By Baker A. Rogers
It’s drag king night at the queer bar in Columbia, SC. This is primarily a gay men’s bar, but since the lesbian bars closed it is the only queer bar left in the city. The bar is long and narrow and you have to climb up 35 steps to reach the door, it is hidden away in the back of a tall brick building. Locals refer to it as the “trailer in the sky.” There is a wooden bar down the left side stocked with cheap liquor, dancing blocks (for scantily clad men) on the right, and a small stage directly in front. The atmosphere is dark; everything is black with red accent lights. To lighten the cave-like space, there are strobe lights, a disco ball, a rainbow painted on the wall, and lots of mirrors.
Drag kings—who perform masculinity in the context of a show or contest—dress in masculine attire and attempt to hide any aspects of femininity that may disrupt their performance. For some this means, binding or taping down breasts, applying facial hair, and maybe wearing a packer to give the appearance of having a penis. The drag king show is scheduled to start at 10:30pm and there are about 25 people in the bar. They signal the start of the show with the song “Drag King Bar” by Bitch and Animal. I recommend listening to it online, it’s pretty funny!
This is a typical scene for drag king shows in the South. A small, dark bar tucked away from major areas. Contrary to what many believe, there is a thriving, though mostly underground, queer culture in the South. I have been a part of this culture in various locations around the region and even performed drag in South Carolina and Mississippi. By performing drag, I was able to try on a different gender identity than I was allowed in my everyday life. At this time, I had already starting wearing mostly men’s clothing, but I still had long hair and appeared fairly feminine. Being able to experience what it felt like to be a man, even if just for a couple hours really opened my eyes more to my own gender identity and how gender is largely a performance. With these new experiences and my own changing identity, I began graduate school at Mississippi State University eager to explore gender and sexuality in the South. This is when I began my examination of drag.
My research about drag kings, trans* men, and non-binary people has led me to some interesting findings about gender and sexuality in the South. In my article, “Drag as a Resource: Trans* and Non-Binary Individuals in the Southeastern United States,” published in Gender & Society’s December 2018 edition, I discuss some of my findings about how drag can be a beneficial resource in the South for trans* and non-binary people. For this study, I interviewed 32 trans* and non-binary drag kings in the South to examine how they use drag as a resource to explore gender identity and find resources for gender transition. I highlight the importance of geographic location on attitudes about gender and resources available to trans* men and non-binary people. In contrast to other areas of the country, trans* and non-binary drag kings in the Southeast use drag as a place to explore a “felt” identity that is stifled in the broader culture.
While other areas of the country, such as the Northeast and Pacific Northwest in particular, are expanding rights and resources for trans* and non-binary people, the Southeast continues to be an often-hostile environment for anyone who is gender non-conforming. The increased transphobia and homophobia in the South mean that there are less rights and resources for trans* and non-binary people. To make matters even worse, some Southern states are actively trying to reverse the rights provided to trans* and non-binary people.
Drag is a safe haven for many trans* and non-binary people trying to navigate the Southeast. By playing with gender, drag kings are able to explore an identity that is often silenced by their families, schools, churches, and communities. Most of the drag kings in this study felt they were always a gender other than what they were assigned at birth, but they were able to discover that identity through drag. Additionally, through networking with other drag kings, trans* and non-binary individuals are able to locate appropriate resources to meet their needs. Drag kings act as mentors to one another, recommend healthcare providers who are knowledgeable about trans* issues, and provide much needed support. As one drag king, Skyler D. Light, a 29-year-old trans male, put it, “I knew I wanted to transition before I even started drag, but I needed guidance and a slow/steady path to explore my identity.” While drag is an excellent resource and a fun way to play with gender, it should not be the only place to explore gender and find resources for gender transition in the South.
If you live in the South and identify as transgender or non-binary, or are just in need of more information about gender, here are a few places you can start if you’re not into drag:
- Harriet Hancock LGBT Center – Columbia, SC
- Gender Benders – Greenville, SC
- Transcending Barriers – Atlanta, GA
- Savannah LGBT Center – Savannah, GA
- Transcend Charlotte – Charlotte, NC
- LGBT Center of Raleigh – Raleigh, NC
- Louisiana Trans Advocates – Baton Rouge, LA
- Out Memphis – Memphis, TN https://outmemphis.org
- Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition – AR
- Equality Virginia – Richmond, VA
Baker A. Rogers (formerly Ashley A. Baker) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia Southern University. Their research and teaching focuses on inequality, specifically examining the intersections of gender, sexuality, and religion. Their work is published in Sexualities, Review of Religious Research, and Feminist Teacher.