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Here’s everything you need to know about the history and meaning of drag

RuPaul and Trixie Mattel during the finale of "RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars" season 3.RuPaul and Trixie Mattel during the finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars” season 3.

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  • Drag culture has centuries of history behind it, from Ancient Greece to the Harlem Renaissance.
  • LGBT historians and experts explained the origins of drag to Insider.
  • Here’s a guide to drag culture in the US and how what it means today.

An art form. A political statement. A source of entertainment. A communal activity.

Drag has many functions and a rich history that goes back centuries. But what is it, exactly, and what isn’t it? Insider spoke to historians to find out everything you need to know.

What is drag?

Drag is the act of highlighting and emphasizing various feminine and masculine features, and it provides an avenue through which people can both subvert and celebrate gender expressions. 

Drag often gets conflated with cross-dressing, but the two are not synonymous, said Melanie Walsh, a psychology professor at the University of New Haven. Drag emphasizes community and celebration, while cross-dressing is generally a more solitary activity.

“What separates the two is the performative element,” Walsh said. Cross-dressing “is not part of that collective community.”

The popular Robin Williams movie Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, in which the actor pretends to be a woman housekeeper to spend more time around his kids, does not constitute drag, said humanities professor Harris Kornstein with the University of Arizona. 

Drag is not simply a man putting on a dress, and that’s a “simplistic definition of drag that’s really focused on the cross-gendered elements,” he said.

Oftentimes, there are elements of humor, camp, and over-the-top aesthetics incorporated into drag performances, Korstein said.

“It really pokes fun at what we think is normal and offers some sort of commentary on culture,” he said.

Robin Williams dressed as Mrs DoubtfireRobin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

20th Century

Where does drag come from? 

Experts believe drag evolved from theater. In Ancient Greece and during Shakespearean times, for example, men used to play women’s parts because women weren’t allowed to, Walsh said. 

But the way we understand drag today is vastly different. 

In American society, drag is oftentimes understood as something transgressive, according to Christopher Mitchell, a gender studies professor at CUNY Hunter College. And since the 20th century, it’s an activity that’s become closely associated with gay culture.

The first person to use drag in this context was William Dorsey Swann, an LGBT activist who’s widely known as the Queen of Drag, Mitchell said. 

Swann was born in the 1850s and started what’s commonly described as the first drag house or drag family, in which he hosted drag balls with his friends. That goal, Mitchell said, seemed to be to create community.

Drag as we know it today really surfaced during the late 1800s in the lead-up to the Harlem Renaissance, Walsh told Insider. 

New York City at the turn of the century was a sociopolitical hub with a booming economy, and gender roles for Black people were particularly stringent, Walsh said. This led to the rise of a drag ball culture. 

The balls were underground because they were largely illegal, Walsh said. 

Who gets to do drag? 

The common misconception about drag is that only cis gay men do it, Walsh said. But anyone can do drag. 

When men do drag, they’re called drag queens. And when women do it, they’re drag kings. But in drag, cis men don’t have to present as women, and cis women don’t have to present as men. And trans people can certainly do drag as well. 

Cis people who do drag are oftentimes exploring aspects of femininity, masculinity, or androgyny, Kornstein told Insider. 

“Drag is for anyone. Drag is for everyone,” Walsh said. 

Within the drag community in the United States, however, there are disagreements about the function of drag. 

Walsh said some parts of the deep South, for example, do drag mainly for entertainment, while coastal areas like California and New York might use drag as a politicized action. There’s sometimes gatekeeping within the drag community and questions about what is appropriately drag or not, Walsh said. 

But “there is no right or wrong way to do that art, to do that expression, to do drag,” Walsh said.  

It’s also no longer a western concept, thanks in part to the global popularization of drag through mainstream shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race

“Drag is performed in pretty much every corner of the world,” Kornstein said.

What is the connection between drag and politics?

Drag has also always been political, Walsh said. It’s always been a legal issue that the state has tried to sanction, she said. 

Leading up to the middle of the 20th century, drag was “almost an acceptable form of entertainment,” Mitchell told Insider. Photos from the 50s in New York City show straight couples attending and enjoying drag performances, he said. 

But as drag became more closely associated with LGBT culture, it was stigmatized, according to Mitchell. 

That stigmatization continues today and is reflected, in part, by the increasing number of bills attempting to suppress it.

Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, told Insider that there’s been an “explosion” of legislation targeting drag performances all over the country in the last year. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were laws that targeted people who wore clothing that wasn’t consistent with their sex assigned at birth. This new wave of legislation is “a modern take on that,” Warbelow said. In addition to legislation, right-wing activists are also targeting drag performances. 

Last year, members of the Proud Boys and neo-Nazi groups, for example, protested and stormed drag story hours at local libraries and churches

Drag Queen Story HourIn this September 8, 2018, file photo, a drag performer by the name of Champagne Monroe reads the children’s book “Rainbow Fish” to a group of kids and parents at the Mobile Public Library in Mobile, Alabama.

AP Photo/Dan Anderson

There have been instances of powerful cis men mocking drag culture as well. 

Former New York City Rudy Giuliani dressed up as a woman in 2000 at an event with former President Donald Trump. The scene, which was intended to be a comedy skit, ended with Trump motorboating Giuliani after calling him beautiful.

“If we look at those instances of these cis white men who have done that, engaged in that, it’s always to make a joke,” Walsh said. Their intention, Walsh said, is to devalue the idea of femininity. 

But at the end of the day, Giuliani wasn’t actually participating in drag culture, Walsh said. 

“One is a celebration of embracing gender differences, and the other is to put down one gender under the other,” she said. 

What’s the future of drag?

Despite the threats, drag culture continues to grow. There’s been a lot of grassroots-level organization around drag recently, Walsh said, partly in response to the uptick in violence against drag culture. 

Drag has become mainstream and accessible through technological advances like the internet, Walsh pointed out. 

Warbelow said drag culture can keep proliferating through the support of politicians. Conservative legislators need to “stop demonizing a group of people simply because they don’t understand or don’t want to understand that community,” she said. 

The way to fight these threats?

“The answer is more drag, baby,” Harris said. 

Read the original article on Business Insider