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[whitespace] Lucia Love Queen for a Day: Lucia Love (left) gets ready for her close-up as Virgin Drag Queen 1999.

Cherry Blossoms

On sex and temperament in performative society of the virgin 'Drag Queen'

By Mark Ewert

Every anthropologist feels a deep sense of anxiety when going into the field for the first time. "Will the tribe I'm studying accept me? Have I sufficiently prepared myself by learning their culture? What if I screw up and they boil and eat me?" These and other questions assailed me as I journeyed deep into the heart of the Tenderloin to report on the annual ritual known as the "Virgin Drag Queen Contest," an ancient and extremely important rite of passage among the Drag Queen people, that proud and mysterious clan.

Wearing my T-shirt that says "Friend" on it, to communicate my good intentions, I penetrated the New Meat Campus Theater, a so-called sex club, one of the many types of environs the nomadic DQ people (as they prefer to be called) are known to frequent. Flashing my credentials at the front door, I warily made my way upstairs to the Dressing Room, where, for the first time, I was completely surrounded by DQs. All previous studies done on this ethnic grouping portray DQs as capable of extreme verbal and physical violence if shown disrespect, so how relieved I was when I instead found myself immediately and warmly accepted by the DQs, who were already gathering and performing their extremely elaborate grooming activities, with all the intensity of a hunter preparing to hunt his or her first wild boar. Perhaps I was so well-received because I came bearing offerings of "publicity," a substance I have heard DQs will do anything to obtain.

The Virgin Drag Queen Contest is an intricate ritual I hope I will be able to accurately convey. In the contest, young men who are not yet DQs become DQs by the public adoption of feminine attire, makeup, mannerisms, etc. And the young men's ordeal does not stop there, for to truly be accepted as DQs they must complete their initiation by performing solo onstage in front of the tribal elders. These performances often consist of "lip-syncing"--mouthing the words to campy old pop songs, the more clichéd the better--while giving out lots of "attitude," a characteristic hard to define, but seemingly marked by much flouncing of the hips, rolling of the eyes and other displays of histrionics. After this, the young men have crossed over and are now full members of the Drag Queen tribe. They will no longer be perceived as men. They will take on feminine names, which often involve a double-entendre, or other pun, and will henceforth be referred to as "she," or "girleena."

Needless to say, a complex kinship system underlies this remarkable transformation. A "Drag Mother" is an older DQ who takes an uninitiated youngster under "her" wing and trains him in all the ways of the tribe. At this point I confess I grew rather confused, for one young man who transformed into a long-tressed temptress named Lucia Love had not one but two Drag Mothers, both of whom were not DQs but actual men. "We're lesbian moms!" the men chorused proudly. "As soon as we got our daughter off the nipple, we slapped a wig on her."

Complicating matters further was the presence of "Faux Drag Queens," who self-identify as "genetically challenged DQs," i.e. DQs trapped in the bodies of actual women. (They appear to play a medial role in DQ culture, something like that of the Native American "two-spirit," or the Siberian shaman.) One Faux Drag Queen, Bea Dazzler, explained her condition thusly: "All my life I knew I was different from the other little girls, but I didn't have a name for my condition, until just a few years ago. I am a Faux Drag Queen. For the first time in my life I can truly be myself."

Now, I had been warned about the viciousness DQs directed against members of their own kind, but nowhere did I see the stereotypical savagery I had come to expect from such ethnographic landmarks as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Au contraire. Backstage in the dressing room, these young men-women, who in a few short hours would be competing for the title of "Virgin Drag Queen 1999," treated one another with the utmost respect. When one virgin announced that she didn't have a mother and was therefore a drag orphan, Lucia and her lesbian moms cried as one, "We'll adopt you!" And virgin DQ Jennifer Damilla Lane, while filling out her "Entry Form," was repeatedly heard to ask the room full of people busily preparing for the show, "How do I spell my name?" And the busy DQs told her.

While an anthropologist tries to remain detached and objective, I couldn't help but fall under the spell of one DQ family in particular, the Sprays: Harry, Kitty and their lovely, if big-boned, "daughter," Pepper. Kitty Spray was quite the elegant matron with a voice and a look not unlike Carol Channing's, and was very forthcoming to me about the ins and outs of DQ culture.

"Oh, we're sho lucky to have gotten Pepper at the very lasht minute," Kitty exclaimed, in her charming lisp. "It's getting sho hard to adopt even minority babiesh theesh daysh that it wash a miracle that a little whitey like Pepper here shlipped through." When I asked Kitty if there were any support groups for DQ families, just as lesbians and gays have P-FLAG, she instantly replied, "Why yesh, it'sh called FLACID: Friendsh and Loversh of Active Children in Drag," displaying the quick wit and verbal ingenuity DQs are known around the world for.

In a more private moment, Kitty turned to dapper husband Harry and murmured, "Honey, I couldn't be more hot in here if I wash [expletive deleted] myself with a curling iron--Can you get me a drink?"

I turned to Pepper and whispered, "I love your mother--she's brilliant!"

"Yes," Pepper said shyly, "sometimes I feel dwarfed by her."

Kitty, who had apparently been following our every word, turned and looked shocked. "Why, honey!" she told Pepper fervently. "You know you can borrow my curling iron anytime!"

I would like to report that I caught the entire performance part of the fifth annual Virgin Drag Queen Contest, but that would be a lie. Drag Queens, you see, do not observe the Gregorian calendar, the five-day workweek, the 24-hour day, or any other time-ordering known to man. Instead, these noble but simple people view time as an elastic substance that can be stretched and expanded as long as possible, provided that at least one queen is onstage at all times. This queen may in fact be doing nothing more than lip-syncing extremely "tired" old songs or telling "jokes," but astoundingly, this seems to placate a DQ audience. Even the same queen getting up time after time after time to do "numbers" that weren't funny the first time, and do not improve upon subsequent viewing, kept the crowd entertained. DQs are not a self-effacing people. After two hours of queens trying to ritually upstage each other--and these were still just the hosts and the judges!--I decided my job as anthropologist was now over. Only days later did I realize that what I first took to be spider bites on my arm were, in fact, scabies. Ah well. I never expected my first field report to be without its dangers .

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From the November 8, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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