’s Drag Race in future seasons. Any television program without a diverse cast raises a few eyebrows, so why does that not extend to reality shows?
“At its core [drag is] gender fucking and gender bending, so why isn’t there gender parity?”
Lou Wall's Drag Race is at the Lithuanian Club from September 23 to 28.