Nowadays, Halloween isn't much of a holiday for me; I rarely make special plans for it or bother to get a costume--and considering the average woman's costume--Sexy Ninja! Sexy Vacuum Cleaner Salesperson! Sexy First Lady!--that's maybe for the best. (I may not be a radical feminist--they won't take me--but come on, people--Amanda Hess at the Sexist has done yeowoman's duty on this subject.)

This Halloween, however, I was out in San Francisco and went to see a friend's performance in a drag show. So I donned my homemade ironic vampire disguise--fangs, pvc duster and dress, boots, and my "...And Then Buffy Staked Edward. The End." tee shirt--and caught some decidedly non-vintage drag.

Drag has always had an ambiguous status within the world of gender non-conformity. Frequently maligned by both gay men and MTF transsexuals--the former for not being masculine, the latter for not being, well, female--much of the ambiguity of the lives of actual drag performers tends to be erased, ignored, or swept under the rug. For example, many transsexuals and crossdressers buy into the concept of all drag as a mockery of women, and immediately tell people--often in the course of coming out as trans--that they aren't drag queens, that they like and respect women (and even want to be women.) Oddly enough, some drag queens buy into the reverse of this proposition, and sniff haughtily that they aren't a bunch of trannies, they're still real men after all.

But these are convenient figments that ignore the fact that some drag performers live lives that are almost indistinguishable from the lives lived by transsexuals. Some probably even identify as transsexual, and do drag for a variety of reasons: money, a background that included identifying as gay instead of trans, or even simply an affinity for the theatricalities of drag. There are even crossdresser drag queens--I know one personally, and she describes her drag mother as "sometimes a gay man, sometimes a drag queen, and sometimes a trans woman--and often all three at once."

All the same there remain troubling issues with drag from both a feminist and a trans viewpoint.

I ducked into two shows on Saturday: the first was a very traditional "female impersonator" type show, queens lipsyncing to ballads, and the second was a much more avant garde (in the tradition of Trannyshack, of late lamented memory.) I vastly enjoyed the second show more. Some of this is my own jaded aesthetics, but I think a lot also has to do with the ways that each style of performance confronted drag's own ambiguities.

Drag is always done with a wink and a nudge--this is part of its appeal, that you are always conscious of the fact that a man is performing as a woman. Sometimes, this has the affect of amazement--I've seen very traditional drag performances that were heart-rending because of the sincerity the performer brought to the piece. But more often, there is an effect of titillation, or amusement, or confusion--an awareness of the artificiality of the performance. For trans people, this can be troubling--for often our whole lives are questioned, or dismissed as artificial, mere pretensions of gender. So drag can be quite disturbing, as it knowingly invites just that sort of speculation. (And you get read more at drag shows. Trust me on this--I haven't been read in over a year but was several times on Saturday.)

Then too from a feminist viewpoint, there is something downright disturbing about some of the more traditional drag performances, where a woman's voice is quite literally appropriated in the service not only of a man's performance, but a man consciously taking the place of a woman. I'm not saying that all drag does this, or even all traditional drag, or that this is the primary function of drag: but it is an irreducible aspect of drag performance, and how the performer comes to terms with this is a major factor in how I, for one, enjoy the show. (For example, I'm less disturbed by the sort of deep identification with the material I described above.) This is probably at the heart of while I liked the avant garde drag of Charlie Horse much better than the more traditional drag I'd seen earlier, especially Trauma Flintstone's whirling madness that ended with her stripping off her costume and wig. And even the more traditional parts of the show were more about subverting staightness/feminity than mimicking them.

Is drag a vital if perplexing art form at the nexus of overlapping queer consciousnesses, questioning and subverting our own understandings of gender and sexuality? Or is it perhaps a troubling anachronism of a time when queerness had to be subsumed under a veneer of straight cultural symbols? What is unquestionable is its power to provoke uncomfortable responses in the viewer, even as they laugh along with the joke--because the joke is, that the joke is on them.

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