Let’s drag out the history of drag

On April 26, the Jim Chalgren LGBT center will hold its annual and popular drag show. It has been a continuous tradition on this campus for well over 20 years and goes back even farther than that.

Most people at this point are familiar at least with the concept of drag. Drag (for the few uninitiated out there) is when people perform publicly in clothing or costumes outside their typical gender. Usually this involves a heightened performance of gender stereotypes or an excess of campy transgressiveness.

So where did drag start exactly? Some have speculated drag originated with the practice of having male actors perform the roles of women on stage during the middle ages when women were banned from performing in theaters. Supposedly according to this idea, the term drag came from the way male performers’ dresses and gowns would literally drag on the stage. (This theory has been called into question though.)

One of the earliest well-documented drag performers was William Dorsey Swann. Swann described himself as “the queen of drag” and was arrested several times over the lavish drag balls he threw at his home. As a formerly enslaved person, Swann was no stranger to persecution. He fought back against the charges, going so far as to ask President Grover Cleveland to issue a pardon.

However, cross-dressing was not always a persecuted or illegal activity. In fact, around the turn of the century, female impersonation was seen as a high art form. It fell in favor for a variety of reasons but one was the broader rise in persecution against the queer community that occurred in the early half of the 20th century.

By the 50’s and 60’s, drag became relegated to underground gay bars. But following the Stonewall Riots in the 1960’s, it began to come back into vogue. 

The 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” was released, which chronicled the underground ball culture in New York City. “Paris is Burning” helped bring an understanding of drag and ball culture to a larger culture and highlighted the various discrimination and difficulties faced by its drag subjects. The show “Pose” deals with this era of queer history as well.

Today drag is celebrated across the globe. Drag queen story hours have become popular activities at public libraries and “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is now on its 15th season. However, drag still faces numerous challenges. Charges of grooming and worse are frequently leveled against drag queens these days. Several states have attempted to institute various types of drag bans.

Here in Mankato, the first drag show was held on May 16, 1975 with Jim Chalgren working as one of the producers of the show. “Social norms will be transgressed and attitudes will be challenged at the ‘Ms. Mankato Drag Race’,” wrote The Reporter when describing the event.

In any case, in spite of current opposition, one finds it difficult to imagine that drag won’t be able to continue giving sassy, fabulous transgressiveness far into the future.

Header photo: Courtesy The Associated Press

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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