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the story of drag

DRAG - In Shakespeare's time only men acted and women were not allowed and DRAG meant DRESSED ROUGHLY AS GIRL where men became famous as women in drag.

Ancient Greece

The concept of drag can be seen in the earliest forms of entertainment, including Ancient Greek theatre. In ancient western cultures, women often were not allowed to perform onstage or become actors, therefore male actors played the roles of women also. This demonstrates how female impersonation can be traced back to the earliest forms of entertainment and spectacle. Not only this, but men and boys were expected to dress as women, or in drag, for many religious ceremonies and rituals in Ancient Greece.

There is some controversy as to whether this is actually where drag emerged, or if it occurred later in history in the 1800s with forms of entertainment such as minstrel shows and Shakespeare's plays, as he often incorporated male actors as female impersonators.

( Rue Paul - a talentless act with no stage presence at all.... )

United Kingdom

In the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, pantomime dames became a popular form of female impersonation in Europe. This was the first era of female impersonation in Europe to use comedy as part of the performance, contrasting with the serious Shakespearean tragedies and Italian operas. The dame became a stock character with a range of attitudes from "charwoman" to "grande dame" that mainly was used for improvisation. The most famous and successful pantomime dame was Dan Leno. After World War I and World War II, the theatre and movie scenes were changing, and the use of pantomime dames declined. Pantomime, complete with dames, remains a popular form of theatre - traditionally performed at Christmas and afterwards - to family audiences.

Beyond theatre, in the 1800s, Molly houses became a place for gay men to meet, often dressed in drag. Despite gayness being outlawed, men would dress in women's clothing and attend these taverns and coffee houses to congregate and meet with other queer people (mostly gay men).

South Africa

Drag in South Africa emerged in the 1950s in major cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town. It started in the form of underground pageants which created a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Apartheid South Africa, where people could be punished by law for being gay. Being gay was not legalized in South Africa until 1998, so pageants, such as the famous Miss Gay Western Cape, did not become official until the late 1990s.

Discrimination against drag is widespread in South Africa, and drag queens face the threat of violence by being openly gay. Furthermore, there is not language to explore queerness in Xhosa, one of the indigenous languages of South Africa.


After homosexual acts were decriminalized in Thailand in 1956, gay clubs and other queer spaces began opening which lead to the first cabaret. However, drag in Thailand was actually heavily influenced by drag queens from the Philippines as the first drag show started after the owner of a gay club saw drag queens from the Philippines perform in Bangkok. Therefore, drag shows started in Thailand in the mid-1970s and have become increasingly popular over time, especially in major cities like Bangkok.


Before being colonized by Spain in the mid-1500s, it was a national custom for men to dress in women's clothing. However, when the Spaniards arrived, they not only outlawed homosexuality but executed men that appeared to be homosexual. Spain cast a culture of Machismo onto the Philippines, causing any kind of queerness and queer culture to be heavily suppressed.

Nonetheless, in the early 1900s drag started to reappear in the media. Drag became a key element of national pantomime theatre and as time went on, drag queens appeared in other forms of theatre and in movies.


In the 1940s John Herbert, who sometimes competed in drag pageants, was the victim of an attempted robbery while he was dressed as a woman. His assailants falsely claimed that Herbert had solicited them for sex, and Herbert was accused and convicted of indecency under Canada's same-sex sexual activity law (which was not repealed until 1969). After being convicted, Herbert served time in a youth reformatory in Guelph, Ontario. Herbert later served another sentence for indecency at reformatory in Mimico. Herbert wrote Fortune and Men's Eyes in 1964 based on his time behind bars ( a brilliant movie ) He included the character of Queenie as an authorial self-insertion.

In 1973 the first Canadian play about and starring a drag queen, Hosanna by Michel Tremblay, was performed at Théâtre de Quat'Sous in Montreal.

In 1977 the Canadian film Outrageous!, starring drag queen Craig Russell, became one of the first gay-themed films to break out into mainstream theatrical release.


In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the application of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to consensual homosexual sex between adults was unconstitutional, "irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary". Since then, drag culture in India has been growing and becoming the mainstream art culture. The hotel chain of Lalit Groups spaced a franchise of clubs where drag performances are hosted in major cities of India such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore.

