Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret

"Obsessed with dressing in the clothes of your own sex? If so, you'll learn lots about your condition from the witty, raunchy, and smart Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret. With Rupp and Taylor as wise guides, you'll enter the theatrical world of female impersonators; here, genders are bent, sexualities questioned, and the political is entertaining. A lively, thought-provoking work."—Jonathan Ned Katz, author of Love Stories

"This lively and engaging book is smart and moving, serious and entertaining. With a quirky cast of Key West drag queens, Rupp and Taylor tell a compelling story about the political import of performances that confound the boundaries of masculine and feminine, gay and straight, and respectable and vulgar. Open this inviting book, and let the show begin."—Joanne Meyerowitz, author of How Sex Changed

"Fired up by their own inner drag queens, Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor have come back from Key West with one amazing book-tender, affectionate, and insightful. The 801 Girls and their world come through in three full-color dimensions, and Rupp and Taylor persuasively show how the drag queens, with humor and raunch, challenge sex and gender conventions every day of the week. Like the 801 Girls, Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret is smart, shameless, funny, and can kick your ass."—Joshua Gamson, author of Freaks Talk Back

Elsewhere on the web:

Website of the
801 Cabaret


An excerpt from
Drag Queens
at the 801 Cabaret

by Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor

Being a Drag Queen

First things first: not all men who dress as women are drag queens. The day after we first went to a regular Monday afternoon drag queen meeting, we went to observe a planning session at the pool of the place where Margo was house-sitting. David (Margo), Sushi, and Roger (Inga) began to make distinctions among different kinds of men who dress in women's clothing, but they said nothing about straight cross-dressers who do it for the erotic (heterosexual) thrill. When we talked to R.V., he identified cross-dressers or transvestites as straight and drag queens as gay. So the first distinction is on the basis of sexual identity.

Then there are categories based on physical transformations of different degrees. Titty queens get breasts through either hormones or implants but keep their penises. Sushi describes them as "in-betweens." Transsexuals have sex-reassignment surgery. In contrast to these, drag queens keep their male bodies (although as we have already seen some facial transformation is acceptable). David tells of first reading about Christine Jorgensen's famous transformation from a man to a woman. David was at the time a young gay teenager in New York, and it scared him. "I did not want to be a woman, and here it is in the paper that this may be what I have to do." It scared a lot of gay men, he says. "Is this what you're supposed to want? And I knew I didn't want this. I mean, I would like to have the mink coat, but I don't want to be a woman." Kylie says he wouldn't mind having tits just for the show, "Like if I could take a pill to have them . . . and then take another pill to make them go away. I would do that. . . . They would be good for the show." In one show Sushi asks the audience whether she should get tits. "You think I should get some big bazoongas, you know, like a size D? I'd have to sleep with them. These I can take off, as you've already noticed." R.V. says he likes his tits being machine washable.

So drag queens are gay men who dress as but don't want to be women or have women's bodies. The girls will occasionally announce in the show that "drag queen" means "dressed roughly as girls." Within the category of gay men who dress in women's clothing but keep all of their male bodies, there are further distinctions based on performance style. Female impersonators keep the illusion of being women. Kevin Truehart, who performed at 801 for a time as Lady Victoria or Lady V, identifies as a female impersonator, not a drag queen. He hates the term "drag" because "over the years, it's been made out to be something very trashy and tacky." His take echoes the distinction between "stage impersonators" and "street impersonators," the latter, like Sushi in his days on the streets in Los Angeles, young men who sell themselves on the streets and live a marginal life. Lady V does celebrity impersonation: Barbra Streisand, Lucille Ball, Cher, and Liza Minnelli. "I started with Lady Victoria first and she spawned them all." If he did Lady Victoria full-time, he says, then he would be a drag queen. But there's no uniform understanding of such a distinction. A gay male dancer at one of the local clubs describes female impersonation as "just a job. It's getting up and singing Cher songs dressed up as Cher." Adding creativity to motivation to explain the difference, he says, "A drag queen is somebody who goes out, puts an outfit together, puts a routine together by themselves, their act, their dance and all that stuff, picks a song that they're gonna do it to, and comes out and does it. Not as Cher. Not as somebody." On the other end of the spectrum—if there even is one—from Lady V is Scabby, who mostly doesn't try to look like a woman at all. Lady V describes Scabola as a cross between a drag queen and a club kid, others describe her drag as "camp." Although the 801 Girls have different styles, they all identify as drag queens. "Did I tell you that I'm a drag queen?" Sushi asks the audience. "I'm a drag queen. I'm not a female impersonator; I know that I don't have a pussy yet. Yet. I don't have a pussy yet." Onstage another night Sushi explains, "A drag queen is somebody who knows he has a dick and two balls."

