It's Saturday night in Key West and the Girlie Show is about to begin at the 801 Cabaret. The girls have been outside on the sidewalk all evening, seducing passersby into coming in for the show. The club itself is packed tonight and smoke has filled the room. When the lights finally go down, statuesque blonds and stunning brunettes sporting black leather miniskirts, stiletto heels, and see-through lingerie take the stage. En Vogue's "Free Your Mind" blares on the house stereo. The crowd roars in approval.
In this lively book, Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor take us on an entertaining tour through one of America's most overlooked subcultures: the world of the drag queen. They offer a penetrating glimpse into the lives of the 801 Girls, the troupe of queens who perform nightly at the 801 Cabaret for tourists and locals. Weaving together their fascinating life stories, their lavish costumes and eclectic music, their flamboyance and bitchiness, and their bawdy exchanges with one another and their audiences, the authors explore how drag queens smash the boundaries between gay and straight, man and woman, to make people think more deeply and realistically about sex and gender in America today. They also consider how the queens create a space that encourages camaraderie and acceptance among everyday people, no matter what their sexual preferences might be.
Based on countless interviews with more than a dozen drag queens, more than three years of attendance at their outrageous performances, and even the authors' participation in the shows themselves, Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret is a witty and poignant portrait of gay life and culture. When they said life is a cabaret, they clearly meant the 801.
Leila J. Rupp is a professor of women's studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of several books, including Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement and A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America.
Verta Taylor is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of two books, including Rock-a-by Baby: Feminism, Self-Help, and Postpartum Depression, and the coeditor of Feminist Frontiers VI.
First things first: not all men who dress as women are drag queens. The
day after we first went to a regular Monday afternoon drag queen meeting,
we went to observe a planning session at the pool of the place where Margo
was house-sitting. David (Margo), Sushi, and Roger (Inga) began to make
distinctions among different kinds of men who dress in women's clothing,
but they said nothing about straight cross-dressers who do it for the
erotic (heterosexual) thrill. When we talked to R.V., he identified
cross-dressers or transvestites as straight and drag queens as gay. So the
first distinction is on the basis of sexual identity.
Then there are categories based on physical transformations of different
degrees. Titty queens get breasts through either hormones or implants but
keep their penises. Sushi describes them as "in-betweens." Transsexuals
have sex-reassignment surgery. In contrast to these, drag queens keep
their male bodies (although as we have already seen some facial
transformation is acceptable). David tells of first reading about
Christine Jorgensen's famous transformation from a man to a woman.David
was at the time a young gay teenager in New York, and it scared him. "I
did not want to be a woman, and here it is in the paper that this may be
what I have to do." It scared a lot of gay men, he says. "Is this what
you're supposed to want? And I knew I didn't want this. I mean, I would
like to have the mink coat, but I don't want to be a woman." Kylie says he
wouldn't mind having tits just for the show, "Like if I could take a pill
to have them ... and then take another pill to make them go away. I
would do that.... They would be good for the show." In one show Sushi
asks the audience whether she should get tits. "You think I should get
some big bazoongas, you know, like a size D? I'd have to sleep with them.
These I can take off, as you've already noticed." R.V. says he likes his
tits being machine washable.
So drag queens are gay men who dress as but don't want to be women or have
women's bodies. The girls will occasionally announce in the show that
"drag queen" means "dressed roughly as girls." Within the category of gay
men who dress in women's clothing but keep all of their male bodies, there
are further distinctions based on performance style. Female impersonators
keep the illusion of being women. Kevin Truehart, who performed at 801 for
a time as Lady Victoria or Lady V, identifies as a female impersonator,
not a drag queen. He hates the term "drag" because "over the years, it's
been made out to be something very trashy and tacky." His take echoes the
distinction between "stage impersonators" and "street impersonators," the
latter, like Sushi in his days on the streets in Los Angeles, young men
who sell themselves on the streets and live a marginal life. Lady V does
celebrity impersonation: Barbra Streisand, Lucille Ball, Cher, and Liza
Minnelli. "I started with Lady Victoria first and she spawned them all."