Maya the Drag Queen, Rani Kohinoor (Sushant Divgikar), Lush Monsoon, Betta Naan Stop, Tropical Marca, Zeeshan Ali, and Patruni Sastry are some examples of Indian drag artists. In 2018, Hyderabad had its first drag convention. In 2020, India's first drag specific magazine Dragvanti began publication.

United States

First drag balls

The first person known to describe himself as "the queen of drag" was William Dorsey Swann, born enslaved in Hancock, Maryland, who in the 1880s started hosting drag balls in Washington, DC attended by other men who were formerly enslaved. The balls were often raided by the police, as documented in the newspapers. In 1896, Swann was convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of "keeping a disorderly house" (a euphemism for running a brothel). He requested a pardon from President Grover Cleveland, but was denied.

Minstrel shows

The evolution of drag in the United States was influenced by minstrel shows. These shows were an example of how Blackface was used in a racist form of entertainment where the performers would mock African American men, but as time went on they found it amusing to mock African American women as well. They performed in comedic skits, dances, and "wench" songs. Black people themselves were largely excluded from being performers as at this point in history. Blackface in minstrel shows emerged in c. 1820, but became more established with the creation of the character of Jim Crow, which was first performed in 1828. After the Civil War, performance troupes began to be composed of Black performers. The shows maintained popularity in American entertainment into the 1920s.

Vaudeville and female impersonators

Julian Eltinge as a female impersonator in the Fascinating Widow, early 1910s

The broad comedic stylings of the minstrel shows helped develop the vaudeville shows of the late 1800s to the early 1900s. In addition to the "wench players", minstrel shows developed the role of "prima donnas", who appeared more elegant and refined while still retaining their comedic elements. While the "wenches" were purely American creations, the "prima donnas" were inspired by both American and European cross-dressing shows, like Shakespearean actors and castrati. With the United States shifting demographics, including the shift from farms to cities, Great Migration of African Americans, and an influx of immigrants, vaudeville's broad comedy and music expanded the audience from minstrelsy.

With vaudeville becoming more popular, it allowed female impersonators to become popular as well. Many female impersonators started with low comedy in vaudeville and worked their way up to perform as the prima donna. They were known to perform song and dance routines with multiple outfit changes. In New York City, famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge found success, and he eventually made his way to the Broadway stage performing as a woman.

He published a magazine, Magazine and Beauty Hints (1913), which provided beauty and fashion tips, and he posed for corset and cosmetics advertisements. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Bothwell Browne was the top female impersonator of the West Coast. He performed at the Grand Opera House and Central Theater, among other venues, went on tour with United Vaudeville, and later appeared in the film Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919), produced by Mack Sennett.

At this time being a female impersonator was seen as something for the straight white male, and any deviation was punished. Connection with sex work and homosexuality eventually led to the decline of vaudeville during the Progressive Era. Both the minstrelsy and vaudeville eras of female impersonation led to an association with music, dance, and comedy that still lasts today.

Night clubs

In the early to mid-1900s, female impersonation had become tied to the LGBT community and thus criminality, so it had to change forms and locations. It moved from being popular mainstream entertainment to something done only at night in disreputable areas, such as San Francisco's Tenderloin.[Here female impersonation started to evolve into what we today know as drag and drag queens. Drag queens such as José Sarria first came to prominence in these clubs. People went to these nightclubs to play with the boundaries of gender and sexuality and it became a place for the LGBT community, especially gay men, to feel accepted.

As LGBT culture has slowly become more accepted in American society, drag has also become more, though not totally, acceptable in today's society. In the 1940s and 1950s, Arthur Blake was one of the few female impersonators to be successful in both gay and mainstream entertainment, becoming famous for his impersonations of Bette Davis, Carmen Miranda, and Eleanor Roosevelt in night clubs At the invitation of the Roosevelts, he performed his impersonation of Eleanor at the White House. He impersonated Davis and Miranda in the 1952 film Diplomatic Courier.


John Bellamy Adds: Drag has been common in the UK for centuries and accepted as such. Panto is full iof cross dressing, men to women and women to men as well as ugly ducklings, cows and swans... Hinge and Bracket - Danny La Rue, even Les Dawson and many old comedians started in drag acts and is not frowned upon in present day unlike America who is busy politicising drag as groomers and paedophiles when nothing could be further from the truth. The American politicising of the LGBT community and claiming we are all child abusers and so forth is hiding the real truth that most sex crimes towards children are heterosexual and not the drag queen - or gay men - and is just avoidance of the truth.


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