By traditional standards, Australian artist Tayla Macdonald should not be a drag queen. She’s not gay—she identifies as bisexual—and she’s a cisgender (nontrans) woman. But no one seems to mind her presence in the Sydney drag community. She has no problem getting into gay clubs. She maintains a gorgeous and lauded Instagram. She’s even dating a fellow queen. Drag emerged as a haven for gay men, but Macdonald—along with many cis women and other newcomers to the world of queens—are breaking down its traditional boundaries. Macdonald’s story offers an opportunity to consider what this shift means for drag—and how more traditional drag queens and audiences are handling it.
The past two years have witnessed a crescendo of buzz about inclusion in the drag community, particularly regarding prejudice against cis women drag artists. In 2015 and 2016, several online articles and mini-docs implored readers to acknowledge and respect female drag performers, offering testimonials from women queens who had been told that they “don’t belong,” who had drinks poured over their heads, and who detected belittling connotations in terms like “faux-queen” or “bio-queen.” I myself contributed to this conversation with an article about the bridges and boundaries between drag queens, cis female drag artists, and drag kings. And each of these articles fueled an increasingly tense dialogue across social media platforms, with women drag performers discussing their sense of invisibility, their experience with discrimination, and their desire for change.
But while this debate continues apace in 2017, reality is moving in another direction. With influences like RuPaul’s Drag Race pushing the genre ever further into the mainstream, the drag community has expanded exponentially to embrace an unprecedented spectrum of fans and practitioners—and like many other drag splinter groups, female drag artists are becoming more and more accepted, if not warmly welcomed.
“In my own community in Sydney everyone—the working girls/hosting queens—has been very supportive and accommodating,” Macdonald told me. “There are always people at the club who will assume that I haven't done my own makeup—they think my drag queen boyfriend did it—or are shocked when they find out that I'm a woman. But most of the negativity comes from the internet.”
After two years in nightlife, Macdonald has fashioned a rich—albeit highly unusual—drag life. She and her partner, Cherry Kills—a cis male queen who identifies as bisexual—go out as often as possible when they’re in the same city, catching amateur drag competitions together on Wednesday or Thursday nights. “We’re friends with a lot of the younger queens in Sydney who perform those nights so we love going to see them, have a gay dance and a kebab at 2 in the morning,” Macdonald said.
“I feel like we've definitely been lucky in Sydney that she's never been directly spoken down to or invalidated for being a female queen,” Kills told me. “There are a handful of older queens who say they can ‘respect what she does’ but that it will never be drag to them. But the majority of the community has been very open and celebratory of what she does.”
And while Macdonald’s experience may not necessarily be the norm, it resonates with my own perspective as a working queen watching the drag community transform in New York City and beyond. I’ve attended a number of competitions where a bio queen—or drag king, or other female performer—has won by a landslide, with gay male onlookers apparently uncurious about the champion’s gender or drag style. If I see a “Support bio queens!” or “Bio queens are real queens!” post on Facebook these days, the author is often a cisgender male. And if a female queen is rejected by my peers, it’s not because they think she doesn’t equal us, but because—look at her makeup—she looks terrible.
This is not to suggest that discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the drag community—or that Ms. Macdonald believes it’s no longer a problem. Because despite her progress as a queen, Ms. Macdonald deeply feels the challenges women face in the drag scene. “What motivates me to get better is seeing a lack of female representation in the drag community and wanting to empower other women and let them know it's okay to do drag,” she told me. “As a woman living in 2017, gender roles and misogyny are still something that directly affect my life. By doing drag I'm hoping to shift people's perceptions of gender and specifically women in the queer community.”
Can I just say something? Um, you can- you can never have enough hats, gloves and shoes ✨ thanks so much to @canned_fruit_parties for having me last night for Ab Fab night! It was DIVINE darling🥂💦 #drag #dragqueen #instagay #instadrag #makeup #beauty #fashion #CherryKills #KillsNotMaims #lgbt #PatsyStoned #AbFab
It’s true—women queens still have a long way to go when it comes to winning the hearts of more traditional drag audiences. They still battle with notions that their performances will be lax, amateurish, or culturally disrespectful. In a 2015 article, Chris Andoe perfectly describes the most common perception of women drag performers with a quote from an older friend: “While cis women have their struggles, I think coopting another minority’s art form is just bad form. Kind of like white rich kids thinking they can be hardcore rappers.”
I, too, have held this position in conversation, usually when referring to straight female drag performers. If the creative force of drag comes from the struggles of growing up gay and surviving gay life, as I often say it does, how can a straight cis woman tap into it? Then I go on to bemoan the disappearance of exclusively queer spaces, and declaim drag’s importance as an escape from the straight gaze. But when it comes to real encounters with cis women drag performers, all my rhetoric falls away and the discussion becomes much simpler: She’s either a good show or she’s not.
There’s no denying that the drag community has rapidly evolved. A few years ago, it was breaking news that female drag performers existed. Now they are helping to redefine the art form for a new era of popularity—one in which new subgroups are learning to contour and tuck (or not) every day. And while there are always individual spats between drag folks—straight and gay, male and female, trans and cisgender—they are more and more often the exception rather than the rule.
Last month, I wrote an elegy for one of New York City’s great drag lionesses, Sweetie, and for the age of gay-centric underground drag that she both championed and embodied. Now I want to celebrate the beginnings of a new drag community, one that has no center, that incorporates whatever and whomever it touches. And for anyone poised to write yet another think piece or Facebook post about drag exclusion, double check: Am I talking about the drag community as a whole? Or just what I see on television?