Image from “54 Rare Historical Photos Of Drag Queens Before It Was Safe To Be Out!” by Todd Briscoe
In the opening paragraph of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests, Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992), she references a New York Times report that in the early 20th century before WWI, pink—“a stronger, more decided color”—was the color associated with little boys, while blue, thought to be “delicate” and “dainty,” was for little girls. Since the 1940s and WWII, we have come to believe just the opposite regarding appropriate gender color choices. I point this out to emphasize that there is nothing fixed or universal about gender.
In the 1980s I heard Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981), speak in Seattle about how it was okay in the movies for Marlene Dietrich to dress in a man’s tuxedo, but it was not okay for a man to wear a dress. In our culture, there is something wrong with being a woman or being feminine, and thus it’s unacceptable for a man to give up his male privilege by putting on a dress. And this is why homosexuality is so stigmatized in America, because gay men are thought to be feminine. This was a revelation to me.
Acquaintance, the first book of my trilogy Medicine for the Blues set in the 1920s, deals with the fluidity of sexuality, calling into question the homosexual/heterosexual binary. Book 2, Chicago Blues, takes this further calling into question the male/female gender binary by including a black drag performer Erica DeChez/Eric Halsey as one of the main characters.
The Portland, Oregon, drag queen Poison Waters/Kevin Cook said in an interview, “Performing is from the time I start putting my makeup on until I take it off…So to me the term drag queen means an entertainer. So at home, I’m not in drag. At the grocery store, I’m not in drag.”
Remember too what RuPaul said: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Personally, I love beard drag, because it juxtaposes male beardedness and hairy chests with makeup and women’s clothing. It puts the contradiction right out there in the open. Beard drag is not female impersonation.
Chicago Blues goes even further. It includes Anabella, a male character who always wears a dress because she/he prefers women’s clothing. We do not know whether Anabella is a transvestite or a transsexual. The 1920s was a time when the category choice of transgender did not exist. Nor did the possibility of hormone treatments, although apparently, according to Garber, reconstructive surgical techniques were starting to be developed in the 20s. In Chicago Blues, I wanted to show that there are many gradations within the transvestite community. Garber mentions the Tiffany Club of Waltham, Massachusetts, a group of some 350 transvestites, mostly male, middle class, and 90 percent married.” Their largest contingent is computer engineers from MIT, second largest is truck drivers. (p. 3)
In Vested Interests, Garber argues that “one of the most important aspects of cross-dressing is the way in which it offers a challenge to easy notions of binarity” (p. 10). She expands the binary to include female/male, black/white, slave/master, bourgeois/noble, servant/master, Republican/Democrat, Jew/Christian, self/other, yes/no. Transvestitism, she concludes, causes not only a female/male “category crisis” but also a “crisis of category itself.”
This disruption of categories is one of my aims in writing and publishing Medicine for the Blues.
Acquaintance, Book 1 of Medicine for the Blues trilogy, is set in Prohibition era Portland, Oregon.
In Chicago Blues, Book 2, Portland jazz piano player Jimmy Harper arrives in Chicago seeking fame and fortune. You can buy the books HERE.
Web link to above photo:
originally from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vieilles_annonces/
Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests, Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992)
Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981)
Poison Waters on Youtube