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3 February 2011, 3:00 pm One Comment

History: En Travesti

Submission by Megan Beard, TNG contributor

Drag Kings are far from a new thing. There has long been a tradition in opera and theatre of women performing in male attire in “breeches rolls” or “en travesti.” This was explored in the novel Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters in which two “mashers” (essentially Victorian English slang for drag kings) fall in love on the vaudeville stage. American performers like Gladys Bentley and Annie Hindle, not to mention British mashers Etta Shields and Hetty King, were working the stage at the turn of the century. Kings have long been integral to the queer community: drag king Stormé DeLarverie was an integral part in the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

For what seemed an extended period of time, Drag King Culture laid dormant, then came back like a pelvic thrust around the same time as the neo-Burlesque movement of the early 00’s began to kick into gear. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a boy’s only pretty princess party, but one that got girls dressing like boys into the clubhouse.

Belgian performance artist/actor, Jessica Batut, describes her lifelong interest in gender subversion beginning when she was five-years-old when the boys wouldn’t let her play with them because she was wearing a dress, “I wanted to be dressed as a boy. I put on pants and then didn’t put on a dress again until ten years later. For me, dressing as a boy felt natural, and when I was playing, I did this unconscious male performance which started then. I’ve never really felt more girl or boy, just more like an alien,” she smiles.

She first met her alter ego “Bobby”, when she offered to play the part of a raunchy bus driver in a film by Queer Underground film-maker, Emilie Jouvet for her film Too Much Pussy, “They needed a bus driver character, and that was the beginning of Bobby. Bobby lets me express freely this crude, masculine side in me. He burps, is hairy, talks about women. He also is there for me to make fun of clichés. He is a “typical” Belgian guy who drinks Jupiler beer (whose slogan is “Men Know Why”) and yells at women from his car.  For me, performing as Bobby opens doors for my masculinity to express itself. It’s like a game, but it’s also vital to who I am.”

Kansas City visual artist, Martha Goldman, aka “Johnny Deeper” says she first got into it because, “Part of it was the girls who were doing the drag king thing weren’t getting into it that much, most were just strapping down their boobs and putting on a mustache, but they would be wearing the same stuff they wore anyway. It was disappointing because I would look at the drag queens and the work they put into their performance:  tucking and taping, false eyelashes, putting together elaborate outfits. Most drag queens don’t get up on the stage in their everyday street clothes. I’ve always been a clothes horse anyway and have always loved dressing up and wearing costumes. For me, it was this great opportunity to play dress-up.  I’m very attracted to the idea of costumes, show girls, vaudevillians. I love the concept of putting on a costume and becoming someone else. I was just like, ‘Yes! Let’s play dress up!” I dived into the transformation process:  the mustache, designing the costume, and I ended up making a fake dick out of a black condom stuffed with Polyfill which is basically what you use to fill stuffed animals with.

I always thought I would have made a fabulous gay man. Why not take on that persona for a night? Johnny is a sexy, slightly effeminate, rough trade sort of guy. I loved putting on this different identity and walking in someone else’s shoes. It gets boring to be the same old person, so to be opposite to who you usually are – someone of a different gender especially — is a profound experience. Everyone has different male/female qualities, and I think it’s important to explore that within yourself, to experience the feeling of being the opposite gender.  I think we all have this curiosity within us. This sense of make believe allows you to explore certain aspects of your identity that you maybe didn’t even know were there to begin with. It’s very empowering. “

While creativity abounds in the world of King Culture, it also has spurned its own sets of limitations and barriers.

Remarking on the standard king performances she’s seen, Jessica has noticed that, “It seems that many standard drag king shows tend to work within the normal heterosexual framework – there always seems to be this king up on stage seducing a very feminine girl. It’s frustrating because it seems like they’re just copying heterosexual relationships!”

Martha experienced different barriers when getting up on stage in Kansas City, “I got a very positive response from the drag queens, my friends and my family! For them, it was like coming to a school play to see their little girl. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good response from the other drag kings. I don’t know what it was. Perhaps they felt encroached upon, which I didn’t mean to do. I got this impression like, “Who’s this straight girl coming in here and being a drag king?” I don’t think that my sexuality should exclude me from being able to play with gender, but it seemed like some people thought differently. “

Both women have their own ways of mixing things up a bit. Jessica tries to avoid the normative barriers by manipulating the clichés. “I start off with a very butch character and then I begin to play with his persona. I change my voice, it becomes softer. I start changing the pronoun I use when speaking of myself from “he” to “she”. I start from a recognizable image, known territory of this crude guy, and then I go on from there. I get very into it, my gestures (when I am Bobby) are quite masculine and natural and it sometimes shocks the audience when they hear my voice change. Sometimes people in the audience can’t get past the fact that I’m not a real man because I have hair on my legs! Of all the things to focus on, they focus on the hair on my legs?!”

Martha has since hung up the false cock and soul patch to continue work on her visual art, ”I think it’s important to see what it’s like when you dive into this completely different persona, you learn so much about yourself and your own wants and desires,” she says, reflecting on her experience. Jessica still performs as Bobby while in addition to this she also writes, performs Faux Femme drag, as well as acts in film, theatre and sex performance.  “I feel like I know myself better, “Jessica explains. “Bobby is very truthful, and playing this character brings me back to my childhood when I first took on these masculine attributes. It’s me, that childhood play-acting didn’t die. Performing brings me back to that truth and makes me more aware of my own human needs.”

Gender and sexuality does not remain static, despite the prevailing notions that they should. Manipulating and expressing the realm of the human experience is not the domain of any one specific group, no matter how much claim is laid. The drag king tradition is continuously evolving in all different directions while maintaining a platform for personal expression. It is up to the king or queen to make the stage a realm of exploration and discovery, and it is up to the backstage community to keep their doors open.

©Jessica Batut

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