A Beginner’s Guide to Drag, from Trans Rights to Tipping Etiquette

For a long time, the art of drag was a clandestine hobby hidden in the back of gay bars and only performed after midnight. Now, with the unprecedented success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has produced not only several spinoff shows and conventions but also garnered significant and groundbreaking Emmy wins, drag is suddenly everywhere. From art museums to EDM festivals to fashion campaigns, genderbending performers are taking over the world.

Although LGBTQ+ usually (but not always!) embraces drag, many unfamiliar with the craft find it straight up confusing. What’s with the makeup? Why are some of them monsters? Are we really supposed to believe those are women?

A lot of the time, outsiders and straight people feel shy about asking for more information out of fear of offending performers or out of a desire to not overwork marginalized people with emotional labor. We’re here to break down the basics of drag.

What Is Drag?

An apocryphal story often told about the origin of the word “drag” is that it comes from Shakespearean times — since women weren’t allowed to act, men would play female roles — as a shorthand for “dressed as a girl.” The debate around the validity of this factoid is both ahistorical and sort of facile, and that simplistic definition hardly captures what drag actually is or ever was.

It’s hard to say when drag really began. It’s likely that genderbending performance art has always existed in one way or another. However, what we now know of as “drag” came into prominence as its own recognized art form in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the form of female impersonation, in which a usually cisgender male performer would dress in the garb of a cisgender woman.

drag artist prep makeup
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But in gay communities — which were necessarily forced into a sort of underground existence due to laws against homosexuality, sodomy, and yes, even “crossdressing” — what has become known as drag has always been more than men dressing as women. Although the language didn’t exist for it back then, individuals who we might now consider transgender or non-binary have always played an important role in the drag world, and queer artists who expressed their gender in ways that didn’t conform with either traditionally male or female roles have always played around with the tropes of sex and gender. Drag has always been done by women and men and other assorted gender non-conforming individuals. Drag has been one avenue through which queer people of all kinds have expressed themselves and the means by which liberation was demanded. Drag has played an important part in every LGBTQ+ rights movement, and drag performers have always been at the helm of positive social change.

Although more radical or extreme forms of drag had existed before, what’s become known as “club kid” drag garnered significant popularity in the late 1980s and early ’90s with the rise of avant-garde stars like Leigh Bowery and James St. James. These queer artists took exaggerated makeup and costuming to a new level, attempting to create fashions that made them resemble aliens, monsters, or sometimes just abstract art.

So, since drag is not just men dressing as women, what exactly is it?

Drag can best be understood as art expressed in the medium of gender, which is to say that an artist who uses their accessorized and decorated body to subvert traditional norms of gender is probably (but not always!) doing drag. This expanded notion of drag includes drag kings, drag queens, non-binary performers, and even some older, more “traditional” artists like photographer Cindy Sherman or the early, transgressive pop performances of Madonna.

Drag is not just a very pretty gay man dressed as a woman and lip-syncing. Drag now refers to a plethora of art made by predominantly queer people.

Drag Is Not Just RuPaul’s Drag Race

In ways that are bizarrely similar to how WWE is largely mistaken as the entirety of pro wrestling, RuPaul’s Drag Race is often taken as the be-all and end-all of drag. In fact, this aggrandizing narrative is sort of self-consciously written into the show itself. However, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

RuPaul’s Drag Race (again, much like WWE) is the radio-friendly, highly censored, most accessible version of drag. It is a marketing executive’s idea of what drag could be. This is not a knock on the show or its incredible cast, but a statement about how limiting and specific the show’s aims are: the contestants are almost exclusively cisgender men who dress in (exaggerated versions of) traditionally feminine outfits.

In reality, there is a much larger scene of local and independent drag that is far more diverse, experimental, political, and confrontational. These local stars are often artistically undervalued (and paid way less than) the mainstream queens of Drag Race.

Only now are we beginning to see more edgy drag competitions emerging on TV. The Boulet Brothers, a pair of horror-inspired queens with a reality competition show called Dragula (currently streaming on Netflix), have pushed the boundaries of drag by casting gender-nonconforming competitors and even crowning an immensely talented drag king named Landon Cider as the winner of season three. Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, a Drag Race All Stars champion, has also started a more inclusive competition of her own online.

