Drag kings are artists, activists, queer people, and others that dress in constantly-evolving styles of drag for theatrical performances (and occasionally other artistic mediums, such as photography) which aim for a masculine realness, a parodied presentation of masculinity, and/or a political intervention or critique.
DRAG KING STYLE AND MASCULINE EMBODIMENT
For their performances, most drag kings dress in male attire and bind their breasts with bandages or tight-fitting sports bras. Drag kings have also made an art of the crafting of facial hair. It can be drawn on with eyeliner, and accentuated with dark eye shadow for an unshaven look. The most common method of applying facial hair is to affix clippings of real hair to the face with spirit gum or other liquid adhesives. Some drag kings also pack, or put socks, dildos, or home-made packages in their underwear to give the appearance of a penis. Drag kings usually prefer the use of male pronouns when they are performing or dressed in drag. Performances can be solo or ensemble acts and usually are comprised of lip-syncing and dancing. Other acts consist of the impersonation of celebrities or stock character types and may contain brief skits. Well-wrought performances have a variety of different effects: they incite the crowd with a seductive drag king earnestly displaying his own masculinity; they entertain with a choreographed song-and-dance number; or they provide a playful or unswerving critique of, for example, the binary (male/female) gender system or hetero-normativity.
Some drag kings explain that their performances allow for the expression of an inner part of them-selves—their own embodied, expressive masculinity—or describe their involvement with drag king culture as a starting point for a transgendered identity. Others view their drag king personas as direct political and activist action, while still others find their way to drag king culture through performance art or involvement in a local queer community. Accordingly drag kings may identify as women, as butch, as transsexuals, as transgendered, as genderqueer, or they may regard their performances as quite removed from their gendered or sexual identities. Some drag kings dress and perform in female drag to participate in ensemble acts or even to emcee events. Such activity illustrates one way in which drag king culture often interrogates notions of what constitutes drag, thus, pushing the boundaries of performance, theater, and gender.
HISTORY OF KINGING
Female male impersonators date back to the 1800s and share a history that includes such performers as Vesta Tilley, British music hall's most famous male impersonator. However, these music hall performances catered to straight audiences and bear little resemblance to drag king acts. In this sense, drag kings have more in common with their queer counterpart, the drag queen. By literally performing genders, the drag king and queen expose the construction and fluidity, rather than the nature or truth, of gender. However many critics call attention to the disparate implications of performing masculinity as opposed to femininity in a patriarchal culture and cite the different cultural origins and histories of drag kings and queens.
Although the term drag queen dates back to an earlier century, the term drag king arose in the mid-1990s in conjunction with these distinctly lesbian sub-cultural practices and with the proliferation of queer genders that stand in opposition to the normative gender dichotomy. In their many manifestations, drag kings occupy a significant and sometimes activist role in gay, lesbian, and queer cultural spaces, organizing and participating in drag king contests and shows, creating drag king troupes, and hosting gender workshops. While large cities and college towns have produced most of the more sizeable drag king scenes, drag kings also perform on stages and at bars in rural settings, making it clear that the phenomenon has infiltrated queer culture at large and has produced encompassing and supportive networks for kings, lesbian performance artists, and gender-benders. The International Drag King Extravaganza (IDKE), founded in 1999 in Columbus, Ohio, is the premiere annual (and now traveling) conference for drag kings, although the immense and immediate popularity of drag kings and kinging (the gerund with which many kings refer to their art) has spurred many other weekend-long events into existence. Judith Halberstam, an academic who has charted and championed the rise of drag king culture in such books as Female Masculinity (1998) and The Drag King Book (1999), did much to theorize drag king performances in particular and, more broadly, to outline their significance to queer culture and the unsettling of traditional masculinity. Well-known drag kings include Mildred "Dréd" Gerestant, Carlos Las Vegas, Pat Riarch, Elvis Herselvis, and Murray Hill, who ran a campy mayoral campaign in New York City in 1997 that proposed "Gay rights for all!"
DRAG KING CULTURE AND SCENES
While kinging began as contests based on individual appearance that developed into theatrical performance, it has evolved into a concentrated group and community-based scene. Drag king culture bears a strong allegiance and commitment to the creation and maintenance of queer spaces, and drag kings are likely to be staples at gay bars, pride parades, and festivals. Wherever drag kings perform, audience members regularly attend the event in some degree of drag.
Drag king culture is organized in terms of the founding and preservation of performance troupes, which sometimes function as families, and the clubs where these troupes perform. Many troupes, such as the renowned D.C. Kings and Chicago Kings, employ names that refer to their geographical location. H.I.S. Kings, founders of IDKE, was one of the first drag troupes, and the Disposable Boy Toys (Santa Barbara, California) referred to itself as a political feminist collective. Famous drag king clubs include New York City's Club Casanova and London's Club Wotever. International drag king scenes are organized along similar lines and exist in countries such as Japan, Australia, Germany, and Spain. Drag king culture has at times been critiqued for being butch exclusive or misogynist and for controversial racial appropriation, yet many of the more political troupes pointedly confront these issues in their performances.
Halberstam, Judith, and Del LaGrace Volcano. 1999. The Drag King Book. London: Serpent's Tail.
Troka, Donna Jean; Kathleen LeBesco; and Jean Bobby Noble, eds. 2003. The Drag King Anthology. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press.