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

"Boys still can't do anything that would make them seem feminine," says Maureen. "Crying, showing sensitivity, taking an interest in the arts -- all strictly forbidden. Girls should wear makeup, lest they appear dykey. If we wear men's jeans too often, people start to wonder. And if we're outspoken, we're bitchy." She says classmates use the word 'gay' dismissively -- "Oh, that's gay" -- and call bisexuals "fence-sitters" or "just greedy." "People see it as a phase: 'Bi now, gay later,' or they'll say, 'I won't date bisexuals -- they will cheat on you.'"

Maureen and her friends are especially appalled by the idea that boys can't wear dresses and girls can't wear suits: "Jesus wore a dress. And had long hair." According to their school's rules, students can't smoke within 500 feet of the building and boys can't wear feminine clothing within 250 feet.

"Whoever died from secondhand cross-dressing?" she snaps.

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.

On the Internet, she's seen Web sites for people who identify as F2M (female-to-male); butches; tran, tranz or trannyboys; shapeshifters; bearded females; boyz or bois; gender-free; gender-neutral. There are umbrella categories: genderqueer or transgender (outside the norm in any way); genderbenders, who switch or play with gender in their physical appearance; genderfuckers, who do the same but in a more extreme way; gender outlaws, whose everyday behavior defies traditional gender roles. Then there are labels for sexual orientation -- homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, autosexual -- and identity -- transsexual, desiring to live as the opposite sex; intersexual, possessing indeterminate or both male and female sexual characteristics....

Steve Houldsworth, a counselor who teaches about gender and sexual-identity issues at Webster, asks his students to define "man" and "woman" for him. For every characteristic they list, he can point to an exception. The ability to bear children? The Y chromosome? He talks about people who are infertile, people who feel trapped in the body of the opposite sex -- "Where do they fit?" -- and people whose chromosomes, hormone levels and genitalia don't conform neatly to a single sex. "Intersexuality really does a job on binary gender," he says. "If you are willing to acknowledge these people as humans, you have to question the existing categories."

People assume that the biological division of male and female is clean and absolute and has existed from the beginning of time. In fact, says Houldsworth, gender came first, with the division of labor, and science invented categories to match. Whereas some cultures have made subtle delineations for transsexuals, feminine men and so on, Westerners went with male and female and called any blending of attributes an aberration.

At certain points in time, aberrations flourish. Houldsworth sees drag kings rooted in the lively butch/femme dynamic of the lesbian community in the 1940s and '50s. "Garbo and [Marlene] Dietrich were coming out of a thriving lesbian-bar culture that was destroyed in the Nazi takeover, so all we saw was the tip of the iceberg," he says. "Then, in the late '60s and '70s, there was a movement toward androgyny." Butch/ femme was seen as "recapitulating the patriarchy." By the '80s, drag kings weren't politically viable; lesbian feminism burned too brightly, focusing all attention on female identity, female safety, female power.

They made progress, they relaxed, and lesbian chic blossomed. Once it was OK to wear lipstick and look girlie, it seemed OK to play in the other direction, too.

In 1989, Elvis Herselvis performed in New York and called himself a "drag king," and the press picked it up fast as money on the sidewalk.

The movement built, and over the past two years, crowds have grown to standing-room-only in Boston; the Chicago Kings have taken hold; Club Chaos in Washington, D.C., has made drag kings a trademark; New York's Club Casanova has created a culture all its own. Last summer, the kings knew they'd arrived: The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, famous for welcoming only "womyn born of womyn," booked a drag-king duo from France.

Drag kings irritate people for the same reasons bitchy diva drag queens irritate people: They're often imitating the gender at its worst. Holly Gitlin, who recently joined the staff of the Fox Theatre, saw kings perform in D.C. She loved the boldness of the gender play but felt ambivalent about the bad behavior onstage: "I wasn't sure if the performers were making fun of this dynamic or celebrating it."

Older lesbians have informed Paco, sharply, that "women should be women." Steeped in identity politics, they see kinging as "assuming the role of the oppressor." One couple watched a performance and then, horrified, asked Lauren, "Why would you want to do that?"

"I tell them gender is liquid, it's something we can play with," she says, "and especially within our community, we should have the freedom to play with it and not be so structured and closed-minded about it."

Jeanne calls herself transgendered because by its loosest, most current definition, the label covers anyone who's playing with gender. She's noticed resistance to drag kings among transgendered individuals who are trying to pass as the opposite sex in everyday life, though, and among transsexuals who are trying to make the transition biologically. Some believe the kings' performance of gender trivializes their daily struggle.

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