Being a drag queen requires having a drag name. When Sushi announced at a Monday meeting that he was going to put us in drag, they told us a trick for coming up with a drag name: take the name of your first pet for your given name and the name of the street where you lived, or, if that doesn't sound right, your mother's maiden name, for your family name. Voilá, Leila became "Jinxie Dogwood" and Verta, "Blackie (transformed in the course of the evening to 'Blackée') Warner." None of the girls use names made up in this way, although John "Ma" Evans concocted his first, "Joletta Bridgeway," which he still uses occasionally, with this method. The name "Ma," we should say, is not his drag name; local author June Keith reports that as the middle child in a family of eleven, he baby-sat so often, his younger siblings started calling him "Ma." When Ma first came to the 801, he used "Arlene Goldblatz," then he became "Majongg" or "MaJon." Margo, originally "Margot," "just happened," says David. He dropped the "t" because he realized that everyone would mispronounce it. Sushi was once "Soy Sauce" and obviously plays on her Japanese heritage. Kevin couldn't think of a name, but a friend came up with "Kylie Jean Lucille" and he liked it. Gugi, too, got his name from a friend. He entered Miss Firecracker, the amateur drag queen contest in Key West on the Fourth of July, and his manager at the bar suggested "Gugi Gomez," a character played by Rita Moreno:

I'm like, "'Gugi Gomez!' That doesn't roll off the tongue!" And he goes, "No, you have to see this movie, The Ritz. It's with Rita Moreno; she's launching to sing in a gay men's bathhouse. And so people think, the guys here think she's a drag queen." . . . And he goes, "OK, why don't you rent the movie, and if you don't like it, I'll pick out another one for you." So I saw the movie. She had this little number she did, "I Had a Dream" [he sings it]. Only in a thick Spanish accent. . . . And then she's walking down the hallway—that's where I got the idea that this was going to be my name—this gay guy goes up to her and says, "You did a fabulous performance." She goes, "Thank you, thank you." "You look so real for a drag queen." She looked at him [now Gugi takes on an exaggerated Spanish accent], "I'm not a drag queen! Do you think I don't know what you boys do in that back room, hee-hee-hee-hoo-hoo-hoo, boys." After that, I said, "That's my name. That's it."

The first time Dean did drag in Key West, someone asked what her name was, and she came up with "Milla," thinking "measly muscles," because he didn't have any. Roger would never use "Inga" in Sweden, but it works here since she's billed as the "Swedish Bombshell." R.V. started as "Vivian Redbush," became "Vivian Redbush Beaumont," then "V.R. Beaumont." One night a drunken friend called him "R.V. Bushmont," and the R.V. stuck, although the Bushmont didn't. When Matthew entered his first lip-synch contest, after being inspired by Priscilla, he chose the name "Enema Squirts." They refused to announce it, so he had to come up with something different at the spur of the moment. Obviously he tries hard to be repulsive and in-your-face. He had cut his head shaving and felt the scab, and he had to go to the bathroom because he was nervous and all done up in his leather corset, so "Scabola Feces" he became.

