Kingdom Comes

Girls who dress and act like boys, St. Louis' drag kings get up onstage to bend and blur the line between the sexes

 That's the surprise. I'm a girl. But now I'm a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.
-- Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden

"You're born naked and the rest is drag." -- RuPaul

In the photo, his short hair is slicked back and his blue eyes, narrowed, glow with insolence. He wears tight jeans and a sleeveless white T-shirt that reads, in big black letters, "CHICKS DIG ME." A lightly muscled arm is slung around the back of the chair, and his legs are apart, angled out, with one hand nestled at the crotch. There's a slight bulge there, a constant reminder of what's possible.

Amy Bautz
Luke Lonewolf, who manages the Bent Boyz troupe, tries not to smile.
Amy Bautz
Luke Lonewolf, who manages the Bent Boyz troupe, tries not to smile.

He's scrawled his autograph with a Sharpie permanent marker: Mo Faux.

Also known as Maureen.

She's sixteen, a junior in high school. Mo Faux is twice her age, born in 1969 because it's the Year of the Cock in the Chinese zodiac. Mo Faux is and is not Maureen. Spelled out, the "Faux" winks that he is a cosmopolitan fake. Said aloud, the name spits authentic don't-mess-with-me attitude.

As for "Maureen," it's a pseudonym, lest anyone have a violent reaction to what she calls, when little kids aren't around, genderfuck. She learned about drag kings last spring, and she's been working on her Mo Faux persona ever since. She even led a workshop this fall for Growing American Youth, instructing her peers in the delicate art of penis-making.

Maureen first came out as a lesbian, but now that she's questioning gender, she's questioning all categories, staying open to the possibility of any kind of relationship. She has friends who are "mostly straight but kind of bendy," "between bisexual and straight" and "between lesbian and bisexual." They all prefer the term "queer," as do their "straight allies," several of whom admit to being "drag-queen-obsessed."

Maureen likes the drag queens who are divas because "they wear high heels, but they could use 'em to kick your ass." Drag kings, she says, are an even more deliberate attempt to borrow, blend and steal traits normally assigned to the opposite sex.

She's still not sure why drag-kinging captured her imagination. She's performed in a talent show for kids her age and privately for friends. She likes the adrenaline rush, and the thrill of stepping outside the predictable.

But it goes deeper than that.

When strangers ask, she mentions the theatrical aspect or shrugs and says, "It's good money" -- not mentioning that she's too young to even get into a club, much less perform in one for cash.

All she knows is, being a drag king broke her world wide open.

Drag kings are usually -- no absolutes here -- women who costume themselves as men to entertain others with their interpretation of masculinity.

Penis envy, outsiders snort.

Yet most kings are perfectly comfortable in their female bodies. They identify as women. They're not cross-dressing for private amusement or "passing" to make a public point. They're performing.

So maybe they're just acting out what they want in a guy.

Er ... not really. Drag kings emphasize that anybody's welcome -- straight women, transsexuals, even men doing biodrag, hyping "masculine" traits.

But in point of fact, most kings are lesbians.

Ah, so they hate men.

Not at all. In fact, some older lesbians, formed by radical feminism, call drag kings traitors because they're assuming masculine roles. Kings play with old-fashioned, heterosexist stereotypes, often imitating the worst of male behavior in order to act out, with genuine sympathy, the ways American men get trapped.

Along the way, of course, the kings claim some of men's power. It's exhilarating: They can grab their crotches onstage, they can spread their legs and take up space. Freed from the need to smile and make nice, they get heard and noticed instantly.

But their real point is to emphasize, by exaggeration, society's mistakes: The "gender boxes" that insist men are one way, women another. The ridiculous extremes of what's deemed masculine. The old assumption that lesbians are wannabe men and one must play butch to the other's femme. And the relentless need to label everybody by his or her genitalia.

Drag kings traffic in paradox: They reinforce the old gender boxes so that they can smash them.

So -- deep breath -- drag-kinging's a political statement?

Nah. It's just fun.

Held in a gymnasium festooned with "the world's largest fishnet," Webster University's annual Drag Ball throbs with curious guests -- students, department secretaries, people from the community. Last April, Maureen saw fliers in the Central West End and, on a lark, stuffed a brassiere for a gay male friend and found herself a fedora. "I went in drag, but not very good drag," she recalls. "I didn't back it up with a persona, I didn't pack [a penis] and I had an Ace bandage [for breast-binding] that was just two inches wide and kept sliding down."

She soon forgot all about the flesh spilling over; the nervous friend who kept tugging at his wig, worrying that he looked ridiculous ("Look around," she hissed); the bizarre strangers crowding hot around them.

The emcee was introducing St. Louis' first and only troupe of drag kings: the Bent Boyz.

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