Early gay liberationists in the US and Canada intentionally modeled the emergent “gay community” of the 1970s after ethnic communities. However, unlike a racial, ethnic or religious community, queers do not give birth to the next generation. For the most part, we are raised by straight people, people who are not members of the queer subculture. So, whereas ethnic communities can use kinship networks and biological lineage to pass down cultural memory and tradition, queers don’t learn about their culture from the people that raise them. Queers have instead sought out “chosen families” and other social networks that can replace or supplement biolegal families of origin to provide support, guidance and provide a link to their shared past. One of the most enduring ways queers have accessed history across generations has been and continues to be drag.
Queer historian George Chauncey notes that as early as the 1920s, participation in the drag balls was analogous to participating in cultural celebrations: “[t]he Theatre of the drag balls” functions “much as ethnic parades and festivals helped establish the solidarity of the ethnic community by bringing people together and constructing a sense of common culture” (Gay New York 297). Participating in drag culture, whether on the vaudeville circuit, a nightclub stage or by walking a ball, required specific artistic skills and knowledge about a formal system of organization and conduct, it became necessary for young queers to seek out guidance and training about how to participate in this world. At the same time, for the majority of queer youth for most of the twentieth century, and for many still today, to come out as queer means to cut ties with one’s birth family. This is particularly true for drag queens and trans individuals who, historically, have come from the most marginalized subcultures of the gay community. As Chauncey, Senelick and Susan Stryker each note, prior to Stonewall, the public image of homosexuality (including drag) was represented predominantly by racialized and/or working class queers. A middle or upper class queer could afford to express any gender variant desires in private spaces. On the one hand, it’s important to note that drag queens were among the most marginalized groups within queer culture. Another way to look at this, however, is that queers who had lost everything were the most likely to defy middle class normative values and openly express their queer gender identities. Thus drag mothers emerge in a community that is especially vulnerable to isolation.
What’s surprising is how readily queer subcultures like the drag community adopted a familial model given the problematic relationship to the family that queer identity faced in the first decade of gay liberation. Early gay liberationists rejected the “nuclear family” as an inherently oppressive institution. An article from a 1969 issue of The Rat, an early gay liberation publication wrote: “We expose the institution of marriage, as one of the most insidious and basic sustainers [sic] of the system,’ proclaiming the Gay Liberation Front in 1969 (7 quoted in Stacey 1912).
In her queer ethnography, The Families We Choose, Kath Weston also notes that “It is but a short step from positioning lesbians and gay men somewhere beyond ‘the family’ […] to portray them as a menace to family and society. A person or group must first be outside and other in order to invade, endanger, and threaten” (23). Anti-gay organizations and legislation have capitalized on this idea that queers, just by existing, endanger families with slogans and titles like “saving the family” or “protecting children”. Public displays of affection or visible queerness are often objected to under the proviso that “this is a family place”.
What makes drag families distinct from other queer chosen families is drag’s status as an art form. Drag not only requires a hard set of skills: make up, costuming, dance, a distinct style of humor, but is also frequently predicated on nostalgia and a particular set of queer codes imbedded in mainstream culture from Liza Minelli to Pink Flamingos to Mommy Dearest, the drag cannon cannot be found in your local library. And even if it was, the queer appeal of mainstream film and music is not always apparent. Finally, despite the prizing of freedom of expressions drag, whether in a ball, a bar stage or a pageant, requires knowledge of infrastructure and a literacy with the cultural or professional practices involved in its performance practice. Drag mothers thus comprise an important range of skills, both practical and cultural.
In the last decade drag has undergone a dramatic renaissance, largely predicated on increase of access and media representation. Arguably, this was initiated by Hollywood’s interest in the Drag Queen with films like Paris is Burning, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and The Birdcage, drag’s mainstream exposure has peaked in recent years with the explosive popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, leading to a “baby boom” of both aspiring drag queens and audiences. Simultaneously, the internet, specifically youtube, has emerged with millions of online tutorials, bringing coveted trade secrets into the homes of these aspiring queens.
With this massive influx of visibility and accessible training, it might seem as if the drag mother might soon be a thing of the past. Yet resent research I’ve conducted in Toronto, Halifax and Vancouver suggests that this new generation of queens are not slowing down in their desire for a mentor they can call mother. Even young queens, like Toronto’s Lucy Flawless, who studied at home for years under the tutelage of YouTube, seeked out drag mothers. Part of this, as Flawless explains, pertains to the desire to break into the highly competitive network of professional stage bookings in a big city like Toronto. Never the less, there seems to be just as much hunger for that familial relationship, based not only on professional mentoring but also a desire to continue the tradition of the chosen family within a tight knit queer community. Part of this, I argue, comes from the fact that the drag mother, as a cultural symbol, has become intrinsic within drag culture. Even with the mainstream appeal afforded by RuPaul and her army of drag superstars, drag is a hard professional road. It is expensive, competitive and remains stigmatized by both straight and wider gay culture alike. It is possible that the connection to a chosen family, optimized by the drag mother, is one of the factors that draws young artists to this queer performance tradition.
Cameron Crookston is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies and the Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. His researh looks at drag and queer cultural memory