But these more diverse and avant-garde shows and contests have always existed on the local level — and since drag is an art, it’s not all about competitions anyway. If Drag Race is the radio, then your local gay bar is the indie scene.

Why Lip-Syncing?

Although RuPaul’s Drag Race puts the queens through their paces with acting and improv challenges, the heart and spirit of drag are in the lip-sync. By lip-syncing, we are referring to a style of performance where a drag artist mouths, but does not sing, the words to another artist’s song in order to create the illusion that they are the one actually creating the music.

Lip-syncing is a way for drag performers to show the feelings they would have expressed, in the voice of artists who could express, their desires, sadness, joys, and fears.

Think of it as a metaphor for queer identity. Gay and queer people of all kinds were not allowed to exist openly in public for eons. Lip-syncing is a way for drag performers to show the feelings they would have expressed, in the voice of artists who could express, their desires, sadness, joys, and fears. It is both an honor and a send-up of the artists who inspired queer people, but also a comment on the ways that LGBTQ+ people for so long did not have their own voices.

Nowadays, lip-syncing is more than just lip-syncing. Many queens create complex audio narratives referred to as “mixes” that splice in audio samples from multiple songs or videos to tell a complicated story. Sasha Velour, an experimental multimedia artist and Drag Race champion, is one of many pioneering the use of video projections during lip-syncs to create densely artistic and sometimes magical illusions. The art of the “reveal,” in which one clothing item or accessory is removed to reveal another, is now being explored in lip-syncs as well.

More postmodern drag performers are now pushing the boundaries of the lip-sync. Brooklyn artist Emi Grate famously reinterpreted John Cage’s silent music piece “4’33”” as a drag number, during which she stood still and did nothing at all. Fellow Brooklyn performer Brenda uses voiceover to intellectually dissect and criticize her own performances during her performance.

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"Everything will be ok in the end. If its not ok, it's not the end." . I wanted to share this quote with everyone during these hard times. It's attributed to John Lennon, but I've also seen it quoted as an Indian proverb. I gravitated toward this a lot during my teenage years when I was still struggling with my sexuality and gender identity. And the quote or proverb actually resonates with some Eastern religions. There are cycles upon cycles of reincarnations with countless trials and errors, and your spiritual end goal is some type of ascent toward peace, serenity, etc. You keep going till you get it right. Bad times and hardships will pass, and wrongs will be made right–as long as we learn from our past mistakes and actively work on things, of course. I believe in you. I believe in me. I believe in us. Everything will be ok in the end. Stay strong! . Lace jumpsuit from @nancy_the_girl Stoning and headband by me . Photo taken in the photobooth at @dromedary_bar during GET YOUR PANTIES IN A BRUNCH

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But never-mind the heady stuff — the truth of the matter is that although most drag performers lip-sync, not all of them do, and that’s OK, too. Since drag is a form of expression, some do drag through modeling, some are rappers, some are singers, some are social media stars.

Alter-Egos

What we’ve noticed is confusing for newbies to drag is that (unlike pro wrestling), drag performers do not always play an entirely different or consistent persona with their drag character. Although there are a handful of drag artists that have created entirely different alter-egos (Coco Peru and CHRISTEENE come to mind), many use each individual lip-sync number as an exploration of a different character.

Being in drag is like a superhero wearing a costume. It is a curated look created to exude power.

Other drag performers tend to think of their drag personas as just themselves — but turned up to 11. That means there isn’t the sort of same taboo of talking about their out-of-drag characters as there is in wrestling, but you should also be careful before being too invasive and asking for too much information outside the purview of the performance. More on that in tips and etiquette later.

Because drag is about exaggeration and gender, costuming is inherently important to the art. Many drag artists make their own outfits from scratch — most at least know how to sew — while others work closely with designers to create impressive and over-the-top looks. The goal is not to look like a “real” person, per se. Being in drag is like a superhero wearing a costume. It is a curated look created to exude power. What you’re seeing when you watch at a drag performer is likely upwards of 25-plus hours of work in each look, from design to construction to makeup.