If he did Lady Victoria full-time, he says, then he would be a drag queen.
But there's no uniform understanding of such a distinction. A gay male
dancer at one of the local clubs describes female impersonation as "just a
job. It's getting up and singing Cher songs dressed up as Cher." Adding
creativity to motivation to explain the difference, he says, "A drag queen
is somebody who goes out, puts an outfit together, puts a routine together
by themselves, their act, their dance and all that stuff, picks a song
that they're gonna do it to, and comes out and does it. Not as Cher. Not
as somebody." On the other end of the spectrum-if there even is one-from
Lady V is Scabby, who mostly doesn't try to look like a woman at all. Lady
V describes Scabola as a cross between a drag queen and a club kid, others
describe her drag as "camp." Although the 801 Girls have different styles,
they all identify as drag queens. "Did I tell you that I'm a drag queen?"
Sushi asks the audience. "I'm a drag queen. I'm not a female impersonator;
I know that I don't have a pussy yet. Yet. I don't have a pussy yet."
Onstage another night Sushi explains, "A drag queen is somebody who knows
he has a dick and two balls."
Being a drag queen requires having a drag name. When Sushi announced at a
Monday meeting that he was going to put us in drag, they told us a trick
for coming up with a drag name: take the name of your first pet for your
given name and the name of the street where you lived, or, if that doesn't
sound right, your mother's maiden name, for your family name. Voila, Leila
became "Jinxie Dogwood" and Verta, "Blackie (transformed in the course of
the evening to 'Blackee') Warner." None of the girls use names made up in
this way, although John "Ma" Evans concocted his first, "Joletta
Bridgeway," which he still uses occasionally, with this method. The name
"Ma," we should say, is not his drag name; local author June Keith reports
that as the middle child in a family of eleven, he baby-sat so often, his
younger siblings started calling him "Ma." When Ma first came to the 801,
he used "Arlene Goldblatz," then he became "Majongg" or "MaJon." Margo,
originally "Margot," "just happened," says David. He dropped the "t"
because he realized that everyone would mispronounce it. Sushi was once
"Soy Sauce" and obviously plays on her Japanese heritage. Kevin couldn't
think of a name, but a friend came up with "Kylie Jean Lucille" and he
liked it. Gugi, too, got his name from a friend. He entered Miss
Firecracker, the amateur drag queen contest in Key West on the Fourth of
July, and his manager at the bar suggested "Gugi Gomez," a character
played by Rita Moreno:
I'm like, "'Gugi Gomez!' That doesn't roll
off the tongue!" And he goes, "No, you
have to see this movie, The Ritz. It's with
Rita Moreno; she's launching to sing in a
gay men's bathhouse. And so people think,
the guys here think she's a drag queen." ...
And he goes, "OK, why don't you rent
the movie, and if you don't like it, I'll pick
out another one for you." So I saw the
movie. She had this little number she did,
"I Had a Dream" [he sings it]. Only in a
thick Spanish accent.... And then she's
walking down the hallway-that's where I
got the idea that this was going to be my
name-this gay guy goes up to her and
says, "You did a fabulous performance."
She goes, "Thank you, thank you." "You
look so real for a drag queen." She looked
at him [now Gugi takes on an exaggerated
Spanish accent], "I'm not a drag queen! Do
you think I don't know what you boys do
in that back room, hee-hee-hee-hoo-hoo-hoo,
boys." After that, I said, "That's my
name. That's it."
