Winthrop gets crash course in drag

Influence on culture more than you might realize

Angela Lopez was crowned Miss Don’t H8 Diva 2014.

Angela Lopez was crowned
Miss Don’t H8 Diva 2014.

Drag — show-stopping performances, beat faces, powerful music and confident entertainers. Those familiar with drag culture know it well. Many LGBT people do, too. But, even as drag continues its inroads into the mainstream, many are still unaware of drag’s history and the culture it has helped create.

At Winthrop University in Rock Hill, students are getting the opportunity to learn more about drag. There, the campus LGBT student group recently hosted its annual Drag WU show.

Drag’s influence

Drag and cross-dressing as a cultural phenomenon and community has been part of and influencing society for nearly as long as human civilization itself has existed, including tales of cross-dressing in classical Chinese legends and Greek, Norse and Hindu mythologies. As performance art, drag took hold in Shakespearean theatre productions. Now, drag and the culture it has created has become common in modern society. Many people do not even realize it.

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Drag’s influence can be felt even in the language we use. Common slang words that are used by Americans, particularly American youth, originated from drag culture.  For instance, saying someone has a “beat face” or “is painted” implies that the makeup a person applied is so powerful that it makes them look stunning. “Read,” “tea,” “were,” “serve” and “shade” are a handful of other words that have recently become commonplace in the vocabulary of American youth due to the mainstream attention drag culture has been receiving.

Drag’s cultural influence dovetails with other communities, too, itself drawing on historic trends and fashions from the African-American community and, particularly, early 20th century Harlem. According to Janet Upadhye, a reporter for DNAinfo New York, voguing is an artful dance form that uses exaggerated hand gestures, elaborate poses and was first danced by black drag queens in Harlem. With her song of the same name, Madonna brought vogue into the mainstream in 1990 in honor of the dance that was taking over the underground club scene in the LGBT community.

In more recent years, drag has been represented on the big screen in films like “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Norbit” and “Hairspray.” Perhaps the most recognized drag persona — the person most responsible for drag’s mainstream awareness — is RuPaul Charles. The American actor and drag queen currently hosts and produces the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

While the show focuses on drag queens competing to be “America’s next drag superstar” it also highlights what drag can represent for not only those within the LGBT community, but for anyone who is lacking in confidence which is empowerment.

Charlotte native and drag queen Amber Rochelle said, “I enjoy entertaining.  Whatever is going on in my life at the moment I can put on a song and my problems can just be lifted.  [Drag] has helped me develop into who I wanted to be.”

Students experience drag culture

Drag WU, the drag show hosted by Winthrop University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Ally League (GLOBAL) and Resident Student’s Association allows students to not only enjoy drag culture, but to embrace and be confident in who they are as well.

“Drag empowers a lot of people by looking at others,” said Tayla Johnson, president of GLOBAL. “College is a time for figuring out who you are, no matter if you are gay, straight, or whatever. Just seeing others embrace who they are can be encouraging and empowering.”

For the past three years, GLOBAL has organized prominent drag queen and king performers from the Charlotte area to take the stage at the university and allow students to gain a better understanding of their culture.

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Before the performances began, drag performers Mac Ximus, a local drag king, and Ava, an alum of Winthrop University, explained to the large crowd some context behind drag culture. They began by clarifying that there is a difference between drag and cross-dressing. Drag is done as a career and out of entertainment for the performers and their audiences, whereas cross-dressing is more for people who feel more comfortable dressing as the opposite sex and it is a part of their daily life.

Ava also briefly explained the process that drag performers go through, specifically drag queens, by using elaborate costumes, wigs and makeup to transform themselves for performances.

“Our main goal is to present gender fluidity through performance,” said Ava. “Getting a lot of drag performers together takes a lot of time, effort, and duct tape.”

With the intention of displaying a larger variety of performers than previous years, this year’s Drag WU showcased an eclectic array of talents, dancing technique and personas. Performances included “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child, Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” and power house ballads like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

The main commonality between all of the entertainer’s performances was the underlying tone of confidence and empowerment. As the entertainers successfully executed their dance moves and splits they exuded self-assurance to their audience.

“Drag makes people feel comfortable with themselves,” said Ava. “If I can do it what’s stopping you from doing what you want in life.” : :

— Raven Brown is a junior at Winthrop University, majoring in digital information design with a concentration in digital mass media and a minor in political science. Brown volunteers as the publications representative for the Council of Student Leaders, web editor for The Roddey McMillan Record and secretary of the Winthrop Taekwondo Club.

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