In recent years drag has gone mainstream. Actually, it’s bigger than that. Drag has become all-conquering, ubiquitous, the performance art of the moment.
The art of cross-dressing for entertainment has a long history, often confined to spaces frequented by consenting adults. By the late 20th century in Britain, drag was drawing an enthusiastic subculture to gay bars such as London’s Vauxhall Tavern, where Lily Savage (aka Paul O’Grady) became a cult figure.
O’Grady consciously built on a gentler British tradition of cross-dressing in pantomime, music hall and TV comedy (think Alastair Sim, Danny La Rue, Hinge & Bracket, Dick Emery, Les Dawson). In the UK, cross-dressing has always had a strong association with comedy.
This seam was mined to great effect by Australian comic Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage – in Humphries’ case, affectionately satirising suburban life, snobbery and the cult of celebrity.
In the past couple of decades drag has broken out of its comedy and gay bar niche and conquered the world. This is thanks in no small part to RuPaul’s Drag Race and its many TV and stage spin-offs, as well as the promotion of Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) in libraries and galleries, in which drag performers read children’s books to young audiences.
The recent rise of drag has been accompanied by a rhetoric of personal empowerment and self-discovery, carried along on a tidal wave of gender theory.
The latest stride in drag’s inexorable, high-heeled advance has been, improbably, into church.
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A few sparkly highlights of the recent arrival of drag in church – in case you have missed them:
In late July 2023 the Christian world awoke to unexpected news. For the first time, a drag artist had topped the iTunes Christian Music charts.
Flamy Grant (a play on popular Christian singer Amy Grant) is the drag name of US worship leader Matthew Blake. Blake’s collaborator is Derek Webb, former vocalist of the band Caedmon’s Call. Webb’s spiritual journey has taken him from the evangelical world, through a period of post-evangelical questioning, to a restless post-Christian position. His honesty about his own faith questions is commendable. Despite his loss of faith, Webb still calls his latest album his ‘first Christian and Gospel album in a decade’.
The lead single from Flamy Grant’s album, Good Day, has been a surprise hit – propelled to the top of the download charts by an audience of inclusive Christians, members of the drag and gay communities, and a general audience who like a hummable song with an empowerment, 'just be yourself' message.
Blake and Webb join forces on one of Webb’s own songs, Boys Will Be Girls. In the video, Webb is made up in drag inside a church, complete with dress, lurid make-up and false eyelashes. Blake and Webb both wear towering, 80s-Bible-Belt-evangelist’s-wife-style wigs.
St James’s Piccadilly & St Mark’s Southend
On 21 July 2023 the Church Times, Britain’s leading Anglican newspaper, published an interview with Elijah Kinne, events manager at St James’s Piccadilly in central London. The photo accompanying the piece was as far removed from a typical Church Times photo as a bemused Archdeacon could imagine. Kinne, a drag queen for 10 years, wears full make-up, with vast tracts of black eyeshadow above the eyes, dark lipstick and a peroxide wig.
A long way from the American Deep South where Kinne grew up, his alter ego Barbara now performs in pubs and Soho bars. Kinne also has a brief to foster the church’s inclusive vision of Christian faith. St James’s Piccadilly hosts a drag night called Preach! This is billed as ‘a sparkling evening’, which 'welcomes drag icons from around the world to perform beneath its ornate gold ceiling, showcasing some of the biggest names in the art of drag, as well as fresh talent.’
In spring 2023 another Church of England Church, St Mark’s Southend, hosted what it described as an ‘age-appropriate’ show for children by drag artist Matt Hunt, aka Queen Kenzie Blackheart. This event hit the headlines locally and nationally because of the protests that accompanied it.
At the end of August 2023 the annual Greenbelt Festival, which had evangelical roots but now identifies as inclusive Christian, will host a School of Drag for children: ‘Through quick drag catwalks, arts and crafts, and Drag Story Time, the School of Drag is the perfect introduction to queer art for youngsters, giving them a chance to enjoy LGBTQ+ stories, meet Drag artists and express themselves creatively in a safe space.’
Drag Church is now joining the inventory of new missional expressions of church, such as Messy Church, Café Church and Forest Church, in contextualising mission for particular groups in a diverse society. One Drag Church states that it ‘provides a nonjudgmental sacred space for people to express themselves proudly, through drag performances and other creative expressions of spirituality… Worship in drag is permission-granting, encouraging individuals to be their authentic selves, exactly as God intended them to be.’
Some Christians are delighted the church is being dragged kicking and screaming into the postmodern world, and see the embrace of drag as Spirit-inspired and liberating.
Others look on aghast, wondering what Teresa of Ávila, John Wesley and John Henry Newman would have made of it all.
What you see depends on which window you look through.
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Windows on Drag
Here are a few of the windows different groups of people might look through when they observe drag in the church:
Advocates say drag is about empowerment, enabling a group of people historically alienated from church to express the true identity they find in the culture of drag. It’s about creating safe spaces for authenticity. Derek Webb sees Christian drag as incarnational, 'Jesus standing with the marginalized and the cast-out and the rejected’. Drag Church is seen as a safe space, a missional movement, and an expression of Christian social justice.
2) Queering Faith
At the risk of stating the obvious, the word queer no longer means odd, and is no longer a slur against a gay person. Queer has been reclaimed as a proud label of identity and a term for anybody or anything at odds with traditional sexual norms. ‘Queering’ is the process of disrupting inherited binary categories seen as imposed and restrictive, and forms an important part of today’s gender theory. From the perspective of queer theology, drag events are deliberate acts of queering church space, unsettling rigid moral assumptions historically associated with church. Queering is seen as an overdue act of reimagining.
