This article was published on January 23rd, 2023
The latest hydra in the many-headed-monster of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from the Republican party comes via the assertion that drag is analogous to blackface. Back in 2015, Mary Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, made headlines when she compared the practice of dressing in drag to the practice of blackface, stating that just as blackface mocks Black people by perpetuating racist stereotypes, drag as an art practice mocks women and perpetuates misogynistic stereotypes.
Cheney wrote on her Facebook, “Why is it socially acceptable – as a form of entertainment – for men to put on dresses, make up and high heels and act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc.) – but it is not socially acceptable – as a form of entertainment – for a white person to put on blackface and act out offensive stereotypes of African Americans?”
While Cheney later emphasized that she was “not drawing any comparisons between white people painting their faces black and transgender individuals, only men who entertain in drag.” However, the initial transphobic, homophobic, and racist, sentiments of her claims remain and have been co-opted as yet another right-wing talking point.
Gay, queer, and trans individuals dressing up and performing as women is not the same as white actors painting their faces with cork so they can continue to perpetuate racist stereotypes. After the Civil War, white performers portrayed characters that sought to mock and demean African Americans via elaborate skits portrayed in minstrel shows. Most of the actors who performed in blackface were poor, working-class Irish individuals.
David Leonard, a professor of comparative, ethnic, and American studies at Washington State University, explained to history.com, “They did it to authenticate their whiteness,” he says. “It was the same as saying ‘We can become the other and mock the other and assert our superiority by dehumanizing the other.’”
For example, Jim Crow laws got their name from the Jim Crow song-and-dance routine that white actor Thomas Rice performed throughout the 1820s and ‘30s. Rice eventually became known as the “father of American Minstelry.” Some Black actors even performed in blackface because that was the only way that they could break into the entertainment industry. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century “Jim Crow” was used as a blanket term to describe actions, laws, and rhetoric that oppressed Black people.
Drag is an act of radical celebration and resistance. Drag queens use drag for everything from building queer community to an educational tool like Drag Queen story hour. When a drag queen dresses up as a pop star, she’s paying homage to the greats of the music industry or film, not trying to strip anyone of their fundamental humanity or rights. And while misogyny is a prevalent issue in drag communities, the intention of drag was and is never to make a mockery of the subject.
Blackface, meanwhile, has always been rooted in hatred and mockery. Unlike drag, there is no respect or artistry to be found in Blackface. Initially popularized by the minstrel shows that traversed the American countryside throughout the early twentieth century, blackface perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Black men and women, characterizing them as lazy, ignorant, and hyper-sexual.
It is worth noting, however, that the earliest participants in drag ball culture of the ‘1920s were mostly white men. According to Grinnell College’s Sociology department, “Black queens rarely participated, and when they did, they were expected to lighten their faces (Cunningham 1995).”
In order to fight back against the restrictive and racist attitudes that were perpetuated throughout ball culture at the time, queer Black performers established their own underground drag ball communities.
Drag culture, just like any other aspect of popular culture, is not immune to the ability to cause harm and perpetuate racist ideologies. One key difference is that drag as a culture seeks to empower both audiences and performers alike, encouraging performers and fans to express themselves and their truth.
At its core, blackface is a fundamentally dehumanizing practice. Blackface and minstrel shows sought to reduce Black people to a one-dimensional caricatures. Whereas drag seeks to celebrate their performers and uplift audiences, minstrel shows and blackface, “ helped to popularize the belief that blacks were lazy, stupid, inherently less human, and unworthy of integration.”
Drag seeks to celebrate humanity, our struggles, our art, and every facet of gender expression. To practice drag is to not reduce oneself to a one-dimensional caricature hell-bent on harm. To practice drag is to participate in a lively and storied community that thrives on joy and collaboration, not divisive outdated vitriol.