The first time Dean did drag in Key West, someone asked what her name was,
and she came up with "Milla," thinking "measly muscles," because he didn't
have any. Roger would never use "Inga" in Sweden, but it works here since
she's billed as the "Swedish Bombshell." R.V. started as "Vivian Redbush,"
became "Vivian Redbush Beaumont," then "V.R. Beaumont." One night a
drunken friend called him "R.V. Bushmont," and the R.V. stuck, although
the Bushmont didn't. When Matthew entered his first lip-synch contest,
after being inspired by Priscilla, he chose the name "Enema Squirts." They
refused to announce it, so he had to come up with something different at
the spur of the moment. Obviously he tries hard to be repulsive and
in-your-face. He had cut his head shaving and felt the scab, and he had to
go to the bathroom because he was nervous and all done up in his leather
corset, so "Scabola Feces" he became.
To a different extent for the different girls, the use of drag names
symbolizes the creation of a separate personality. "Sushi is different
than Gary," says Sushi. In fact, Gary says, Greg (his former partner of
seven years) and Sushi did not get along. Even David, who became a drag
queen late in life, describes David as "an entirely different person" from
Margo, although "now they are coming together more and more." He says he's
a Gemini so there are two sides, but he's always been shy and introverted.
"Since doing the drag, a lot of Margo has taken over.... I am far more
verbal and outgoing as David than I ever was before." Timothy, too, is shy
and describes himself as introverted. "I can't even go order a slice of
pizza." Given his stage presence, we thought he would talk our ears off
when we interviewed him, but then we realized that that was R.V. and this
was Timothy. "That's a whole different person up there. Different
personality," he says. A local gay man who is friends with R.V. says, "If
I see Tim out somewhere, I'll say, 'Hi, Tim.' To me it's almost two people
even though I know they're the same person; it's two different
personalities, two different personas." When a professional photographer
shot all the girls and hung the photos in the bar, Tim complimented her by
saying she had caught him as both R.V. and himself.
Roger also takes on a different style. "As Inga I can do things I could
never do as Roger, I would never do." In an interview Roger tells the
reporter that his friends don't much like Inga, who is aggressive. He
thinks Inga might be therapeutic, allowing him to express a darker side of
his own personality. Kevin says, "Kylie is me," but admits that "Kylie is
more expressive ... when I'm dressed as Kylie, I know that I can get
away with so much more. Doesn't mean that I want to do it all the time."
In another context he tells us, "No one calls me Kevin anymore; sometimes
I worry that Kevin is gone." Desiray, Gugi's drag daughter who joined the
show after Gugi and Inga left, describes being able to "go out there and
do anything because it's a totally different person. Joel can't do it, but
Desiray can." Dean describes keeping Dean and Milla separate because he
understood that not being able to live apart from your image-he mentions
Boy George here-leads to drugs and breakdown. "That's why there's Dean and
Milla. For a while there wasn't." Milla "became a therapist" for him and a
"healer." But at another time, Dean complains about being tired of the
monster he had created, meaning the celebrity of Milla.
Gugi at first says that there isn't a difference, that "it's what's in me.
It's all those years of being in myself. The pain and everything else. The
fear of not being in control of my love or not feeling-it's coming out.
That's, Gugi is what is on the inside of Rov." Later he adds, "But now, I
can't separate Gugi and Rov." But he seems to contradict that: "Actually,
sometimes Gugi overwhelms Rov." Then he seems to notice this: "But in
turn, how can I, because it's me." In fact, Gugi seems to act in ways that
Rov never would: she's aggressive and sexual, while Rov is shy and sweet.
Lady V describes having to work at keeping his identity. "One thing I like
about Matthew," he says, "is he doesn't lose his identity with Scabby.
When he takes it off, he becomes Matthew. But when he gets dressed, he
becomes Scabby.... I mean, I've had to really work hard at separating."
But now, he says, "it's just putting on a uniform."
The notions of both separation and fluidity are expressed in the language
the drag queens use in talking to and about one another. The way they use
names and pronouns follows no clear pattern. Or rather, they almost always
use their drag names, with certain exceptions. Sushi says he barely even
knows their real names, and when we gave them the book prospectus to read
at a drag queen meeting, Roger commented how odd it was to see a list of
boys' names. Matthew's parents don't know he is a drag queen-they think
he's a bartender-and one day his mother called the bar and asked for
Matthew and someone said, "No Matthew works here."
