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A history of drag and ball culture

Like RuPaul telling a queen to “Shantay, you stay” on an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” no doubt after she lip-synced for her life, American pop culture has pointed a manicured fingertip at drag culture and said the same.

Drag queens shantay, which means to enchant or weave a spell, and stay.

Drag culture has permeated into our everyday language. Teenagers ask for the latest “tea” from their friend group. Social media influencers are bombarded with comments saying “Queen!”

The sudden trend of contouring your nose and cheeks was born out of drag queens’ makeup routines. 

But the glamorous individuals who strut down the stage in 7-inch heels and a latex mini-dress that could be a second skin are only the latest iteration of drag culture.

The history of drag has always been rooted in entertainment and self-expression, but it did not have the association with the LGBTQ community that it does now.

The term drag originated in 1870, used in British theaters to refer to women’s floor-length dresses that the men would wear. 

While it seems odd that a society rooted in conservatism due to Queen Victoria’s rule would find it acceptable for men to dress in gowns and corsets and paint their faces, it was the norm.

In fact, men dressing as women ensured that women would be kept to where it was believed they belonged: at home. 

Those gender constructs have existed long throughout civilization. The theater performances in Ancient Greece and during the time of Shakespeare in the late 16th and early 17th centuries always featured men portraying women. 

These men were not drag queens, not yet.

In the 1880s, a form of entertainment swiftly dominated America: vaudeville.

Vaudeville invited all types of performers, including singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats and animal trainers to the stage in cities across the country to entertain the crowd in short segments. And, at one point, one of the top female impersonators was Julien Eltinge, who made his first appearance on Broadway in 1904 dressed as a female.

Eltinge was no different than his predecessors, but he brought such fame to his work that he was as recognizable as Charlie Chaplin.

He was a Hollywood superstar and a drag queen.

But he was not the first.

The first to title himself a “drag queen” was William Dorsey Swann

Swann was born in Maryland in 1860 into slavery. He was one of the main organizers of balls in Washington D.C. in the 1880s, a series of underground parties that started as early as the 1860s in Harlem where men dressed in drag and danced, posed and walked to compete against each other for a prize. 

These balls, although intended for heterosexual men, were filled with members of the LGBTQ commmunity who would could freely express themselves in a space that would not out them. 

But these balls were far from perfect. 

African Americans and Latinos faced racism by the all-white judges and were expected to wear makeup to lighten their skin in order to resemble white women.

And the balls were targets of police raids, including Swann’s.

Ball culture evolved in the 1920s due to the Harlem Renaissance, where Black culture was able to reimagine itself and flourish through art, literature and music. This widespread celebration of art fueled the night scene, including for the LGBTQ community, and balls became a place where LGTBQ members could openly be themselves while entertaining spectators.

It was then that balls had begun to intertwine with the LGBTQ community.

And by the 1980s, balls were a place of liberation and a safe haven for the drag community, a community that by then was made up of members for the LGBTQ community.

There, for one night, an individual ostracized from society, because of their sexual preference or the desire to wear a wig, could become a star. They could become someone to envy or someone that they envied, as discussed by the drag queens in “Paris is Burning,” the 1990 documentary that follows the ball community in 1980s New York.

Although drag was still a performance, each time a drag queen took to the center of the stage, they performed a story rooted in reality.

Men walked with the gait and confidence of a rich, white woman. Men could dress as a wealthy business executive, an experience unattainable for gay Black men then and sometimes now. 

For all the harassment and ridicule drag queens faced outside of the walls they performed in, they were in control in the center of the stage at the balls, and later bars and clubs.

And for a time, they are able to transform into someone else.

And they shantay.

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