To a different extent for the different girls, the use of drag names symbolizes the creation of a separate personality. "Sushi is different than Gary," says Sushi. In fact, Gary says, Greg (his former partner of seven years) and Sushi did not get along. Even David, who became a drag queen late in life, describes David as "an entirely different person" from Margo, although "now they are coming together more and more." He says he's a Gemini so there are two sides, but he's always been shy and introverted. "Since doing the drag, a lot of Margo has taken over. . . . I am far more verbal and outgoing as David than I ever was before." Timothy, too, is shy and describes himself as introverted. "I can't even go order a slice of pizza." Given his stage presence, we thought he would talk our ears off when we interviewed him, but then we realized that that was R.V. and this was Timothy. "That's a whole different person up there. Different personality," he says. A local gay man who is friends with R.V. says, "If I see Tim out somewhere, I'll say, 'Hi, Tim.' To me it's almost two people even though I know they're the same person; it's two different personalities, two different personas." When a professional photographer shot all the girls and hung the photos in the bar, Tim complimented her by saying she had caught him as both R.V. and himself.

Roger also takes on a different style. "As Inga I can do things I could never do as Roger, I would never do." In an interview Roger tells the reporter that his friends don't much like Inga, who is aggressive. He thinks Inga might be therapeutic, allowing him to express a darker side of his own personality. Kevin says, "Kylie is me," but admits that "Kylie is more expressive . . . when I'm dressed as Kylie, I know that I can get away with so much more. Doesn't mean that I want to do it all the time." In another context he tells us, "No one calls me Kevin anymore; sometimes I worry that Kevin is gone." Desiray, Gugi's drag daughter who joined the show after Gugi and Inga left, describes being able to "go out there and do anything because it's a totally different person. Joel can't do it, but Desiray can." Dean describes keeping Dean and Milla separate because he understood that not being able to live apart from your image—he mentions Boy George here—leads to drugs and breakdown. "That's why there's Dean and Milla. For a while there wasn't." Milla "became a therapist" for him and a "healer." But at another time, Dean complains about being tired of the monster he had created, meaning the celebrity of Milla.

Gugi at first says that there isn't a difference, that "it's what's in me. It's all those years of being in myself. The pain and everything else. The fear of not being in control of my love or not feeling—it's coming out. That's, Gugi is what is on the inside of Rov." Later he adds, "But now, I can't separate Gugi and Rov." But he seems to contradict that: "Actually, sometimes Gugi overwhelms Rov." Then he seems to notice this: "But in turn, how can I, because it's me." In fact, Gugi seems to act in ways that Rov never would: she's aggressive and sexual, while Rov is shy and sweet. Lady V describes having to work at keeping his identity. "One thing I like about Matthew," he says, "is he doesn't lose his identity with Scabby. When he takes it off, he becomes Matthew. But when he gets dressed, he becomes Scabby. . . . I mean, I've had to really work hard at separating." But now, he says, "it's just putting on a uniform."

The notions of both separation and fluidity are expressed in the language the drag queens use in talking to and about one another. The way they use names and pronouns follows no clear pattern. Or rather, they almost always use their drag names, with certain exceptions. Sushi says he barely even knows their real names, and when we gave them the book prospectus to read at a drag queen meeting, Roger commented how odd it was to see a list of boys' names. Matthew's parents don't know he is a drag queen—they think he's a bartender—and one day his mother called the bar and asked for Matthew and someone said, "No Matthew works here."

