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.

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.

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.

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.'"

She did it anyway. Afterward, she stood there sweating, listening to the applause and thinking dazedly, "It is OK to be who you want to be."

The Bent Boyz made careful choices, though: They created guys who were basically nice, maybe just a little wilder than they were. They weren't anywhere near as cruel or as crude as the more extreme performances in New York and San Francisco. They didn't have names like Buster Hymen, didn't dip into S/M or shock for shock's sake.

"I feel like that's one of the ways we're Midwestern," says Lauren. "We're gentlemen."

Lauren's loud and bubbly, but her drag persona, Luke Lonewolf, is a quiet rebel, his eyes downcast and his spirit gentle. He expresses part of who she is, and she's glad she came up with him on her own. The troupe didn't even go to the annual International Drag King Extravaganza conference until months after they'd shaped their own characters, and it shows. Brodie, for example, is "probably more coy than sexy. I get embarrassed easily," admits Tricky Burns. "When I perform as Brodie, I try to project something nice and good and honest."

The raunch and mockery common among big-city drag kings "make for very entertaining shows," she adds politely, "but that's not how I get inspired."

The St. Louis gentlemen have quite a following. Kim McKelvie-Moon, bartender/ manager at The V, says the Bent Boyz "pack 'em in." Nancy Novak, owner of Novak's Bar and Grill, hired the local troupe in November to open for a national touring act of drag kings and says both shows were smashing successes. "I only wish the Bent Boyz were available more often," she adds. "Everybody loved them."

Jeanne Sevelius, another Bent Boyz founder, moved to Eugene, Oregon, this fall to do graduate work in clinical psychology. She's starting a Bent Boyz satellite troupe there because she found "no drag-king scene at all -- but a lot of interest."

Two years ago, she would have said the same of St. Louis. Jeanne was directing the Institute for Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis when Lauren, then nineteen, came back from a college conference for gay kids raving about the drag-king show and how there was nothing like that in St. Louis. They started inviting friends to join a troupe, learned to glue on facial hair and imitate male gestures and choreographed a few dance routines. They gave their first official performance a few months later, at the June 2001 PrideFest, and since then they've had more offers than time.

"St. Louis's queer community was ready," says Jeanne. "People wanted an alternative to the same old bar scene, and they were intrigued by the gender play."

After the Bent Boyz' November show, Tricky was engulfed by young women from the audience, all interested in performing. People flow in and out of the troupe, which at one point included Simon, biologically male and transitioning to female.

But they've never had a straight woman.

"I've had straight friends come to watch, and they think it's really fun," says Tricky, "but I've never even proposed the idea that they might want to perform. I don't really know why not."

Other troupe members point out that when young straight women are looking for a mate, their power comes from their femininity. Transforming into men is the last thing they want to do.

Besides, lesbians have already declared themselves outside the norm.

Breaking rules is easier for them.

Maureen clicks open Mo Faux's thin retro suitcase and pulls out a roll of duct tape. A Beatles CD. A gelatinous, anatomically correct homemade penis.

"I just made this one yesterday," she says, explaining that porn toys are too expensive, so she mixes her own gak (borax, water and Elmer's Glue and glops it into a doubled condom. "Remember, this is a flaccid penis, so it doesn't have to be huge -- unless that's part of your act." She demonstrates the creation of testicles (less gak) and the bundling of the entire package in the toe of a pair of pantyhose. "That's important, because otherwise your penis will get all linty and gross."

She rummages again. A pack of Kings bubblegum cigarettes. A black-and-white photo of a friend in a man's suit, leaning rakishly against a tampon machine. Goatee hair salvaged from her last haircut and spirit gum to glue it to her face.

"Boy panties so my dick doesn't fall out," she continues, tossing them over her shoulder. "A sewing kit because I ripped my pants once. Duct tape to reinforce the binding, and more duct tape, symbolically, to make the suitcase's compartments." She waits a beat. "Guys like duct tape."

A girl can't tape right next to her skin, though. For binding, Maureen carries control-top pantyhose with the legs cut off and a hole cut through the crotch. She sticks her head through the center, puts her arms through the legholes and uses the panty part to flatten her breasts. "You don't have to bind," she says, "but it helps me stand different, thrust my chest forward like a guy -- mostly so I'm not in pain."

She keeps a light and a mirror inside the suitcase. "I had to change in a closet once," she explains, too young to catch the irony.

Dressed, Mo Faux sets a fedora on his head and tilts it forward. He strides around the room, his hands low on his hips, head nodding, gaze slanted down. Then he sits down, throwing himself into the chair and slouching back, his legs apart, his elbows angled out. "This," he announces, "is taking up space. It's very important."

Something else has changed, too: the slow smile that lights up Maureen's face when she's shared an idea, the quick smile of response, the mischievous grin of complicity -- all gone.

"Mo works very hard to preserve a badass face," she says later. "You've got to protect your territory."

