We Are All in Drag

Lori Watson

[Editor's Note: My USD Colleague, Lori Watson, delivered this speech last week. I liked it a lot, and thought BHL readers would appreciate it too.]

Last week, the Pride organization, a student group at the University of San Diego, put on its 2nd Annual Drag Show. The inaugural event was developed last year, in part to provide an entertaining educational context in which to inform the community about California’s recent inclusion of gender identity and gender expression as protected classes under California discrimination law. The showmet with vehement and outraged criticism; critics argued that allowing such performances was incompatible with the mission of a Catholic university. Some critics went so far as to suggest that the University of San Diego should no longer be allowed to identify as a Catholic institution of higher education, and claimed that USD had signed on to the "radical homosexual agenda," whatever that is and despite the fact that though drag shows do take place often in gay identified spaces, drag performance and sexual orientation are separate things.

As the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at USD, I was asked by the Pride group to give an introductory speech. Here is what I said:

Imagine this:

You are walking down the street, wearing your brand new purple, silk shirt, feeling good.

The police stop you, and question you: "Where did you get that shirt? Who are your parents? Do you have right to wear that shirt?"

"What?" you ask.

The police ask: "Well, are you the King, the Queen, a member of the royal family?"

"No," you reply. And you are promptly arrested.

Now this may sound silly to our modern ear, but the situation I’ve just described is based on the Sumptuary laws of Elizabethan England.

Various forms of clothing were forbidden to the lower classes, reserved for Nobles, enforced by law, and punishable by imprisonment.

What was the purpose of such laws? To enforce the class structure, and hence the power structure of that society, through clear regulations as to how one can present oneself in public.

One’s identity, one’s status had to be publically announced through external signs… clothing… and purposefully misleading the public by representing oneself as a member of a higher station, a higher class, was considered both an affront to the natural order and to the political order.

Now, fast forward to 1864…

You are in St. Louis, you have just purchased your first bicycle, a relatively new form of transportation. You are excited to try our your new means of mobility, but wearing a skirt is an inconvenient garment given the way the seat and the pedals work, so you put on a pair of "bloomers." Since it’s cold, you grab your husbands over-coat, and jump on your bike.

You don’t get far before the police stop you. You are arrested.

Your crime? Dressing in disguise – gender fraud.

Fast forward again to 1978:

You are in Chicago, having brunch with a friend. As you walk out of the dinner, both of you are promptly arrested.

The statute under which you are charged makes it a crime for "any person who shall appear in a public place…in a dress not belonging to his or her sex with intent to conceal his or her sex…"

The rationale for this law?

  • to protect public from fraud

  • aid in the detection of criminals

  • prevent crimes in washrooms

  • prevent inherently anti-social conduct

Fast forward to 1993, in Humboldt Nebraska…

You pick up the paper and read the story of a grizzly rape and murder of a young man named Brandon Teena.

And, though the facts of this case are complex, ultimately the reason Brandon was raped and murdered is that though he was biologically female, he successfully "passed" as a man. His "friends", those that raped and murdered him, felt tricked…duped. Brandon had "misrepresented" his "true" gender identity, and he needed to be taught a lesson.

What do all these vignettes have in common?

In each case either the law or the prevailing social norms (or both) called for the punishment of an individual for expressing his or her identity in a way the departed from socially acceptable ways of being.

Importantly, those socially acceptable ways of being are often justified in terms of what is "natural" what is "normal" … where "natural" and "normal" are to be read as not deviant.

So, this brings us to the topic of drag shows, and in particular the criticism of this event, and the practice of drag more broadly.

"It’s wrong!" they exclaim! As if the louder and more frequently one says this the more true it becomes.

So, I would like to ask: "What is it that is wrong? And why is it wrong?"

"Well, men dressing in women’s clothes! Women dressing in men’s clothes!

It violates the natural law!

It overturns the natural order of things!

It’s against nature!!"

In response, I invite you to entertain this thought as you watch the performances tonight and as you reflect afterwards…

The folks performing on stage tonight are no more in drag than anyone else in this room.

Let me repeat that thought. Each of you sitting in this theatre tonight is as much in so-called drag as those who will perform here tonight.

Each of you is performing a gender: in your choice of underwear, in your choice of shirt, of pants, of hairstyle, of adornment, of shoes, of deodorant, of whether your wear make-up, of body language, the way you sit, the way you stand, the way you walk, the way you greet you friends… do you hug them? Do you nod at them? And on and on and on…

Ask yourself: what, if anything, do any of these choices or these social signs of gender have to do with your biological sex?

Does wearing high heels make you a woman? Reflect an innate fact of your biology?

Well, not if you are in 17th Century France, in which high-heeled boots were introduced as a form of shoe for Royal men, who were copying Turkish horse riding boots!

Finally, I will ask you to reflect on one further thought as you participate in tonight’s events and in the days and weeks after…

Let’s go back to our story of Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws. Recall my suggestion that the purpose of those laws was to reinforce class structure. Specifically, to reinforce a distinction between those who are entitled to power, privilege and authority and those who are subject to such authority, lacking the necessary power and privilege.

How might we extend this analysis to the cultural enforcement of gendered distinction? Men wear suits, men wear ties… women wear dresses, women wear high heels, women wear make-up.

These gendered differences are sharp, they are pronounced, they are enforced, if not by law any longer then by social opinion, social shame, and social ostracism.

What hierarchy are they preserving?