Sex and gender are two distinct concepts. The first indicates a person’s biological characteristics while the latter is either a socially-constructed list of how a person of a certain sex should behave, communicate, etc., or what a person identifies with.
Drag — the art form — has evolved to celebrate a multiplicity of sex and gender expressions.
As an homage to Pride month, I was delighted to interview Seattle-Tacoma based drag artists Cade [@mister.cade] and Johnny [@anita_spritzer] to understand what drag entails and how it enriches the society we live in.
Jay: How would you define drag? In your view, what are the essential elements that make up a drag performance or persona?
Anita: It is an expression of femininity and masculinity and many other forms of gender expression through the lens of performance and entertainment. There are a lot of origin stories of the term “drag.” While there’s a lot in existence, nobody’s sure where that term came from. It was used in British theatre as a slang, in the 19th century, for men dressing up and performing as women as their dresses dragged across the stage. There are forms of drag that have dated back to the Chinese dynasties. Ever since, there’s been an extreme evolution of the art form and it’s made its way into a lot of cultures and societal scenes — the undercover clubs of the 80s, ballroom scenes — and continued into theatre, film, modern-day TV shows, and drag clubs.
Essential elements are for the performer to come up with. I don’t think there’s a set number of essential elements, and that’s the beauty of this crazy art form. It doesn’t have to be one thing because the world we live in isn’t just one thing.
Jay: Can you tell my readers a little about who you are, and also your journey to becoming a drag artist?
Cade: In terms of making my way into drag and starting in it, it’s worth emphasizing that I’m infantile in this world because people grow in it the entire time they’re doing it. But for me, it was when the mass layoffs happened at Amazon and I was left wondering what was next for me … I just wanted to do something as opposite to corporate desk work as I could possibly imagine and I had consumed drag in the media for so many years and loved it. The TV shows we watch about drag are like our gay Super Bowl, and people call it that all the time, but I was like, you know what, why not? I was already friends with many drag queens, and there was no shortage of information, so I dove right in. My drag mom, Ursula Major, is an established name and has been part of the drag scene in Seattle for quite some time. She was my initial guide into this world. She put me in makeup for the first time and made my first custom outfit.
Anita: I grew up doing theatre and being part of singing ensembles, choirs. I’m an opera singer … so performing in front of people was never foreign to me. My first drag performance happened when I was practicing makeup and putting on a little shimmery dress and going to watch my friend perform in her show, and the show director came up to me asked if I had a number ready. And I was like, sure I can do a number because I love performing and that’s my safe space. Ever since then, I couldn’t look back and so that’s where it started.
I began very green as far as the art form itself, the makeup the hair, the costumes…I knew the basics of makeup from being in the theatre. However, theatre makeup on Johnny is very different than the 25 pounds of drag makeup on Anita. So, that was definitely a skill that I had to learn, but I learnt it from watching my friends, watching YouTube and RuPaul’s “Drag Race” and movies like “To Wong Foo.” In the beginning, I got my costumes off the rack and accentuated them. And even though I was very comfortable performing, I had to learn how to walk in heels, perform with a corset on, perform with layers and layers of tights and padding in hot clubs. There was so much I had to learn despite having an extensive performance background. And like Cade said, we are constantly learning, no matter what stage of the game you’re at — a couple of months in or seven years in. If you stop learning, the joy kind of goes away.
Jay: What are your drag names and the stories behind them?
Cade: There’re so many ways to go about choosing a drag name. Drag names that are deeply meaningful to the performer, names that are silly and funny, those that accentuate a certain aspect or quality of performer, family names. Like, in the south, there’re the Davenports and O’Haras — people that are or aren’t part of these large drag families adopt these names. I wanted one with an androgynous play on gender. This is why I like having mister even though I do quite high femme drag and dress in an accentuated womanly manner. Plus, I noticed the name got reactions in a funny way because when people who aren’t aware of me hear “Mister Cade,” they expect a drag king to come out on stage, but I walk out in a Marilyn Monroe wig and tiny corset. I like that confused reaction.
