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

Others clap and yell, "You go, boy!"

The kings' least predictable enemies are the drag queens. Some refuse to make room on the stage. Others are kind but a little scornful.

"Their work is a lot less than ours is," points out Candy Barr, a rather spectacular local drag queen who passes easily in straight clubs.

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.

A local bartender, asked his opinion of drag kings, hesitates, then blurts it out: "It's like they are just butch women up there. Anyone can do karaoke in men's clothing."

Straight men may have, to risk a penis-centric pun, the hardest time of all. Some are cool: Paco's brother, for example, comes to all the shows, and is tickled by how much his sister looks like him when she's in drag.

But her other brother thinks it's plain weird and won't come watch.

"It really makes some straight men crazy," observes Saul Goode. "They're the only people I've known to get pissed off. It's like we're fucking with their manhood."

Drag kings understand that; they've seen for themselves how easy it is to undo any projection of masculinity -- and how constantly men must work to prove themselves.

What drag kings have a harder time understanding is the conservative, set-in-their-ways personalities that can't stand gray areas, blending, crisscrossing, androgyny, indeterminacy. They like roles tightly defined, and they see fluidity as an escape, a refusal to commit oneself to a category. Pick a spot and act accordingly, they say. Don't mess with people's minds by floating all over the place.

"People don't like to be fooled," remarks Judith Lorber, the author of Paradoxes of Gender, "and there is this underlying sense that you are ignoring the body, violating what is biological and therefore 'natural.'"

In reality, adds Lorber, "gender never takes its cues from biology. Gender is a social system, a way of ordering a society -- and we have a two-box system."

Linked to bodily fact, sex seems absolute. Gender, by force of habit, seems glued to sex. People still use male/female compartments as a way to make sense of the world, decide how to speak to a stranger, what pronoun to use, what manners to practice, whether to flirt or compete. Androgyny, therefore, is unsettling and deeply confusing.

It can also be disconcertingly erotic. All traits, all gestures and ways of being are made available, and the old constraints dissolve.

Drag kings add another layer to the eroticism because in this society, women acting out masculinity is somehow sexy even to heterosexuals, in the same way that a woman putting on a man's shirt can be sexy but a man putting on a woman's ruffled blouse ... isn't.

"It's a power issue," explains Houldsworth. "Our society says males have more power. So when a female takes on male performance, it seems like a grasp for power, and that becomes a sexualized, hypercharged event. Both men and women can see the performer as a sexualized being, because the drag king is claiming his own sexuality in a way that is understandable to the larger culture."

Ladies aren't supposed to be sexual -- which is why there aren't any laws on the books about lesbian sex. Drag kings say they feel a different energy when they pack, a new permission to be raunchy and assertive when they speak and move as males.

"Jay has allowed me to claim for myself a certain amount of sexual prowess," Jeanne says contentedly. The power goes beyond sex, though: When she dressed femme and went out with Luke, strangers addressed him first. And when Lauren thought about being out on the streets as Luke, she realized she'd felt safer than when she was out as a woman.

Drag kings often pass for fun offstage -- something few drag queens do, probably because the makeup takes too long. Or because becoming a woman doesn't promise much in the way of power or privilege.

Kings taste male privilege in 100 different ways. But few want a steady diet of it. Tricky says that when she's Brodie, it isn't so much a power trip as a private joke. That's because the real power isn't being a man; it's being able to move back and forth between man and woman.

"To be able to go either way is to be above it," says Lauren. "You smile and recognize the categories, but they don't trap you."

Wednesday is Talent Night at Blake's, a little bar at Broadway and Blow, and big old-fashioned Christmas-tree lights frame a miniature stage. Drag king Justin Case follows Miss Vanessa Simpson, curvy in a shimmering red backless minidress, her gestures flawlessly female, her spins and sashays seductive. She kicks high, wiggles her shoulders, throws her head back.

"I wear more than that in the shower," whispers Justin. Then he takes the stage, blinks at the flashes of the mirror ball and lip-synchs a country & western song. "You go, boy!" yells a fan, cutting an arc through the smoke with a green dollar bill. Justin takes the tip and gives him a cousinly hug, then launches into a song with lyrics so fast, the only discernible words are "cherry cola."

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