Drag Kings Make Me Wet

COLUMBUS, OHIO—There's nothing like a stuffed jockstrap to get this girl going. And I like it even better when I am not exactly sure what's making the cotton fabric stretch and strain against a pair of tight 501s or well-tailored suit pants. I love illusion, mystery, and desire that waves itself in your face. That's why drag kings make me wet.

While female impersonators have dozens of clubs, books, and documentaries, and even an unofficial national spokesqueen in RuPaul, their drag brothers are still finding their own way in the world. With The Drag King Bookby Judith Halberstam and Del LaGrace Volcano, several independent films and documentaries, and appearances on Sex and the City, Queer as Folk, and The Maury Povich Show, the performance of masculinity has dramatically increased its visibility in the last few years. Several weeks ago, more than 200 drag kings, performers, artists, and their admirers from 19 states gathered in Columbus for the third annual International Drag King Extravaganza (IDKE), a weekend of gender-bending workshops, panels, and schmoozing.

Like their lamé'd and lipsticked sisters, these cross-dressing impersonators embody campy cuteness, with catchy names like Izzie Big, Rusty Nails, Duncan Deepe, Mario Testosteroni, Arty Fischal, and L. Camino. Their names aren't the only clever thing about them: Lots of kings choose stars, songs, or styles to poke fun at gender, criticize misogyny, and fuck with their audience's heads and libidos. As the designated Barbra Streisands and Chers of the king world, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync get more than their fair share of mockery from girls who play boys. (After all, their brand of pre-packaged masculinity makes them ripe for caricature.) But there are also dead-on ringers for such diverse artists as Little Richard, Axl Rose, Fred Durst, Andy Gibb, and even Eminem. As princes of parody, drag kings know one thing for sure: Size does matter, and the breadth and width of masculinities these guys take on is extremely impressive. In two nights of performance at IDKE, I saw a mac daddy pimp, '40s swinger, cowboy crooner, Vegas lounge singer, budding Boy Scout, gangsta rapper, swishy sailor, investment banker, disco dude, kinky leatherdaddy, '50s greaser, angry punk rocker, flamboyant diva, strung-out metalhead, and plenty more models of manufactured manhood.

Among the acts, there were many standouts: the hot hip-hop/rap duo from Kentucky the Underground Kingz; the campy country-western stylings of Troy Andrews from Michigan; the glitz of Canada's sequin-drenched glam cowboy Carlos Las Vegas; and two brilliantly choreographed pieces by Santa Barbara, California's the Disposable Boy Toys, including a Broadway musical tap and swing dance number with 10 boys and girls who look straight out of 42nd Street.

Polished routines, clever costumes, and well-rehearsed acts are not all that is on the agenda for drag kings. Many of these gender illusionists convey a political and social message in their performances, something that seems more popular among them than their queen counterparts. A perfect example was the dark but hilarious look at the inhumane slaughtering of cattle by Andy and Elroi from New York. (Bet you didn't know there was such a thing as a pair of anti-burger kings with a pro-vegan manifesto.) Jake Danger and Rian of Santa Barbara conveyed an intense, complex master-slave relationship better than some s/m films I've seen. Tackling hate crimes and repressed homoerotic desire, Chicago kings Billy T. Holly and Jeff Stoker portrayed a fag-bashing frat boy who falls in lust with the gay leatherman he attacks. They may be lip-synching the words to their songs, but that doesn't mean that drag kings don't have plenty to say.

Four performers—Pat Riarch, Ray Cruiter, Brandon Iron, and Leo, all from New York—dedicated their performances to the tragic events of September 11, and two used actual video footage of the devastation of the World Trade Center. Showstopper Iron staggered onstage in a gas mask and a soot-covered suit clutching the flyer of a missing woman. When he ripped off his pinstriped corporate uniform, the back of his T-shirt read MY TEARS ARE NOT A CRY FOR WAR. Drag kings know their audience, too: people who appreciate—maybe even expect—social satire with their glued-on facial hair, political statements with their bound breasts, and cultural commentary with their cunts-turned-cocks. It's entertainment laced with gender activism, feminist ideals, and plenty of sexual innuendo. IDKE is the thinking man's Wigstock, a Midwestern Cockstock.

There was talk that the conference may not be in Columbus next year, yet the community has grown so much that if Ohio cannot take on hosting responsibility, there are clearly other groups out there willing to grab the torch and set their own town on fire. Because there are so many kings from places like Missouri and Indiana, the next gathering seems destined for somewhere in the heartland. Plus, it feels so much more subversive to take gender performance out of the major cities (where it really can be a way of life) and put it on the road.

Taking her own show on the road, San Francisco-based photographer Erin O'Neill has traveled around North America to document drag kings for a series called Kings of the Road (www.madkats.com), which she presented this year at IDKE. Each king is shot with a mode of transportation, from a cool convertible Cadillac or sexy Harley to a set of sandy surfboards or scratched-up rollerblades. Simultaneously gritty and slick, seductive and unnerving, the black-and-white images capture multiple masculinities, and O'Neill says her intent was "to look at our bipolar gender culture with kaleidoscope eyes." Well, the rose-colored bifocals that see only M and F are off for sure, and O'Neill's pictures left me feeling pleasantly confused, helplessly turned on, and questioning the gender of nearly everyone around me.

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