Why drag matters: Drag queen and writer Tom Rasmussen explains

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Why drag matters: Drag queen and writer Tom Rasmussen explains

When you’ve been a drag queen for a decade, it all just seems so unremarkable. The makeup, the hair, the nine-out-of-10 toenails lost due to excessive and excessively tight stiletto wear. To look at us — cinched and contoured into entirely new shapes of our choosing, covered in something that shimmers, unrecognizable from the way the world wishes we were — you might not believe that drag can feel totally typical. Almost conventional. Like work. Like a school uniform. Like our own personal Overton Window has been moved left, left, left over all the nights we’ve spent bringing a vision of liberation to the crowds who come to take it in.

We get ready backstage and talk about rent, music, who is sleeping with who, all while crushing pigment across our faces, half-asleep from the gig the night before.

Sure, the early years are full of something that feels brand-new. But with time, you come to realize that this feeling of newness is nothing to do with the artifice of drag and all to do with the essential feeling drag creates within you. And that is one of liberation. One of real authenticity.

People find that last one — “authenticity” — hard to believe. But unlike what influencer-led makeup remover companies would have you believe, authenticity is nothing to do with what’s on the outside. Authenticity is how much of your real insides you can let out, how present you feel in a room. For me — and so many drag performers I’ve known — there is so much authenticity in drag that not only does a drag performer feel present in the room, but they bring everyone to that presence with them. Right there, to that very moment, as their back hits the floor in the climax of a death drop, as they rip off their shirt to reveal what appears to be a sort of “biblically accurate angel” with eight pairs of fake breasts strapped across their back, as they hit the high notes in Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.”

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So it’s no wonder that drag is widely adored with an ever-expanding audience. People are helplessly converted from little scared fans to lifelong, hardcore, merch-wearing fans who have watched how liberated a drag performer looks and have found that liberation within themselves.

Like any valuable culture, good drag allows us either to escape from our realities or to feel completely seen within them. Really good drag allows us to do both. It allows us to find reality in escape; it allows us to feel seen in our difference. And I’ve watched that happen in audiences. It has happened to me in the audience. This doesn’t mean there is a huge conversion rate — a drag-fan-to-drag-performer pipeline. Finding liberation at a drag show, or anywhere, is much more personal. It can’t be copied; it can only be awoken.

To imply there is something sinful about drag and drag artists is in line with how many conservatives have dealt with anything liberating for as long as history cares to record. People equate us with sexed-up sluts — which some of us are, and why shouldn’t we be? Other people read us as desperate to corrupt kids into our way of life — spreading the supposedly harmful gay, queer, trans, draggy agenda to the unwitting and impressionable youth of today. Honestly, I don’t know a queen who has the time.

But we know these arguments well. We feel them harder than ever now, and we felt them before we first stepped out in drag. We knew we wanted to express this inner feeling; we wanted to show people, we wanted to set others free, too — but we had heard so much about how bad we were that it took immeasurable and exhausting courage to even Google the word “drag” over the dial-up modem, let alone step out on stage and forget all those words and detractions.

Whatever. Because eventually, after you’ve felt and moved past the newness of drag, you learn something you wish you could tell other people. You learn what it feels like to heal all the shame those detractions from the outside world put inside you.

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When I was in high school, people told me I’d end up either famous or dead. Those were my two options. Both ideas were hard to understand, because you’re just “you,” and you’ve always been “you.” But high school kids at a regional, public school in a very Catholic area didn’t quite know how to deal with someone who looked like me and acted like Zsa Zsa Gabor. A slow, graceful diva paired up with a body that sprouted thick facial hair, to its terror.

So people told me things about myself I’m not willing to repeat on the page. The standard things about being gay, being feminine — a sort of heady mixture of homophobia and misogyny. But as a teenager, I just knew it all as myself, or more — as how people responded to me. Initially, this makes you feel terrible down to your guts. And after a while you start to feel like there’s nothing about you but this shameful shadow that you’ve been told you are by everyone you’ve ever met. (Except the odd few that tell you you’ll be a star — an equally complicated descriptor tinged with fetishization, though I still prefer it.)

When I got to university, I met some people who had been told the same, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t alone. They would put on bad wigs, terrible makeup, ugly dresses: “Hard-front drag” is what we call it now. I’d sit and watch them, awe-filled — that despite everything they’d been told, they still had a sense of self-knowledge so strong they could find the power to push that all aside and access their authenticity.

And eventually I did the same, with a little hand-holding. Eventually we found ourselves on stage: me and my drag sisters in a band that would come to be known by those in the know as “Denim.” We played music festivals. Then we were on TV shows, in magazines and what was coming looked like a future that was unimaginable to us at the time. It looked like acceptance.

Over those years, I was unconcerned with children or with sex. I was unbothered about the things so many people accuse us of because I was too busy discovering myself; I was too overwhelmed by getting on stage and experiencing the healing power of applause — especially when that applause was celebrating all the things you were berated for in your past life. I couldn’t believe it. I was 21, and I’d found my key to freedom. So “Denim” continued for three or four years this way — soaking up the applause, converting it into something else and giving it back to our audiences. We played across Europe, took up residences in London and Edinburgh.

Eventually, the high of that applause begins to change. It never disappears, but after enough time there has been enough healing done, and you start to look — finally — outside of yourself. We asked what we needed and why we needed so much healing. Naturally it’s because as children, none of us were shown even a glimpse of liberation. And so we wrote, staged, performed and toured a drag show for children.

Of the five of us, I was the most cynical about it. “I didn’t get into drag to babysit,” I said. “Kids just aren’t my scene.” I firmly believed there were enough queer adults who needed the community’s concern, that the children could sort themselves out and come to us if, and when, they’re ready. But alas, I was persuaded. And alas, there was an appetite for something like this. For parents to show children things they couldn’t see anywhere else, and for parents to enjoy the show too.

I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was intense, for sure, because toddlers are more demanding than drag queens. Exhausting! But in some cases we watched children — mostly teenagers — and parents alike accept and understand something new about each other. And for children too young to understand what it means to drag up, they got to marvel at something so sparkly they couldn’t believe it.

I’m not here to advocate for children. They have enough of that, although so much of it is poor and insufficient. I don’t have a child, but as someone who was one — and who toured a drag show for children for a large part of my 20s — it was healing for them, and for us, and for my inner child, to witness liberation, to be encouraged to imagine, and to ask some questions about who we are told to be. It’s harmless — it should be basic education. But people seem so concerned with misery that they forget they could be liberated too.

Grid asked me to write about what drag means to me. But it’s impossible to do so without talking about what drag means to all of those who need it. Some days it’s dull, boring, violent, and I feel exhausted — and miles away from liberation. But when it’s good, when it’s all aligned — drag is a force for change like nothing else I’ve seen. And that doesn’t mean changing everyone into a drag queen. It means changing them — and us — into the most liberated, imaginative and expressive form of themselves they could be. And who doesn’t want that?

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Rasmussen
    Tom Rasmussen

    Freelance Reporter

    Tom Rasmussen is an author, journalist, screenwriter, drag queen and more.