One reason Flamy Grant and Derek Webb’s faith-inspired drag reached such a wide audience was the shocked reaction across the Christian community, particularly in the US. Worship leader Sean Feucht tweeted his 100,000 followers:
If you're wondering the end goal of the deconstruction movement in the church, then look no further than former worship leader Derek Webb's new collab with a drag queen. These are truly the last days.
Feucht leads worship at the doctrinally and politically conservative Bethel Church in California. But many Christians from across the church traditions share his view that drag feels very like decadence. To them, it looks more like something from the debauched courts of the Emperor Nero than the early Church, more like a detail from the Hell section of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych than the artist’s image of Heaven.
The charge of decadence does not come uniquely from Christians. American academic Camille Paglia (herself gender non-conforming) sees civilisations through history periodically collapsing into decadence. As a dying culture unravels during its late phase, she says, one of its clearest markers is an ‘anything goes’ approach to sex and gender, a blurring of all boundaries.
A friend of mine, who wouldn’t describe herself as a practising Christian, puts it in less epochal terms – but still sees the explosion of drag as decadent self-obsession: ‘What I’d really like is for people to stop obsessing about, and being manipulated about, first world problems of gender… and start concentrating on wealth inequality and the destruction of the planet.’
4) Children: Binaries and Boundaries
Some critics focus on the overt attempt to normalise drag through Drag Queen Story Hour in libraries and other family drag events. Queer theorists present these events as an overdue challenging of binaries among a younger generation. Others suspect more sinister motives behind the push for access to children, seeing it as a deliberate erosion of protective boundaries.
Men dressed as eroticised women throwing out sexual double-entendres does seem an odd way to educate young children about anything. In 2022, London’s National Theatre hosted family drag performances at its River Stage Festival. Drag queen Ms Sharon Le Grand announced from the stage that children should be taught to 'open their minds, open their hearts and open their legs’. This did nothing to dispel fears among some parents and grandparents that drag for kids may conceal other agendas.
Drag events for children provoke legitimate red-flag safeguarding questions, such as:
If children’s spaces are sexualised, who benefits?
How can a man with even minimal self-awareness not see that putting on lipstick and a frock to gain access to young children looks creepy?
Organisers of the events say it’s all about inclusion. But inclusion never seems to mean library readings by disabled people, migrants, elderly people, poor people, homeless people, people from faith groups, terminally ill people or people with learning difficulties. Or actual women, for that matter.
In any case, if the issue is LGBTQIA+ inclusion, just how representative are drag queens of that wildly diverse (and often mutually prickly) collective? Are they more representative than a lesbian nurse or bisexual journalist?
Asexual Actuary Story Hour still seems as remote a prospect as ever.
Or why not celebrate inclusion by inviting a woman to dress as a man and act out clichés of toxic masculinity, while reading books to children? If not, why is this unacceptable?
Inclusion à la Drag Queen Story Hour seems limited to adult men performing a gaudy, sexualised parody of women. In reality, then, not so much inclusion – more normalising drag. And the nature of drag sends out its own messages to children: about the dignity or otherwise of being female.
That leads directly to our final window on drag.
5) Women’s Dignity and Rights
For me, and for many others, one of the most significant features of drag is what it communicates about women’s dignity and rights. A key term used by some critics is ‘womanface’.
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Drag as Womanface
When I was growing up in 1970s Warwickshire, another local resident was a singer on TV’s Black and White Minstrel Show, a variety show featuring old-time American-style minstrel songs. A white man, every week he would blacken up his face for the show.
I felt deeply uneasy about it at the time, and was glad when the show was cancelled years later as racist. White people in blackface is rightly seen today as a demeaning caricature of black people.
I don’t see drag as a sign of the end-times. But I do see it as womanface – a demeaning, sexualised parody of women. The fact that blackface is today seen as evil, while womanface is seen as liberating and authentic, to be encouraged, celebrated and and funded, feels bizarre and offensive. It is explicable only by one word: misogyny.
Ah, but this is hip, ironic, postmodern misogyny, as opposed to that ol' time misogyny.
Drag culture today has become significantly more sexualised since the heyday of Les Dawson, Danny La Rue and Dame Edna. Gone is the family-friendliness of the panto dame or a Mrs Doubtfire.
Today’s drag shows tend to involve grotesque pastiches of sexualised womanhood: thick clownish make-up, extravagantly bouffant hair, exaggerated breasts, sexualised costumes including kink and fetish gear, burlesque-style routines, suggestive gestures, jokes about female biology, and stage-names that are often highly offensive. It’s very much an adult form of entertainment.
The popularity and omnipresence of drag in the media is a serious issue for our culture. It’s also a serious issue for the church, which doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to respecting women’s voices, agency, dignity and full personhood down the centuries.
What is the church communicating when the latest trend in theology and contextual mission is a sexualised parody of a group of people who bear the brunt of male violence? In the UK alone, the number of women killed by men averages one every three days, and countless more are injured.
TV, social media, and now some Christian media, carry heartwarming stories of drag artists being their true selves and living their best lives. No doubt this is sincerely felt by those involved in drag.
But when being your true self and living your best life involves a cruel parody of a historically oppressed group, society has a problem, and the church has a problem.
When being your true self and living your best life involves the sexualisation of young children, society has a problem, and the church has a problem.
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From Fundamentalism to Drag
Flamy Grant reflects in interviews on the long journey from Christian fundamentalism to drag.
But the journey from fundamentalism to drag isn’t as long as Flamy Grant imagines. Both have a tendency to peddle regressive caricatures of women.
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© Mike Starkey 2023
Pic: Samantha Hurley, under licence from Burst