Sushi is "Sushi" to almost everyone except her former partner, and Kevin (Kylie), her best friend, and in turn Sushi is the only one who ever calls Kylie "Kevin." Sushi says she doesn't know when Kylie calls her Sushi and when Gary. Kylie says, "I consciously have to remember to call her Gary." Nevertheless, when they moved in together, their answering machine message instructed callers to push one number for Sushi or Gary and another for Kylie or Kevin. Gugi always wants to be called Gugi, while Roger dislikes being called Inga unless he is in drag. David says that as many people call him David as Margo, and he doesn't care. "If I ever retire from drag and people continue to call me Margo, it's quite all right with me!" So there are different preferences among them. But unlike transgender activists, who like to be addressed in the gender of presentation, the drag queens slip easily and unnoticed out of their usual use of the female gender. For example, when we asked Sushi about how he got Kylie to come to Key West, he said: "I begged her and begged her, come on down. He was tired, I could tell he was tired of his life there." Talking about the use of drag versus real names, Sushi says, "I call him Milla; I don't call her Dean." Kevin says he has to remember to call "her" Gary and then adds, "A lot of people don't even know his name is Gary." At a drag queen meeting, when they talk about Musty Chiffon, a visiting drag queen, Matthew says, "I mean, just get to know him, because he really is sweet. She's not interfering with what we're doing at all." R.V. drives his mother nuts because she never knows when he says his "girlfriend" whether he's talking about a real girl or a guy. Verta asks Dean if he minds when she refers to them as "guys," and he says no, but Sushi says, "You should say 'girls,'" but then admits, "Well, sometimes I say 'guys' to girls."

Others outside the drag queen circle have the same trouble with pronouns. One of our focus group members, who had first met Sushi in her capacity as seamstress, said of their first meeting, "As far as I was concerned, she was just another gay man. He was just another gay man. She, he." A young straight woman said of Desiray, "She is so pretty; I'm jealous of him."

What it means to be a drag queen is different for the various girls, although it is possible to see some basic categories. For some, being a drag queen has to do with being in some sense transgendered. Jim Gilleran, the bar owner, gets at this when he says, "This is their identity, and you find yourself going 'she' even when the person's out of drag—like Sushi is a good example." Roger describes Sushi as looking "like a thin Japanese girl." Even Kylie, who first met Gary as a boy, commented in surprise once on a newspaper photo of Sushi, "She looks like a man!" A young lesbian couple who attended one of the shows describes Sushi as an "exception" to their notion that the drag queens are basically men, one saying, "His body just plays the part. . . . I mean I heard without the makeup on the streets, you would think that was just a woman without makeup"; and the other saying, "He's got a good face." A straight woman in her forties thinks that for Sushi, being a drag queen is "almost a role thing. You can tell, I'm not sure she/he knows where it starts and where it stops." Sushi describes himself as "some place in between" a woman and a man. Once he even said to us, "I'm not gay; I'm a drag queen." "I've always been a drag queen," he says another time.

In fact, Sushi's sense of being in between male and female led him to think about becoming a woman for a while. He lived as a woman for about a year and a half, as did Milla. When he was younger, he thought, "'Oh my god, I look like such a woman, maybe I am a woman,' and it sort of confused me." But, he says, "I know I'm a drag queen; I finally realized that. I'm a gay man who puts on women's clothing and looks good." Now, he says: "That's who I am . . . there aren't that many people like me. And if I shut down and quit and say, 'I'm a boy,' and start working out and building muscles [which he did at one point in his life—he points to the vestiges of that body in his still-toned arms] and lying to myself about who I am, then I won't be happy." Yet Kylie says Sushi "has a struggle . . . whether she should be a woman or a man. She looks so odd as a man, you know, not odd but so very distinctive."

That struggle came to the fore in the spring of 2001, when Sushi saw a television show about transgendered people in America. Over dinner she tells us about this transformative experience: "I was home alone because all of my other roommates were working and stuff like that. For some reason, by the end of it, I was crying my eyes out. . . . And I finally realized, oh my god, I'm not a drag queen. I'm a closeted transsexual-transgendered person. And I've been harping and hooting and tooting my horn for years now about being a drag queen—an openly out drag queen. And here I finally realize, I'm not a drag queen. I'm a closeted transgendered person." We ask about the difference. "A drag queen is someone like Kylie who never has ever thought about cutting her dick off. Ever. I think about it once a day, sometimes more." She says she really wants to do it but never will, partly because "it's a religious thing. . . . I was born this way," and partly because "I've been a drag queen for so long, and my whole persona—I don't want to try to change my whole personality again into Susie." We remind Sushi that she told us about her discovery that she was a drag queen, not a woman-wannabe. "But now I'm realizing that it's not that I realized I was a drag queen; I learned how to become a drag queen," Sushi explains.

