In 1987, Doris Fish, at that time San Francisco’s reigning drag queen, had accumulated enough notoriety for a Pittsburgh TV station to fly him east for an interview on its daytime talk show Pittsburgh 2Day. The studio audience was wide-eyed, and for good reason: Doris walked on in a red-fringed halter top, purple skirt, cobalt-blue opera-length gloves, gold platforms, and grapefruit-size earrings under a teased blonde wig. The host, Jon Burnett, seemed fairly agog himself, until after a bit of sparring, he realized how funny and self-confident Doris was.
The interview had a telling moment: After some initial banter, Burnett turned serious: “How do kids look at you, and what kind of example are you setting, and do you worry about being an example?” Doris answered smoothly, “Oh yes, certainly. I like to think that I have to set a positive example to let children know if they want to be drag queens it’s a perfectly all right thing to be!”
The audience laughed appreciatively at the quip. No one, Doris included, imagined an era was on the way in which “drag queen” could be considered a profession, and a child might conceivably aspire to be one. But in fact drag queens like Doris were creating that future, perhaps without even knowing it. They thought of themselves as entertainers, not political workers. And yet, today, we can see just how much drag—for all its glamour and fantasy—was a political act.
Now drag queens, along with queer people across the spectrum, are such a quotidian part of the cultural scene that it can be hard to remember—and younger people obviously can’t remember—that, not so many decades ago, queer people were all but totally invisible. When, in 1981, the blockbuster TV soap Dynasty introduced a gay character, the media treated it as an event on the scale of an invasion. Which, I guess, it was.
At a time when a lot of gay people involved in the fight for equal rights (like Harvey Milk) were nervously trying to look as respectable as candidates going to corporate job interviews, drag queens wanted to stand out, respectability be damned. The drag shows that Doris was putting on in San Francisco, and Lypsinka, RuPaul, and the Lady Bunny in New York , Atlanta, and elsewhere, weren’t overtly political—but there’s more than one kind of politics. And they weren’t attracting just gay audiences. Straight people were flocking to them, too, because the shows were terrific and hilarious, and they got them. Camp humor, which had begun as a secret code among a coterie of in-the-know urban gay men, had invaded popular culture. And so, somehow, had queer people—and middle Americans were giving them a thumbs-up.
Drag queens would show up at every protest and pride march (the cameras loved them), horrifying the queer politicos who came in office attire and, as Doris wrote in a letter to a friend, “busy giving gays a bad name.” But they were really doing opposite: putting the nail in the coffin of the postwar conformity that had been struggling not to look ridiculous since kids in jeans had started to challenge it in the ’60s.
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Doris’s face (if not his name) became familiar to the public through the dozens of greeting cards for which he modeled, in a series of loony or glamorous guises, for West Graphics, a San Francisco company that, with the advent of Doris, became an ’80s phenomenon. Suddenly middle Americans were getting birthday and anniversary and get-well cards with a drag queen on the front. Card-shop owners were making their rent because of Doris.
Meanwhile, John Epperson’s Lypsinka was mining old movies to satirize clichés about women, and to make it clear (even while audiences were doubled over) how outmoded and damaging those clichés were. Doris and the Sluts a-Go-Go, the drag troupe he led, were doing their shows in a TV-talk-show format as a way of satirizing, and thus protesting, queer invisibility on TV. They didn’t think of themselves as pioneers, but they were setting a precedent for the now totally regular appearance of queer people in the media.
Then, with the advents of AIDS during the ’80s, drag queens went from being the pariahs of the queer community to its heroes. They showed up on the AIDS wards to entertain patients and at the constant AIDS benefits to raise money for them. At a time when unembarrassed homophobes were proclaiming that people with AIDS had gotten just what they deserved, drag queens became recognized as keepers of the flame of gay culture by a gay population finally proud to acknowledge that it had a culture. Camp was no longer a secret—it belonged to everybody.
We’re living in a moment of resurgent homophobia. Like anti-Semitism, it will probably never die out, and opportunistic politicians will always find in the specter of queers a handy way to get a crowd riled up. Hence the recent Tennessee legislation (with other states sure to follow) that outlaws public shows by performers—including male and female impersonators—that the state considers harmful to minors, including, of course, the popular drag-queen story hours that libraries and bookstores have now been presenting for some time.
What could be more joy-killing than trying to suppress a phenomenon that brings so much delight—to the kids, their parents, the drag queens, and the sponsors (not to mention those among us invested in seeing young people take an interest in books)? Well, good luck with that—or, rather, bad luck. Drag queens, like the queer population that gave rise to them, are a genie that’s not going back in the bottle. If Doris’s generation of drag performers wouldn’t keep quiet even during an era of rank homophobia, you can bet that the current generation, which has tasted tolerance, won’t back down. You just don’t silence a drag queen.
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