Sushi is "Sushi" to almost everyone except her former partner, and Kevin
(Kylie), her best friend, and in turn Sushi is the only one who ever calls
Kylie "Kevin." Sushi says she doesn't know when Kylie calls her Sushi and
when Gary. Kylie says, "I consciously have to remember to call her Gary."
Nevertheless, when they moved in together, their answering machine message
instructed callers to push one number for Sushi or Gary and another for
Kylie or Kevin. Gugi always wants to be called Gugi, while Roger dislikes
being called Inga unless he is in drag. David says that as many people
call him David as Margo, and he doesn't care. "If I ever retire from drag
and people continue to call me Margo, it's quite all right with me!" So
there are different preferences among them. But unlike transgender
activists, who like to be addressed in the gender of presentation, the
drag queens slip easily and unnoticed out of their usual use of the female
gender. For example, when we asked Sushi about how he got Kylie to come to
Key West, he said: "I begged her and begged her, come on down. He was
tired, I could tell he was tired of his life there." Talking about the use
of drag versus real names, Sushi says, "I call him Milla; I don't call her
Dean." Kevin says he has to remember to call "her" Gary and then adds, "A
lot of people don't even know his name is Gary." At a drag queen meeting,
when they talk about Musty Chiffon, a visiting drag queen, Matthew says,
"I mean, just get to know him, because he really is sweet. She's not
interfering with what we're doing at all." R.V. drives his mother nuts
because she never knows when he says his "girlfriend" whether he's talking
about a real girl or a guy. Verta asks Dean if he minds when she refers to
them as "guys," and he says no, but Sushi says, "You should say 'girls,'"
but then admits, "Well, sometimes I say 'guys' to girls."
Others outside the drag queen circle have the same trouble with pronouns.
One of our focus group members, who had first met Sushi in her capacity as
seamstress, said of their first meeting, "As far as I was concerned, she
was just another gay man. He was just another gay man. She, he." A young
straight woman said of Desiray, "She is so pretty; I'm jealous of him."
What it means to be a drag queen is different for the various girls,
although it is possible to see some basic categories. For some, being a
drag queen has to do with being in some sense transgendered. Jim Gilleran,
the bar owner, gets at this when he says, "This is their identity, and you
find yourself going 'she' even when the person's out of drag-like Sushi is
a good example." Roger describes Sushi as looking "like a thin Japanese
girl." Even Kylie, who first met Gary as a boy, commented in surprise once
on a newspaper photo of Sushi, "She looks like a man!" A young lesbian
couple who attended one of the shows describes Sushi as an "exception" to
their notion that the drag queens are basically men, one saying, "His body
just plays the part.... I mean I heard without the makeup on the
streets, you would think that was just a woman without makeup"; and the
other saying, "He's got a good face." A straight woman in her forties
thinks that for Sushi, being a drag queen is "almost a role thing.
List of Illustrations
Cast of Characters
1 Introduction: "What Makes a Man a Man?"
Section I: "I'm Beautiful, Dammit!"
2 Getting Dressed
3 Becoming Drag Queens
4 Being a Drag Queen
Section II: "Take Me or Leave Me"
5 The Conch Republic
6 On the Street
7 A Plate of Food and a Drag Show
8 "The Hero Would Be You"
Section III: "Life Is a Cabaret"
9 "She Works Hard for the Money"
10 Performing Protest
Section IV: "We Are Family"
11 "Crazy World"
12 The 801 Family
Section V: "Free Your Mind"
13 In a Long Tradition
14 "We're Not Just Lip-Synching Up Here, We're Changing Lives"
15 A Night at the 801
16 Theoretical Conclusions: Thinking about Drag as Social Protest