Shortly after this revelation, Sushi went away for the summer to sew costumes for a theatrical production in North Carolina. He grew a goatee, which is hard to imagine. But then he began to do drag. When Verta asked Kylie whether there were gay bars on the Outer Banks where Sushi was working, Kylie replied, "There are streets, aren't there?"

Gugi, too, has a sense of himself as transgendered in some ways. He talks about the femininity in himself and says, "What I've always wanted was to be a woman." Making the link to sexual identity, he adds, " I don't know if it is because I wanted to be a woman or because I was attracted to men that I preferred to be a woman. . . . Out of drag, I feel like I'm acting. In drag, I feel like myself." The other girls tell us that they worried about Gugi when she went through a phase of never getting out of drag, going out in public all the time as a woman. "That means you've lost your identity," they say, making a distinction between being a drag queen and being on the move toward becoming a transsexual. Gugi herself seems to admit this. "It's just that certain things, I got too extreme with. . . . I started going to the straight side of town. In drag." And in fact Gugi hasn't ruled out becoming a woman. He says he doesn't want to be a titty queen, but, "Yeah, to be honest, I would love [getting breasts]. But it's a process." He likes the idea of not having to wear as much makeup. For two months he did take hormones that he got from his best friend, a transgendered person. "I'm like, OK, like a week after she gave me the shot, I'm feeling all this weird feeling here." He points to his chest. "She's like, 'No, you're not.' I'm like, 'Yes, I am.' She goes, 'No, you're not. You're not supposed to feel it for three months from now.'" He grew breasts and his skin got softer. But he stopped because "it wasn't the right time. I did it for the wrong reasons. I did it to get away from my dad's death and the breakup with my ex-bastard husband."

Dean (Milla) says, "I love being a guy," but as an adolescent, going through problems at home and getting involved in drugs, being sent to what he calls "kiddie jail" and drug treatment, "I decided that I wanted to be a woman." Not just because he liked women's clothes, but because "I didn't like me." He got hormones from a counselor he was seeing with his mother by telling the counselor that he would get them from the drag queens on the street if not from him. He took them for a year and grew breasts. He would go out dressed as a woman and "just have the men fall over, all over me, and with no clue, no clue." He loved it: "It was so away from everything." For a while he thought that he really had to be a woman, and he was seriously considering sex-reassignment surgery. But then, "I started to love myself. I pulled away from that whole effeminate side . . . and I became a man." Now, he says, "I'm so pleased with my penis and my body." With his newly hairy legs, he feels sexy, like a man. Matthew (Scabby) says of his new look, "I saw her yesterday, I said, 'You know what, bitch, if I didn't know you so well, I'd fuck you.'"

Others never thought of themselves as between genders or as women. David (Margo) thinks that Sushi must have "thought of changing or at least getting tits" and knows that Milla has. But, he says, "I don't want to be a woman. I don't understand why anyone would want to do it." If he's in the backroom bar, he doesn't want anyone calling him Margo. There he's a man looking for a man.

For others of the drag queens, dressing as a woman is fundamentally theatrical. Matthew has been involved in theater since elementary school and always loved it. He wanted to go to the Rhode Island School of Design, but his parents insisted that he go to Brown University instead, because that's what his father and grandfather had done. He hated it and left after one semester. He worked with Digital Orgasm, a mixed group of men and women, doing what he describes as "performance art" as a dominatrix. They did "a simulated, futuristic cyber-fetish kind of sex shop. So instead of actually having intercourse onstage, I kinda like beat the guys up with whips and stuff. Shoot grinder sparks in their face. Wrap them in cellophane, stick mag lights up their asses, spin them around on a chain. But it's all fake, it's all simulated, it's not real."