Anita: My drag name is definitely different than my day-to-day self. I’m a big, burly, Italian man, and I wanted something that played into the comedy aspect of things because I love the comedic side of drag. I wanted something light, bubbly, funny, timeless, and I wanted it to be a little bit of a pun. I kind of wanted people to be like “Anita Spritzer” — this is going to be fun! And then going out there and delivering that is what I love most about it. And who doesn’t love a spritzer? It’s refreshing and delicious.
Jay: Drag has often been described as a transgressive art form in a world of binaries/heteronormativity. Do you view drag as a political act? In what ways does drag challenge societal norms and advocate for marginalized communities?
Cade: Even people that don’t view their drag through an activism lens are engaging in an inherently political act. As white, cis male performers, we have a responsibility to be politically involved as it pertains to Black and brown and trans performers in the drag community. Because at the end of the day, we get to take our drag off and exist in a privileged manner in the world. But not all performers have that privilege or that the ability to move quite easily through the world. It’s safer for us to be politically active in a vocal manner than it is for other communities. In our own way, we have it easy, and so it’s up to us to help amplify their voices where possible.
Anita: Drag is political and always has been. Pride has always been political. It’s been a way of standing up against oppression and the societal norms that are pushed upon us. Yes, it’s a lot of wigs and glitter and colorful costumes and things like that. But underneath and beyond all of that, it is very political. You will find more views on this from POC (people of color) performers and trans performers. Speaking from the perspective of a cis white male performer, we have a responsibility within the community to listen actively to people within our community, our trans brothers and sisters, our friends of people of color. I don’t necessarily feel I have the knowledge to be the voice for everyone, but I can do what I can. And through that we give back through organizations within the community. We can do better and more.
Jay: Drag often involves a transformation of one’s identity during performance. How does this process of changing identities/personas affect your understanding of yourself on a personal level?
Anita: I’m a very body conscious person out of drag. I deal with anxiety, body and self-esteem issues. I have been married for ten years, but before that when I was in the scene as a single gay boy, I didn’t feel accepted and it takes a toll on you. When I began my drag career, I viewed it as a way to cover that up by putting on a costume and being a different person so I didn’t have to feel those things. But it was not the right way to go about it. It seemed like when I was dressing up, people weren’t viewing me as Johnny but as this performer. And I was like, well they actually don’t see me, they’re seeing Anita and that’s kind of shitty. But I soon realized that Anita is still me! A sidebar is that I don’t change my voice as Anita. There may be a little bit of change in mannerisms, but mostly, the one thing that people will notice even if they don’t recognize me as Johnny is my voice. This last pride, I wore outfits that I was shocked that I was comfortable wearing because they showed my arms and my shoulders where normally I’m buttoned up to my neck. So, Anita has definitely taught me a lot about myself and I’m still working through a lot of those issues, but it’s taught me to be confident.
Cade: I occupy a very similar space as Anita in terms of how drag has made me feel about my body. Toxic masculinity, as it pertains to male bodies, in the gay community is so rampant because there’s this expectation of buff, muscular, six-pack-ab gays which is desirable. I put so much effort into looking a certain way as a boy, and never been quite satisfied or felt like I’m what people actually want. But when I started drag, I saw myself be celebrated for what I am right now and I liked it instantaneously. I realized that I don’t need to care about other people’s perception of how my body looks as a boy because it doesn’t matter. If I’m happy with it, then that’s truly all that matters. And I didn’t come to that until drag. So that was a huge shift for me and it gave me a much better relationship with my body as a whole, which I think a lot of gay men struggle with in particular. And then, I’ve also become way more in touch with my feminine side.
Jay: Knowing how 400+ anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the U.S., in 2023 itself, do you have any message for the American youth?
Anita: As it pertains to the youth and the LGBTQIA + youth, there are a lot of young people that don’t feel like they are enough. But know that life is hard and all of this stuff is hard, but without you here, it is going to be a lot harder.
Cade: The LGBTQIA community embraces the concept of chosen family very deeply in that even if your blood family isn’t accepting and supporting you in the way that you need, the drag community more than likely will, and you can find your chosen family amongst us. That’s where the concept of drag children comes from—taking in people that have been abandoned by their families. And I think that’s an important thing for queer, in the closet or not, youth to know that queer spaces, especially spaces that have drag, are accepting, loving and supportive.
Dr. Jayendrina “Jay” Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland, Washington.