The Politics

Art and politics are implicitly related. Because drag is an art form, it’s not surprising that drag artists find themselves at the forefront of a handful of political struggles and debates.

One of the central issues in drag is workers’ rights. Drag artists are often paid cash by local bars and venues — essentially working under the table and without any legal protections — meaning they frequently lack health care and are victims of all kinds of exploitation. Drag artists, other than those who appear on TV, frequently bemoan insultingly low pay considering how much work goes into the art. And given the recent explosion in the number of drag performers currently working, brought about by the popularity of Drag Race and changing cultural norms around gender, drag artists who speak up about mistreatment often find themselves replaced by younger, more eager talent. There, so far, has not been a concerted effort at unionizing, perhaps because the popularity of drag is so new that no one has tried it, and perhaps because of the cutthroat competition in local scenes for space and money.

New York City Drag March 2019
The New York City Drag March kicks off NYC Pride weekend, which commemorates the 1969 Stonewall riots.

Drag is still not safe to perform, and that is meant quite literally. Drag essentially magnetizes hate crimes, and drag performers regularly face physical violence as a result of being in drag. Drag performers who dare to associate with children in library-sponsored programs that promote tolerance and acceptance have lately become targets of rhetorical and literal attacks.

Under-discussed in the community is the systematic disenfranchisement of transgender drag performers — an especially cruel irony since it has historically been transgender drag artists who have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ liberation movements. For example, despite claiming that “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag,” RuPaul has stated that although she has had a handful of transgender women competing on Drag Race, she mostly isn’t interested in having them on the show. Mama Ru’s impact trickles down to local scenes, where trans performers frequently find themselves overlooked and underpaid. Cisgender women and some non-binary performers who do drag — as queens or kings or something else entirely — have never been cast on Drag Race either, and also frequently attempt to call attention to the ways their efforts are ignored in the community. (Ru has never featured a drag king on Drag Race.)

If you’re following this logic, it shouldn’t be surprising that non-white queens also face considerable discrimination in the drag scene. Even at the top level, people of color often face disproportionate harassment from drag fans and are often the victims of overt racism from both venues and other performers. Again, this flies in the face of history: POC were at the forefront of the fights for gay rights and — specifically through the ballroom scene — invented many (if not most) of the tropes and language of contemporary drag as we know it today. To what extent are white performers appropriating POC culture with their drag? It’s a huge debate.

Art and politics are implicitly related. Because drag is an art form, it’s not surprising that drag artists find themselves at the forefront of a handful of political struggles and debates.

On the subject of appropriation, there’s a strain of radical culture that finds the entire art form of drag to be a kind of gender minstrelsy: many radical feminists believe that drag is an insult to women, and many trans people believe that drag is inherently transphobic (in that, in their understanding, it mocks people who exhibit traits of another gender). These arguments continue to play out on the scene.

One of the saddest aspects of drag culture is that we lack an adequate history of it due to the decimation of the LGBTQ+ community during the AIDS crisis. HIV/AIDS remains a huge crisis despite improvements in treatment and awareness. Drag performers have and continue to be the major change-makers when it comes to activism around this. The same goes for LGBTQ+ homelessness, a prevalent problem that continues to plague the community due to family rejection.

Lastly, as drag becomes more popular among heterosexuals, a huge existential question faced by drag performers is whether or not drag will remain an inherently queer art form. How much integrity do drag performers compromise when they attempt to court straight audiences? It’s a bigger question faced by the LGBTQ+ community: How “normal” can gay and queer people become before they lose what makes them unique?

Where to Get Started

If you want to start with the most basic version of drag, despite the aforementioned issues, Drag Race remains a pretty good jumping-off point. It’s a very entertaining show, and the queens that do make it on are immensely talented. Ru smartly brings in heterosexual guest judges to make sure straight audiences don’t feel too alienated, and their questions and perplexities help clue in less fluent viewers. Drag Race season 12 currently airs on VH1 at 8 p.m. ET on Fridays.