"I loved creating personas," he says. Distinguishing himself from the other drag queens, he says he doesn't do what they do, that is, create one character only; he fashions many. Dean is offended. "What the fuck are you talking about?" Matthew answers, "You are Milla." "I'm Milla, but when I do my fucking performance, do you guys not see me go from one personality to the other?" Although for Dean being a drag queen is more profound, he also identifies as a performer. He, too, was in theater groups from a young age. What he loves is being able to use his feelings, to evoke the pain and anger and love that audience members have felt in their own lives and to express what he is feeling.

Like Dean, Gugi experiences drag as both expressing his transgendered nature and as theatrical. Growing up as a child in Chicago, he performed in church and school plays. He went to the Palestine Christian Temple, a Pentecostal church, and he sang in a school choir until his voice changed. He says, "It just comes to me naturally." He, like Matthew, was artistic. He painted backdrops for photographers, learning from a neighbor of his sister. His first job was for OshKosh, and he did the cover for Chicago magazine. He later did faux finishes for houses and then learned flower arrangement. But he feels that he has found his destiny, to be a performer. "I want to be loved by everyone. I refuse not to. Then I think I'm fully invested in this. It's just part of my destiny. That's why"—he sighs—"I'm like a, how can I explain this? I fit in everywhere, basically. That's one of the talents I think I have."

R.V. did drag for the first time as a professional performer at Disney World. "I was an evil stepsister for the Cinderellabration for New Year's Eve." At thirteen he had been in professional summer stock theater, which he connects automatically with having sex with other boys. He had auditioned for community theater when he was eleven or twelve. His mother thought he wouldn't make it and he would get it out of his system, but he won a spot. Two days after he graduated from high school, he took off to Orlando, unwilling to stop smoking marijuana and live by the rules of his family home. Although he is clearly close to and proud of his mother, he describes his home life as dysfunctional and sees the stage as a way that he could create his own little world. He worked for Disney for fourteen years. There he met drag queens who took him to the Parliament House in Orlando, where he started doing drag. He thought it was really fun and learned to host shows from watching other drag queens. Perhaps that is why he likes "to take the younger girls that want experience onstage and never get a chance. . . . It's that motherly thing inside."

He eventually lost his job at Disney for swearing at a child, so he drove north, running out of gas in Providence, Rhode Island, where he met Scabby's brother, also a drag queen (but a "pretty one"). Eventually he began to perform in the winter in Key West and the summer in Provincetown, but he decided to stay in Key West for the summer of 1999. He defines himself as an entertainer: "I'm an actor in a dress." He loves "the old roar of the crowd and smell of the grease paint . . . the audience appreciation." But he also identifies as a drag queen.

Roger (Inga) has been in the theater since he was ten, and he loves performing. For him it was a natural transition from Romeo and Juliet and the Inferno to Marilyn Monroe and Madonna impersonations. In contrast to some of the other girls, he says, "I never had a need to dress as a girl or wanted to have a sex change." Drag, he says, is an act, not a lifestyle. He worked making costumes for theaters in Gothenburg and Stockholm to support himself when he began doing drag with a group called Sugar and Babes in Sweden. He was accepted into and began classes at a school of performing arts, but he didn't really like being back in school, so he came to the United States to work as a drag queen instead. "I would not trade it, even if some nights it's hard, doing the show, being paid to do it, but I would not trade it for anything. . . . It's fun. It's a game." Matthew agrees. After the death of a lover, the sense of humor that had always been part of Matthew's life as the class clown disappeared, until he came to Key West to do drag. "And now happiness just keeps pouring out," he says, adding in true Scabola fashion, "like this big oozing pimple."

