photo of Leila Rupp

Dragging gender to the fore

Commonly, we conceive gender as melded to sex: Women should be feminine, men masculine.

Leila Rupp '72, PhD '76, and her partner, sociologist Verta Taylor, trouble this notion in their book, What Makes a Man a Man: Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. They point out how blurry the lines of gender and sexuality really are-how difficult it can be to define the terms female and male, feminine and masculine, heterosexual and homosexual, even woman and man-by exploring the world of drag. And they ultimately argue that drag can serve as a catalyst for changes in values, ideas and identities.

Rupp and Taylor focus on The Bourbon Street Girls, a troupe of full-time drag queens who perform nightly at the 801 Cabaret in Key West. These drag queens stand out from the area's many other drag queens because of their political openness-they explicitly discuss race, sexual acts and genitalia during shows—and their inclusive, interactive treatment of the audience. Though their constant "sex talk" might offend, Rupp and Taylor were "struck by how the audience was completely transfixed during performances."

Rupp and Taylor met little resistance from the troupe members when they asked to shadow and interview them as part of their research. "Most of them took us in right away," Rupp says. "In fact, the house queen said, 'I want you to tell the truth.' They are the most marginal people I have ever met. That they are friends and in our world is really quite wonderful." Rupp and Taylor then devoted their frequent Key West trips to getting to know the members of the troupe—their personal histories, worldviews and individual stage personae.

So what is a drag queen? " 'Drag queen' means more than a man dressed as a woman," Rupp says. "Drag queens are gay men who dress in women's clothing to perform for a variety of reasons. They're not pretending to be women. They're not creating an illusion of femaleness. But they feel deeply identified with that 'in-between' gender role, and they're performing in this way."

The Bourbon Street Girls "perform protest," claim Rupp and Taylor, by challenging conventional understandings of male and female, straight and gay. "The drag queens create a space, if only for an evening, in which nothing is as it is in the 'real world.' " For example, on any given night at the 801 Cabaret, you might see drag queen Scabby's version of Liza Minnelli's "Ring Them Bells," a ballad about an older, single New York woman who travels the world looking for a man to marry. But Scabby does this as a hunchback, wearing a bright green wig, a pink velvet dress and go-go boots, mocking the prescribed striving for marriage and beauty. Or Milla, by day a white gay man but by night an African American woman who sports head cloths, talks in black urban vernacular and lip-synchs songs by Eryka Badu.

Another important point in What Makes a Man a Man is that drag creates communities. The core community is within the troupe, says Rupp. "They are a family. They squabble like family members, but they basically, fundamentally take care of each other. They are who they have to rely on." That core community extends to a larger community of drag queens in Key West.

And beyond that, drag queens extend a sense of community even to straight people. "By calling on those categories of gay and straight, men and women, but then also mixing them up and blurring them, they affirm gay and lesbian identity. They are a straight person's worst fear about what gay people are. So by both embracing their own identity and extending that identity to other gay and lesbian people and to straight people in the bar, they create a sense that we really are all in this together. They do both make fun of and challenge straight people, but also bring them into it."

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