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

They danced onstage, each with his own stereotypical guy personality: Saul Goode -- funny, charming, a little bit spastic. Sweet Brodie, with his boyish charm. Sensitive, intense Paco Jr., a heartthrob for straight women and gay men alike. Jay Walker, smug and cocky, propelled by the energy that pulsed between his legs. Brooding Luke Lonewolf, quiet and edgy.

Maureen had never heard of drag kings. She had a vague sense that Greta Garbo used to wear men's suits but had no way of knowing that a handful of women had been entertaining as men for decades, working East St. Louis bars. Anyway, this was something different: a troupe of fresh young women dancing to hip, high-energy songs. She watched, believing they were guys, yet she knew they were women, and the boundaries fell away and the energy of their performance flooded into her.

They weren't even as good, technically speaking, as the drag queens who performed that night. Nor were they as glamorous, or as campy, or as bitchy and caustic. They were just having fun breaking the rules. And the crowd couldn't stop clapping.

Dick Venus, miming a rap song, tries to show attitude.
Amy Bautz
Dick Venus, miming a rap song, tries to show attitude.
Bound for glory: Paco Jr. gets wrapped by a friend, Katie Cima.
Amy Bautz
Bound for glory: Paco Jr. gets wrapped by a friend, Katie Cima.

Maureen went home and searched the Internet.

What she found was a movement that, in the past few years, has exploded. Kings enthroned in D.C., Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Italy, Germany, Russia. Kings starring in the Swiss art film Venus Boyz and the independent flick By Hook or by Crook. Kings showing up in John Waters' Pecker, in university documentaries, on the Maury Povich Show and Sex and the City, in a photography exhibit called Kings of the Road, in a torrid paperback romance, Drag Kings and the Wheel of Fate.

Maureen read everything she could find about the current drag-king celebrities: Sneering, slick Mo B. Dick, "all man and got the goods to prove it." Chubby polyester-suited ward politician Murray Hill. Flaming, flirtatious bisexual Max Voltage. Dred, a Haitian-American king who moved smoothly from Shaft to Grace Jones to Sly Stone or Superfly or P. Diddy, bending gender every which way, then stripping to a bra at the end of the show and confounding the audience with the irrefutable femaleness of his creator, Mildred Gerestant. Other kings insisted on maintaining the illusion to the end, but Dred wanted his audience to know they'd been "fooled by a black woman."

Reading dizzily about kings who turned into men and then stroked on eyeliner, or stripped off layers and halfway turned back into women, Maureen decided there were two main categories: "the ones like Dred, who perform in the man box but kind of bend out, as though they're doing little gender magic tricks; and the rigid ones like Mo B. Dick, who play cocky, tough, emotionless men."

Feminist to the bone, Maureen liked the challenge of the latter. So she created Mo Faux, worldly, "penis-centric" and aggressively heterosexual. Her imagination flew -- and banged into walls.

"There's so much Mo Faux can't do or wear or say because it might make somebody question his manhood," she says, "and Mo Faux can't have that happening. Although" -- she hesitates -- "I am thinking of expressing in Mo a certain amount of cunt envy."

The idea came when she saw the Vagina Monologues -- all those nerve endings in one velvety bit of flesh; who wouldn't be jealous? Then, looking for drag songs to perform, she happened on to one called "I Wish I Was a Girl" by Violent Delight, a teenage punk-metal band from the U.K.

"I was intrigued by the title, both for its poor use of the subjunctive and for the gender ideas," she says. "Lyrically, it's not exactly inspired. But" -- her eyes dance -- "it's very funny. The singer's main point is that he wants a clitoris."

Paco Jr., the shyest of the Bent Boyz, started out insisting he'd only do group numbers. "I was kind of skeptical at first," he admits. "Drag queens shot through my head: show tunes!" Then Novak's, a popular local lesbian bar, held a drag-king talent show. They were begging for acts, so Paco performed, solo, the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun."

"I came offstage with the most incredible feeling," recalls Paco's creator, a 23-year-old engineering student. "It was the hugest natural high I have ever had, pure energy, like a kid on a chocolate high. I wanted to get back up there and do more songs!"

The goofiest troupe member, Saul Goode, into heavy metal and old-school hip-hop and funny to the point of being manic, started performing with equal reluctance.

"I'd always been pretty feminine," his creator says, "and I thought it'd be weird. Lauren [Dowdall, one of the troupe's founders] said, 'Hey, just come over one night and we'll dress up like guys.' And we did, and it creeped me out, how much I looked like a guy. The whole gender-role thing, especially in my family" -- she trails off, then blurts, "They're not even OK with the gay thing yet. So when Lauren talked about getting up onstage, I thought, 'Oh man, I could never do that.'"

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