She's read the rules, as presented by Jim Cross, one of Diane Torr's personae, on behalf of the American Society of Men: First, territory: Walk into a room as if you own the ground under your feet. Rule two: Stop smiling. "It's important that you allow no way that somebody can permeate you." Rule three: "Stop apologizing. As a man in a man's world, you are right." Rule four: Speak slowly; let 'em wait. If a woman asks an unnecessary question, there's no need to answer -- just "look at her with an air of bemused tolerance."

It's working.

Straight women have seen Mo's picture and pronounced him hot; gay friends have told him he's "almost cute enough to fuck." Mo likes the attention. And Maureen likes the confusion. "It's causing people to question their perceptions of gender," she says, "and also question the idea that a person can ever be attracted to only men or women. When I find drag kings attractive, I wonder if I could ever find a man attractive. Because just as gender cannot be either/or, sexuality cannot be boxed in."

As she talks, she flips idly through the Drag King Book, heavy on graphic photos, leather and props, full of genderfuck and the other sort, too. Her mom called the book "pornographic" and warned her not to carry it about in public.

"It's not really dangerous unless people look inside," notes Maureen. "Otherwise they'll probably assume it's about the royalty in some weird country. People like making excuses."

Overall, she says her mom's been cool: "My dad -- people always ask what he thinks. We've never really had a heart-to-heart about it. But sometimes I'll be walking around the house in drag -- when you're bound you can't breathe as well, so it's good to practice someplace safe -- and he's just, like, 'Oh, hi!' I think he just doesn't quite know what to say. We did talk once about the alleged Gospel of Thomas ... the part where Jesus said there would be a time when gender doesn't matter" (a time when "the male will not be male nor the female be female," by one translation of the recently discovered text).

The mirror ball spins, shooting sparks of light at a draped rainbow of multicolored curtains. "The Bent Boyz!" yells the emcee, and the crowd goes wild. A tall dude in camouflage pants takes center stage, joined by a gang of guys. Their arms swing loose from the shoulders, their heads nod loosely as car toys. One guy's lanky, and when he slouches, his chest looks almost concave.

The music speeds up and one performer drops to a squat, kicks out like a Russian. Another does a shoulder stand, and, for a second, those are a woman's hips, the curves outlined when gravity tugs the baggy, saggy-crotched jeans into place.

Jay Walker dances out and looks down at the audience, slant-eyed and knowing. He ejects each word of the song from a mouth taut with rage, muscles pushing at the air, face the tribal mask of an angry, sexy god.

A woman in a backless pink dress and dangly earrings comes up with a tip, slides it into his waistband and kisses him. To the heterosexuals in the audience, the scene looks right, comfortably seductive -- until they remember that the he's a she. So maybe the she is a lipstick lesbian? Wait -- she could just be bisexual. Or a male-to-female transsexual. And by now the next act's starting, and what does it matter, anyway?

The categories are loosening.

"My friend Randy was voted homecoming queen at Soldan," offers Maureen. "He got a tiara and everything." A lesbian couple was voted "cutest couple" in a suburban Chicago high school. Cross-dressers are testing school rules across the country. Bisexuality's been vaunted as hip for so long now, it's almost boring. Gay and lesbian teens are experimenting sexually with each other, just to see what it feels like. In San Francisco, a growing subculture of dykes style themselves as young gay men with pretty-boy hair.

It's called fluidity.

But trail a finger through the watery new world and you'll cut it on bits of mortar and shrapnel.

The war's not over. And every time a category is smashed, somebody inside the walls fires back a missile.

"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.

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.

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.

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."

"There's two things we don't want to happen," he'd said earlier: "We don't want the mustache to fall off, and we don't want to spit out our teeth."

For Justin's creator, 53-year-old Rosie Schuff, kinging's mainly common sense: "Keep your gestures low, and swing your hips more front to back than side to side. I saw one king swingin' like a washing machine, a Maytag gone nuts." She pauses. "You have to be sure of who you are to do this -- or totally confused."

Rosie saw her first kings back in the '70s, before they were called kings and before acting like men became taboo. For the past seven years, she's been performing solo in tiny gay bars from here to Tulsa, Springfield and Poplar Bluff, where she was twice kicked out of the ladies' room. According to local bartenders, she's the only truly believable king around. Still, she says she'll never get the gigs the queens get:

"It's hard to break in; they've got their own good-ol'-boys' network, and no matter how much of a man I look like, I'm never gonna be part of that. The plumbing just ain't there." She sighs. "Honey, the queens can't even get the pronouns straight. I've been introduced as Miss Justin Case so many times!"

Plausibly male in drag, Rosie doesn't even bother to pack: "I've got so much belly they couldn't tell if I did," she chuckles. "It's body shape that makes the difference. From the back I look like a boy, straight up and down. To get ready, I just take off my bra, put on a T-shirt and a back support -- higher than you're supposed to wear it -- and throw on jeans and a shirt. I brush my hair, spritz it to make it lay down right, put on some cologne, glue on my mustache and head for the door.

