Thanks to the now mainstream “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” drag is now in the center of the media’s attention. Filled with fabulous outfits, one-liners, comedy and lip-sync battles, there is no doubt that we are talking about a pop-culture phenomenon. However, drag has always been more than just performing. From Marsha P. Johnson to Bob the Drag Queen, the politicized and activist side of drag performance and its part of the liberation of the LGBTQ+ community rarely gets the appreciation it deserves.
One of the pivotal moments of resistance of LGBTQ+ people against their constant dehumanization were undeniably the Stonewall riots, named after the Stonewall Inn in New York, which was constantly targeted by police. Police raids were a usual phenomenon in gay bars at the time. Not only gay establishments were not allowed and same-sex relationships were illegal in New York, but the law required that each person was to wear at least three items of clothing relating to their gender assigned at birth.
However, the first night of the Stonewall Riots June 28th, 1969, things didn’t go as planned. The unrest started when the male customers who were dressed in traditionally feminine clothes refused to follow the standard procedure of a raid in gay bars, which included the police checking their identification and female police officers taking male customers dressed feminine to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men who weren’t dressed according to their gender would be arrested.
The people weren’t taking this degrading and discriminatory behavior anymore. Enraged customers who were forcibly moved outside of the building, were fighting with whatever they could find. Pennies, then beer bottles, garbage cans, bricks, and rocks were thrown at the police wagon as a rumor spread through the crowd that patrons still inside the bar were being beaten.
“You could feel the electricity going through people. You could actually feel it. People were getting really, really pissed.” -Sylvia Rivera, trans-woman, activist and self-proclaimed street queen
What followed that night was a turning point for gay visibility and rights. There was extensive media coverage the very next day from mainstream newspapers like The New York Times the New York Post and on the cover of the Daily News. The following night, not only many of the same people returned from the previous evening, but what was the most groundbreaking, was the sudden exhibition of homosexual affection in public.
“From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets.”
Within two years of the Stonewall riots, there were gay rights groups in every major American city, as well as Canada, Australia, and Western Europe.
Sadly, the more vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community who couldn’t “conceal” their identity in their everyday life like white gay cisgender men could be still pushed aside not only by the general society but by their own communities.
Marsha P. Johnson, for many, the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement was an iconic figure with a tragic end. During a time that not only she and people like her endured unimaginable oppression by society, but the majority of the gay community did not want to be associated with drag queens or gender non-conforming people in general. Despite all the hardships, she refused to be slowed down. Her remarkable activism and contribution to forming the Street Transvestites Actual Revolutionaries (STAR) which campaigned for transgender rights, and gave shelter to trans youth who were abandoned by their families, created the foundation for LGBTQ+ activism, institutes and help centers across the US.
Sylvia Rivera endured similar treatment. The self-proclaimed drag queen and trans-woman found acceptance in neither the gay community nor the women’s liberation movement. Even though she was one of the first to revolt against the police in the Stonewall riots, when she took the stage at the Pride rally in Washington Square Park in 1973 “she was met with a chorus of boos.” Despite the attempts to pull her off stage, she manages to make a chilling and heartbreaking speech to the attendees:
“I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail! I lost my job, I lost my apartment for gay liberation… and you all treat me this way?”
Moving on to the 21st century, Bob the Drag Queen is one of the most outspoken LGBTQ+ activists. As the “Queen of the people,” he wasn’t only an active participant and organizer of protests in New York City until same-sex marriage was legalized, but he was also arrested for it, while dressed in full drag.
As he shares with Huffington Post, “some friends of mine who were drag queens were sitting around talking about how upset we were about injustice in the queer community and then we decided to do something about it, so we formed this group to do drag queen demonstrations in times square and vowed to do them every Saturday until we had marriage equality in New York State and we did.”
In a world where men having any traditionally feminine characteristics, or performing femininity in any way is considered degrading, drag performance itself is inherently revolutionary. These phenomenal men and women are always fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and while being the loudest presences and having the most to lose, they are getting the least recognition.
As the author and activist, Riki Wilchins stated: “The gay rights movement was not founded by the gays hanging out at Fire Island. It was started by people like Sylvia Rivera – it came from low-income people of color outward.”