Some of the other girls came to drag as part of their work and continue to see it as primarily a job. David (Margo) had no use for drag when he was growing up: "I thought it was a bunch of silly faggots doing whatever." He was fifty-nine when he first dressed in drag, and he did it reluctantly. He had had a number of successful careers in professional and managerial positions, working as an interior decorator in New York; a guest house manager in St. Thomas; a teacher, school administrator, political activist, and real estate manager back in New York. When he reached the top, he left: "I think I was bored and I'd accomplished what I'd wanted to accomplish." In 1992 he packed up everything in the city and moved to Key West because a friend said he'd love it there. He got a job at the desk of a guest house, and for Fantasy Fest, the wild Mardi Gras-like Halloween celebration, all the employees had to dress in drag. He told the owners, "I'm almost sixty years old. I've never done drag. I'm not interested in drag. I won't do drag."

Finally he gave in. He shaved off the beard he had sported for thirty-five years, put on a boa-trimmed French-cut leotard, donned a wig and high heels. "And the funny thing is when I got dressed and I came out, it was, it became very natural. . . . And I'd never done that since when you're five years old and you put on your mother's high heels and walk around the house." After Fantasy Fest, photographs went up at the guest house, and one day two lesbians staying there saw them and suggested that he get back in drag and come to a tea dance. So he went out, bought a yard of black fabric, wrapped it into a skirt, and went. Sushi, Milla, and Kylie were doing a show at the tea dance at the Atlantic Shores, another gay bar, and Sushi asked Margo whether she did numbers. She said no, but Sushi suggested she bring a CD and perform the next week. "So of course the next Sunday I came back and did a number." He started appearing occasionally with the girls, got fired from his day job for being rude to a guest, and the rest is history. He says he doesn't try to look like a woman: "I'm just a man in a dress."

But if it's work, David loves it. "It's fun!" he writes in Celebrate! "One becomes the center of attention and flaunts the feminine side of the psyche. Like a woman, one has cigarettes lighted, drinks bought and even gifts presented. Just last week a young man gave me a beautiful tennis bracelet. They may not be diamonds, but . . . like drag, it's all illusion anyway." Telling his story in his column, he thanks the guesthouse owners and Sushi "for opening a whole new door and a whole new world for me." In conversation he says, "I don't think that any job I've ever had I've enjoyed as much. I mean, there are days when I say, 'Oh my god, I really don't want to do this.' [The others present at the planning session at the pool express agreement.] But somehow the minute you start making up, that first, once you get the foundation on, you might as well go all the way." Sushi says, "It's that first cocktail." David agrees, but adds, "And then you get into it. I'm having more fun that I've ever had!" Sushi suggests that it wears thin after ten years, but Roger insists that he wouldn't do it if he didn't like it. "Nobody's forcing you to do it." At the same time, Roger admits that "it's work, getting into drag. That's my job. And if I don't get money for it, why should I put myself in this corset, why should I walk around in these high heels for four hours killing my feet?" But in the end, "I love what I'm doing, otherwise I wouldn't do it."

Gugi, too, first did drag as part of his job, however much it now means something more fundamental to him. When he first came to Key West, he, like David, worked in a guest house, then he got a job where his then-lover worked, One Saloon, the leather bar (now the backroom bar, where men go for sexual encounters, at 801). The entire staff had to dress in drag to raise money. Echoing David, Gugi says, "I didn't want to do it!" Also like David, he didn't like drag queens. He, like other gay men, thought there was "something wrong with them," while now he believes that "they're more the stronger person than the regular gay fellow." At that time he had hair to his shoulders, so he thought he'd just tease his hair and put on a little tight dress.

I walk into the bar and people look at me and just keep on talking. People that I knew, since I got into town. I was like, "Hello, it's me, Rov." I'm like, "What, do I look bad?" They're like, "No, you look so real. . . . We're going to take you to Rick's or Sloppy Joe's [straight bars]; no one's gonna tell the difference." I'm like, "Well, thank you," but in my head I'm like, "Yeah, right, motherfucker. The lights are low, you've had too many cocktails, you don't know what the hell you're talking about."
And then he performed. Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."
The first time I did it, I was looking at the ceiling. I started getting comfortable about halfway through the number. I finally looked down, I'm looking at the audience, I'm just standing there like, "What do I do?" . . . The second time around, I was like, "I'm gonna go for this, I'm gonna take it." Tore it up! Tore it up! It was like, bam! After that, people started asking me to do benefits left and right.

