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COLUMBUS, OHIOWhen I was growing up during the late '70s and '80s, my mother had a close friend named Chickie who was one of my most important role models. I knew about gay men and drag queens, but Chickie was something altogether different. He wasn't an iron-pumping leather-chapped daddy or a lip-synching sequin-gowned diva. He was simply Chickie: A six-foot-two man with long chestnut hair and a meticulously groomed goatee who wore open-toed sandals, lots of jewelry, women's perfume, and skintight jeans that unmistakably showcased his prominent package. He effortlessly personified well-chosen trappings of both masculinity and femininity. Not for dress-up, Chickie's look was his own. He had a long-term male partner, but I'm not sure he considered himself gay. I learned about fashion, flair, eyeliner, and, of course, much more from him. Today, Chickie would embody a hip, I'm-neither-male-nor-female gender-queer, but when he was alive, gender bender wasn't even a choice.
Chickie was on my mind a lot last month as I made the yearly pilgrimage to the mecca of gender bending, Columbus, Ohio. More than 1000 drag kings, queens, performers, artists, and their admirers, from four countries and 28 states, had gathered for the fourth-annual International Drag King Extravaganza (www.idke.com), a weekend of dialogue and debate, politics and presentations, and kick-ass performances.
Drag kings fashion their own style from masculine archetypes, borrowing mack-daddy mannerisms and retro zoot suits. To me, all drag has an erotically charged componentthe act of transforming one's gender, then being objectified by an audience, can be flirtatious and fun. But some drag kings choose to craft performances that are more explicitly sexual. The majority of drag performers at IDKE identify as queer or transgender, so queer sex is central to many of their personas and acts. In her keynote speech, Annie Toone, who chronicles the drag-king movement on her site, www.madkats.com, said, "As much as it is a deconstruction of masculinity, for me, drag king is a glorification of butch sexuality, a focus for queer desire."
At this year's IDKE, the desiresqueer and otherwisethat kings expressed onstage were diverse. In songs like "Master and Servant" and "Boys and Girls," they did everything from lusting for a dominant-submissive dynamic to exploring bisexual gender play. But a trend I noticed was the appropriation and refashioning of gay male aesthetics and sexual identities, which isn't so surprising considering there's always been a dialogue between gay men and lesbians on the subjects of sex, gender, and style.
Sebastian Cock, Maxx Hollywood, and Izzie Big strutted their stuff as leather-clad cowboys with big dicks and smooth moves in their "Wild Wild West" number. Ken Las Vegas, true to his name, created a flashy Liberace-like character that channeled Elton John singing a Prince song. Curious schoolboys Stu and Johnny KingPin stripped and fondled each other to "I Want Your Sex." (George Michael's songs are perennial king favesit doesn't take much to envision homo desire in his music, since we know with George it's real.) Billy White and Randy Black were Eurotrash fags with campy, synchronized choreography. Austin troupe Kings N Things reimagined "Stranded at the Drive-In" from Grease, in which slick tough guys pawed and poked each other. Ex-ex-gays Jake Danger and Damien Danger put down their Bibles and gave in to their queer lust in one of Friday night's politically charged offerings, and Boise Studley and Geoff E. Lube did a number about two men, one HIV-positive, the other negative, who share needles while shooting heroin. Our gay brothers' influence may fuel them, but these performers carve out their own creations of masculinity and femininityones where dudes wear skirts and flash their breasts, girls pack dicks under their skirts, and nothing is what it appears to be.
While kings borrow from gay men, I haven't seen very many drag queens choose lesbian icons or subtext for their performances. That's just one of the noticeable differences: Kings seem more drawn to collaboration; there are well organized, active, multi-gendered troupes in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Austinand those are just the ones represented at the conference. The results are large, inventive, choreographed numbers that resemble musical theater more than karaoke (who said only fags like musicals?). And, unlike the girls of Wigstock, I was struck by how deeply politicized the majority of IDKE performers were. By day, they debated issues like onstage representations of race and class and misogyny in drag-king culture. By night, they tackled such hot-button topics as homophobia, violence against queer and trans people, corporate greed, war, drug abuse, and incest. Pretty heavy stuff for what used to be thought of as just a bunch of lesbians who dressed like men. Even when kings choose not to have a political agenda, some argue that performing masculinity is itself a political act.
"Our community grows larger and more diverse every year as charismatic entertainers and hardcore activists share one stage," says IDKE producer Síle Singleton. "Folks come here to learn, to connect, and to be inspired by each other; we take that energy home to our cities and towns and colleges, where we continue to raise awareness about gender performance to the mainstream world."