If you’re looking for something slightly edgier, Drag Race Thailand is an interesting peek at drag overseas and the level of competition is probably higher than that of the show that spawned it. DRT is currently available on Wow Presents Plus.

Dragula, the aforementioned horror drag contest, is the most diverse of the TV competition shows, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Rather than lip-syncing to determine who gets eliminated, the competitors are forced to undergo literal physical torture that is often pretty stomach-churning. That being said, the makeup and outfits are far more clever than what’s often shown on Drag RaceDragula is currently streaming on Netflix.

One of the very few positives of the current global pandemic is that drag now exists digitally, so you don’t even have to leave the house to see some of the best performers in the world. Dragula champion Biqtch Puddin curates an incredible and deeply strange mix of video drag performances on her Twitch channel every Friday starting at 10 p.m. ET. (There is a suggested $10 donation that is split equally between all performers.)

Once bars are back open and you feel ready to graduate to the real drag scene, pretty much any local gay bar will have shows almost any night of the week. Remember, drag starts late (an old tradition stemming from the days where drag was illegal) so don’t expect this to be dinner theater! You’ll be lucky if the performers even show up before 11 p.m.

On that note, how does one behave at the shows?

Basic Drag Etiquette

There’s no real way to spin this: Rules for drag shows are slightly different if you’re straight. If that’s you, remember: You’re about to go into a queer space, and you should act like a guest in someone else’s house. Don’t take up too much space, don’t get in anyone’s way, and definitely don’t start making out with your hetero partner before, during, or after the show.

The most important rule that applies to everyone is: tipping is mandatory. Much like eating at a restaurant, drag performers are wildly underpaid and likely survive from month to month on tips alone. Even if you paid a cover, and even if that cover price was pretty high, you must tip. Tip buckets are usually placed in front of the stage and most performers do a walk-around during or after their number to collect from the audience if you don’t want to get up. That means you should be prepared with dollar bills. If you’re not, you can offer to buy the performers a drink or ask for their Venmo or Paypal info.

Basic Drag Etiquette

    Be respectful
    Tipping is mandatory
    Don’t touch performers without consent
    Don’t get on stage
    Have fun

Another rule that is pretty universal: Don’t ever touch the performers without consent. In fact, don’t ever touch anyone without consent. Some performances will be sexually provocative but that does not count as an invitation to be groped or grabbed. A performer will let you know when they want to be touched. Trust us, they’re not shy about it. But just assume they don’t.

With that in mind, be prepared for provocative material. You’re going to see expressions of sexuality you probably aren’t used to. If you have particularly delicate sensibilities around matters of sex and gender, then perhaps drag isn’t for you — and that’s OK. But don’t expect clean fun. It’s likely to be lascivious, there could be nudity, it might be violent or emotional, and there may or may not be warnings. Brace yourself.

Don’t get on the stage and try to join in. Would you try and tell jokes during someone’s comedy set? This is like that.

Drag performers can create entire careers out of social media followings, so if you like a performer, make sure you get their social info and tag them everywhere you can. They’ll definitely thank you later.

Drag does require some audience participation, so hooting and hollering during a number are all well and good but read the room. If it’s completely silent during a serious performance, maybe just stay quiet. If you’re going to chat the whole show, maybe move it outside or to the bar.

Many drag performers pride themselves on the artistry of the illusion they create while other performers aren’t really trying to create an illusion at all, so don’t go around asking if someone is “really” a woman or a man beneath all that. First of all, it’s none of your business. Second of all, it’s part of the show that you don’t actually know. A performance is not to be judged by how well the performer convinced you they are something they are not. Similarly, don’t assume someone’s pronouns. Best to stick with “they/them” unless instructed otherwise.

Don’t expect what you see in person to resemble what you saw on Drag Race. As noted before, Drag Race is a very narrow-minded show compared to what’s out there in the real world, so if you find yourself comparing local performers to RuGirls, you’ve probably got the wrong idea.

And lastly: have fun! Drag has, more than anything, been a source of joy and emancipation for the queer community, and it can be for you too if you let it.

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