For Kevin (Kylie) it really is "just a job." He says that it isn't always fun, that sometimes he thinks, "God, maybe I would rather be working at Ralph's," the grocery store where he put in eleven years. "It gets to be, it can be just as tedious at times." But he does remember the first time he saw a flyer with his name on it. "I was a little bit excited," he says, obviously an understatement.

Audience members are curious about why the drag queens do what they do and come up with explanations that, interestingly, mirror those that the girls themselves offer. A gay male couple from New York who have become friendly with the girls say, "They're people just like anybody else and that just happens to be their profession." Two straight couples assume that it's just a job—one of the women thinks probably a bad one. One of the men, touching on the theatrical motivation and comparing them to women who become strippers or porn stars, wonders if they wanted to break into show business and couldn't do it any other way. A lesbian from New York disagrees, saying, "I think it's a choice. . . . There are so many things on earth that they could be doing, that for a man to go as far as to dress up as a woman, there's a leap. I think something happens." Her lover agrees with her: "I think that [it] is something very important to them." This prompts one of the straight women in the focus group to talk about the friend of a friend who is a male-to-female transsexual and wants to stay married to her wife, despite the fact that she identifies as straight.

A local gay man, comparing the girls to more traditional female impersonators, says, "It's less of a job and more fun"; they put "a lot more of their own self into it and their own feelings and they enjoy what they're doing." A young straight woman who lives in Key West and considers the girls her friends offers a psychological explanation: "I think that the reason why anybody is doing this is because there's something missing and this is filling one of those empty spots within them." A gay male physician from Boston loves drag because "it seems to me a pure expression of self. . . . They get to project exactly what they want to be." "I think there's an acceptance that they get when they're onstage that they don't necessarily get when they're offstage," says a woman photographer who has come to know them rather well. A gay male lawyer who lives in Key West emphasizes the different motivations: "For some of the performers, it's an employment of last resort. For some of the performers, it's their pattern. For some of them, it's a temporary thing between other things. For some of them, it's who they are."

Clearly being a drag queen has different meanings and different levels of importance in the girls' lives, although the lines between transgenderal, theatrical, and occupational reasons are not clear-cut. But even for those who came to the life and continue to see it as primarily a job, there's a kind of identity involved in being a drag queen. Mama, part of the 801 family, captures this when she remembers her attitude the first time she dressed in drag in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1967: "If I don't like it, I will be gay but not a drag queen." All of the 801 Girls are drag queens, and that has a profound impact on how they live their lives, how they relate to other people, and how they see the world.


Watching the transformation that takes place in the dressing room, and listening to the girls' accounts of their gender and sexuality as boys, it's easy to see in concrete terms how unstable the categories of "masculine" and "feminine" really are. The rigidity of the categories in mainstream culture is reflected in the confusion of boys like Sushi, who thought that his sartorial desires meant that he wanted to be a woman. Or in Sushi's objection to being called "sweet": "It's the men inside of us. Most men don't like to be called sweet or cute." "Drag queen" emerges as a kind of third-gender category in a society that insists that there are only two. One gay male audience member captured this when he said he didn't think of them as either men or women, but as "their own thing. I feel like a drag queen is completely different." In that sense, drag queens are like others who fall between or bridge or challenge the division between masculine and feminine. As other scholars have suggested in considering the butch-fem bar culture of the 1950s or the "female masculinity" of women who look like men on a permanent or temporary basis or transgendered prostitutes in Brazil, such "in-betweens" are not about aping the other side of the divide. Rather, these are people who create their own authentic genders, and those constructions are important in helping us to think in a complex way about what makes a man a man and what makes a woman a woman.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 31-44 of Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret by Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the author.

Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor
Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret
©2003, 274 pages, 46 halftones
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-73158-8

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret.

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