A drag ball from the 1920s

In the beginning, there were drag queens. After all, Jesus and his Apostles did wear dresses by today’s standards. But I think those scrolls got lost somewhere. Instead, today’s lesson is “Drag Herstory 101: From the 1800s through the 1920s Pansy Craze.” Let us now explore — where did the phrase drag queen come from? And how far back can we find drag queens in history — or herstory?

It is still debatable where the term drag or drag queen comes from. Some still share the notion that the term “drag” dates back to Shakespearean times. Plays would have all characters played by men “dressed resembling a girl.” In the play script, it would abbreviate “DRAG.”

Others date the phrase “drag queen” back to the late 1800s. It was a reference to the hoop skirt that would “drag” along the ground. The term “queen,” which is related to the Old English word “quean” or “cwene” which referred to women, was also used as a derogatory term toward homosexuals and promiscuous women in the 1800s.

Another possibility is that it derives from the Romani word for skirt, which appears in a number of Romani dialects of Northern Europe with forms like “daraka” and “jendraka.”

Hmmmm…so it’s safe to say, “It’s complicated.”

I am constantly reminded in our diverse LGBTQ community that words don’t have meaning. We give words meaning based on our shared experiences. If we define drag queens as men who defy gender norms and dress as women, then we have many examples of drag queens dating back to the 1800s. (And for the focus of this lesson, I am separating the discussion of trans people for now.)

Photo Credit: Matthew’s Island of Misfit Toys

One of the most intriguing drag queens of the 1800s was Madam Pattarini or her real name Brigham Morris Young. Oh yeah that’s right! B. Morris Young was the son of Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). His father also founded Salt Lake City, and he served as the first governor of the Utah Territory. And if you’re Mormon you also know of his namesake conservative Mormon college, Brigham Young University.

So B. Morris Young, the son of one of the fathers of the Mormon Church, was a drag queen by the name of Madam Pattarini. He began publicly performing as a cross-dressing singer in north and central Utah venues from 1885 to the 1900s. Madam Pattarini was said to have a convincing falsetto, and many in the audience did not realize that Pattirini was Young. Believe it or not. Still, early LDS audiences responded positively, and Pattarini was quite popular at the time.

Then there were Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, also in the 1800s. Both shocked Victorian London when they walked through the streets in women’s clothing. Their names were “Fanny and Stella” and they are said to be the first men to openly go out in public in drag. They shocked so many pedestrians that the police launched investigations that were normally reserved for high criminal offenses. Because no law specifically forbade “cross-dressing,” men found in women’s clothing were usually arrested for “the abominable crime of buggery” or for prostitution.

While not widely accepted in the 1800s, drag was not always as taboo as it would eventually become in the 1940s and later.

Around the turn of the century was one of my personal favorites, Julian Eltinge. He became one of the most popular vaudeville performers with his drag. Eltinge was so popular that he even launched his own magazine full of wardrobe and makeup advice for women.

It is during the 1920s that drag becomes more closely aligned with the gay community with the creation of “drag balls.” These originally started as enormous parties where most men dressed in drag. These drag balls gained more cultural attention and eventually started the period deemed the “Pansy Craze.”

New York, Paris, Berlin and London were the epicenters for the Pansy Craze and performers like Rae Bourbon, Harry S. Franklyn and Vander Clyde, or “Barbette,” were quite popular as a result. Barbette traveled around the States and Europe with her infamous aerial act, which featured death-defying trapeze stunts in full drag. At the end of her act, she would remove her wig and strike a masculine pose. Sound familiar today?

It was not until the 1940s that gays became increasingly more taboo and were seen as a real threat by the public. Drag or drag queens still had a place in entertainment, however. But gays and the drag balls went underground to avoid growing police harassment and arrests.

And the Pansy Craze was over.

(Bell rings.). Damn. Okay. Until next time when we talk about drag in the 1940s and pre- Stonewall. Class dismissed.

DRAG TIP: After reading today’s lesson, think how fortunate you are to be a drag queen or watch a drag show. Never lose sight of how special things are, that might be taken for granted in our community.

SHOUT OUTS: There is a benefit for Boom Boom on Wednesday, July 4 at 8 p.m. at Boulevard 1820. We hope to begin to raise money to paint a mural in her memory as part of the “Drag Queens of the Queen City” mural project.

info: Buff Faye calls the Queen City home and misses her chats with Boom Boom about drag (plus she loves to raise money for charities). Find her at your favorite bars and hot spots. Plus don’t forget her monthly Friday and Saturday night shows, Sunday drag brunch and regular Friday night party bus. Learn more at AllBuff.com. Follow on Twitter @BuffFaye

Buff Faye

Buff Faye calls the Queen City her home and performs to help save the world from Republicans (and raise money for charities). Find her at your favorite bars and hot spots. Plus don’t forget her monthly...