"Some of the queens get upset because I don't change clothes very often," she says. "Well, when a queen won't book you because you don't have anything fancy to wear, how are you going to get anything fancy to wear?"

On disability after years of shoveling coal in a mine, Rosie lives in a trailer that used to be a meth lab. Her neighbors inspired her most famous routine: "I looked around the trailer court and thought, 'If you did a sex change on one of these turkeys, what would you get?' -- because you know durn well it wouldn't take.'"

Thus was born Rosie's gender-bending comedy act: Justin in knee-high nylons and combat boots and a little red polka-dotted dress with a sailor collar and Taco Bell Chihuahua boxers underneath. "I've got a very sorry excuse for a blond wig, with a couple silver beads hanging from one side that fell off a drag queen's outfit," she adds, "and another wig, different shade of blonde, stuck in my cleavage and pulled out as long chest hair. I'm so not right."

One man laughed so hard, his friends had to get his heart medicine, Rosie says: "Next time he saw me, he said, 'You got your dress?' and I said, 'You got your medicine?'"

She chuckles for a while, then sobers: "I did that number in Tulsa, and a guy came up afterward, when I was sitting at the bar taking off my wigs. He told me he'd planned to come in that night and have a couple drinks before committing suicide. He said, 'You were having so much fun up there, making light of something that's caused me so much pain. You put all the hurt aside -- and I changed my mind."

Rosie does drag to make the audience laugh, cry, feel anything but shame. Justin's a low-key ladies' man with a taste for country & western, likely to lip-synch "Angels Among Us" or "God Bless America" in the wildest of bars. "I'd look silly as hell getting up there doing a rap number like the young drag kings," says Rosie, "with this thing and that thing and every other thing pierced. About the only political statement I'm making is 'I'm here.'"

So she's not worried about deconstructing what Maureen calls "the gender binary"?

"The gender what?"

A lesbian couple at Magnolia's once called her "an insult to lesbians around the world."

"I didn't think I was having that big an impact," she said dryly.

Younger kings aren't sure how to comment about Justin, who's kindly, has an obvious knack for this sort of thing, but comes at it more like Milton Berle than Marlene Dietrich.

"He definitely is himself," says Duncan B. Deepe finally. "And that's the best thing you can be." A former St. Louisan named Rena Aharanov, Duncan helped start the new wave of drag-kinging here and watched the Bent Boyz take off. He left in 2001, accepting an invitation to appear on the Maury Povich Show, then moving down to D.C. to do a string of shows and benefits. He's now performing solo on the West Coast.

Gender, he points out, is always a performance. Drag kings turn it into a show -- but the illusion rests on the audience's preconceptions. If nobody believed in the boxes, switching wouldn't even be noticeable.

Many of the Bent Boyz were tomboys as kids, and being mistaken for a boy stung -- or intrigued -- them. Jeanne, on the other hand, was as femme as femme can be, and she stunned her friends when she pulled on men's jeans, skinned her hair back and convinced the world otherwise.

"I don't see identity in such simple categories anymore," she says. "I have a lot of characteristics that aren't so easily classified." For her, being a king isn't about wanting to be a man, but it is a form of self-expression: "Jay Walker's very suave, pretty self-absorbed. He floats through life breaking hearts. That probably is a part of me, one I don't allow myself to indulge very much."

Lauren's first inspiration as Luke came from a 1972 David Bowie song, "Boys Keep Swinging." Bowie did it in female drag, singing that "nothing stands in your way when you're a boy." Lauren reversed the drag, shaving off her wavy blond/brown hair. Now she's letting it grow out, convinced that the illusion comes from mannerisms more than appearance. "I run into a lot of girl things I have to totally turn off," she says, "like talking with my hands and smiling too much."

Those eager, happy, curved-up girl smiles bend a guy's mustache.

Back in first grade -- in what Maureen calls her "confused baby-lesbian days," when she thought she had to be a boy to have girls like her -- she played with people's perceptions, sometimes introducing herself as a boy, sometimes making them guess.

But since she created Mo Faux, gluing on a goatee and packing a bulge, she's started wearing earrings and lip gloss to school.

"I used to feel, 'If I want to be in this box, I can't do anything that is in this other box,'" she says. "Through drag I've found a place with all of that available." Drag queens helped as much as kinging: She used to feel feminist qualms about shaving her legs, until it dawned on her that a drag queen might shave hers, too. In other words, she says, "I can choose.

"I don't think I'd ever want to be a drag king as a career," she adds slowly. "That would mean doing it too much. I like that I can go back to Maureen." She pauses, cocks her head. "I do think everyone should dress in drag at least once, though. Biodrag or genderfuck or something. That way, even if they don't like it, they'll know how it feels to not quite fit in one of the boxes."

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