By Sonia Elks
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Carefully painting in sharp cheekbones and heavy eyebrows before applying a moustache and a final sprinkling of glitter, Jen Powell slowly transforms into male alter-ego Adam All ahead of a performance at a London club.
Powell is among a growing number of drag kings – mostly female or transgender performers playing exaggerated male characters – in a previously niche LGBT+ performance scene that is booming in popularity across much of the Western world.
“Once I’ve got the suit on and the shape looks right and the face looks male, I don’t have to change my character very much at all to present completely and believably as male,” Powell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Adam is more flamboyant, he’s more cartoony, more fun-loving, dancey. He’s not massively confident, oddly enough, although he does love the stage.
“I think he’s really exploring his maleness and what it means to be a man in the 21st century.”
Male actors cross-dressing on stage have a well-known history going back to William Shakespeare’s era and gay men performing in hyper-feminine drag have long been a part of the LGBT+ community.
While drag kings arguably have just as long a past, they have not enjoyed the same level of recognition or popularity – although that now appears to be changing.
“When I first started, there was still a lot of people who didn’t know what a drag king was or had never seemed to have heard the term before,” said British performer Sammy Silver.
“There did seem very few on the scene, but now it’s really exploded.”
Much of the recent growth of interest in the drag scene can be traced back to the popular U.S. television talent show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has made stars of some competitors and helped to boost a gay subculture into the mainstream.
The rise in drag kings comes amid a cultural shift over gender, said Nigel Edley, an expert in gender roles and masculinity at the Nottingham Trent University in Britain.
“There is a movement away from conventional, stereotypical ideas about how men and women should be,” he said.
Drag offers a chance to knowingly examine and question gender roles, he added, with many performers agreeing they had wanted to challenge stereotypes of masculinity.
“Men are told to be a certain way – they can’t be emotional, they can’t cry,” said Silver.
“For me, drag kinging is a big ‘up yours’ to all that… It’s deconstructing toxic masculinity and I think completely flipping society’s views on what it means to be a man.”
Silver said that while his performances are playful, they have also helped him to realize he was a trans man. He sees them as a celebration of his masculinity.
For others, taking to the stage as a drag king can offer a chance to respond creatively to misogyny in daily life and behave in ways that would not be acceptable as a woman.
“My motto has been instead of being an angry woman I became a funny man,” said veteran drag king Mo B. Dick, aka Mo Fischer, who first began performing in New York in 1995.
“In New York, there’s plenty for women to be angry about – you walk the streets and you are constantly harassed. It doesn’t matter what you wear, what you look like: women are prey, targets.
“It gets boring to be angry, in a way, because it’s so one-note. So, to be able to express my anger in a comedic way was a great relief.”
As interest in kings grows, Fischer is leading work on a website that traces the history of masculine drag from Tang Dynasty China in 618 to pop star Rita Ora recently performing dressed as rapper Post Malone.
“Drag kings are still largely unknown,” she said.
“I hope [the website] will help in putting drag kings on the map – that people will recognize the vast, rich history that women have in donning men’s attire for theatrical purposes.”
Drag kings said they had faced bemusement and hostility from some in the historically male-dominated LGBT+ community.
Some critics in the LGBT+ community argue that drag kings have no right to inhabit a space traditionally taken by gay men or that drag queens performances by men have a unique ability to explore and challenge damaging stereotypes of masculinity.
Though RuPaul himself is known for his saying: “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”, the scene’s king-maker has notably restricted his contestants to queens.
Performers said tension and titters were largely due to society-wide misogyny, which means that women and trans people born as women still struggle to be taken seriously.
“You have to be twice as good to prove that you’re just as worth your space on stage,” said Powell.
Drag kings are “definitely” paid less and treated worse than queens said Chiyo Gomes, who performs simply as Chiyo.
“It boils my blood because I wholeheartedly believe that gender is irrelevant and yet for some reason people with bodies like mine are not paid the same as cis (non-trans) gay men,” Gomes said.
“If you are afab (assigned female at birth), in this industry you need to hustle and hustle and hustle.”
Despite the challenges, most performers agreed there has been slow progress on acceptance as the LGBT+ community, like many other groups, grapples with questions of diversity and aims to ensure minorities are better represented.
Gomes, who identifies as neither male nor female and whose drag persona is also visibly gender-nonconforming, said it was important to show different models of gender in drag.
“I think just standing on that stage and existing in this drag universe is a political statement,” Gomes said.
Meanwhile, the growing number of performers and their expanding prominence on the LGBT+ scene points to changing attitudes as kings are increasingly recognized and celebrated.
“The sky’s the limit really,” said Powell.
“Look how far drag queens have come and we’ve got all that road ahead of us.”
Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org