Transgender activist and drag performer Marsha P. Johnson. Picture: Netflix
Transgender activist and drag performer Marsha P. Johnson. Picture: Netflix

A brief history of drag performance

By Jamal Grootboom Time of article published Mar 6, 2019

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When Billy Porter glided on the red carpet at the Oscars on Sunday, jaws understandably dropped. 

The Tony Award-winning performer, who is enjoying a new found mainstream fame after starring in Ryan Murphy’s Pose, was wearing a black velvet ball gown and such was his impact that there’s a video of an impressed Glenn Close marvelling at his bravado. 

But what many don’t realise, is that Porter’s fashion statement was reinforcing how much of an impact the world of drag has had on pop culture and where better to remind people than at the biggest awards show in the world. 

The art of drag performance is at an all-time high in pop culture with the American reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race taking the world by storm, even winning several Emmy Awards in 2018. 

'Pose' is also a critically acclaimed show that has shed light on the ballroom scenes of the early years of drag culture in the States. We see more people using words and phrases made popular by drag queens, beauty trends are heavily influenced by the make-up styles of drag queens. 

But most importantly, drag performers have opened up conversations that many were afraid to tackle previously. Back home, drag has played an important part in the LGBTQI+ community, with Cape Town commonly seen as the drag capital of the country. 

Ranging from pageants, cabaret shows and nightclub performances, drag culture has become even more visible in the city. But that doesn’t mean it is only confined to Cape Town – Johannesburg and Durban also have their own take on drag culture. Where did it all start? 

Drag has been around for centuries. In the 17th century female impersonators appeared in Shakespearean plays. This was because women were not allowed to perform in plays. 

Drag remained a big part of the theatre community in the UK and took on a different form once it came to America. From the 18th to 19th century in America, drag was an underground performing art with many drag performers using vaudevillian entertainment as a means to perform in drag. 

Drag queens performed predominately in bars that sold alcohol illegally – this was during the time of prohibition. The genesis for the modern incarnation of drag took place in the 1960s with the boom of gay bars in New York City which were the venue for drag performers. 

During the same period, “moffie” drag underground parties in Cape Town became a safe place for gay men to be in drag and pictures from the parties were published by Drum magazine. 

Similar parties were held in Johannesburg with one of the biggest published ones being the Forest Town raid when police raided a private property where a large group of gay men were. 

This led to the Immorality Bill which banned homosexuality. Similarly, in the US, the Stonewall Riots took place in 1969 when police started to crack down on gay clubs. 

The Stonewall Inn patrons, consisting of drag queens, trans women and the broader queer community, fought back. Drag performer and trans woman Marsha P Johnson threw the first stone. 

The riot is thought of by many as the launch of the gay rights movement. In the 1980s, drag queen culture included familial units formed in conjunction with the underground ballroom scene in New York. 

The “family” included the “mother” of the house and the drag “children” taken in by her. These were usual gay men and transwomen who were kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality. 

The house would act as the headquarters for the drag underground where drag performers could take part in pageants, balls and perform at various drag bars. Once apartheid ended, drag culture started to become more prominent within the South African queer community. 

However, pre-democracy prominent drag performer Pieter-Dirk Uys used the persona of Evita Bezuidenhout to give political commentary. As queer acceptance became the norm across the country and more gay-friendly bars and clubs opened in big cities, more drag performers started emerging. 

Drag performers would be used in pantomimes which also became the most family-friendly introduction to drag on a large scale.

In 2009, the art of drag entered a  new frontier with the debut of RuPaul’s  Drag Race. This brought what was  once something you could only see  at nightclub , theatre show and those
once-a-year pantomimes on DStv to a  broader audience.

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