I’m standing backstage of Tate Grand Hall at the University of Georgia’s student center, which, like everything else in Athens, is eclipsed by the football stadium next door. Tonight, though, the 100,000-seat venue is hauntingly quiet as the Bulldogs are in Kentucky. Instead, a much different spectacle has come to town: The Lambda Alliance ‘Slay Bells Ring!’ Holiday Drag Show. In it, queer undergrads share the runway with veteran drag professionals — men, women or otherwise — who demonstrate how to question, subvert and mock the gender binary, thereby exploding it into a million glittery pieces.
In one corner, a pair of plus-size, blinged-out professional queens, Yasmine Alexander and Kellie Divine, tutor a princess on how to construct fake tits from a rolled-up wig. “Girl,” one instructs, “If it starts to peek out, just pretend you have a glandular disorder.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the dressing room, a gang of drag kings — i.e, female and trans performance artists who dress in masculine drag — are learning how to walk like a man. “It’s a swagger, not a sashay,” instructs Diego Wolf, a 37-year-old goateed trans man with a booming voice and Burt Reynolds-level chest hair. He repeatedly tells a rookie king who has begun to transition to relax. “Listen man,” he offers encouragingly, “there’s no way you can do this if you’re freaking out.”
As a “drag king consigliere,” Wolf counsels drag princes on everything from binding their breasts (“Duct tape is problematic because it has absolutely no give. So it’s dangerous when you’re performing because your lungs are trying to expand but there’s no room”); to packing their groins (“I’ve tried every packer on the market, including a custom-molded $1,500 medical prosthetic from Australia”); to hormone shots (“You’ll likely have acne issues when starting testosterone; it can be worse than being a pre-teen”).
Speaking of hormones, Wolff explains that they can transform new kings into aggressive prepubescents in an adult’s body. Unfamiliar with how to perform masculinity, they’ll often model the alpha males they see on TV, something their song selections quickly give away. “Most drag kings I see in early transition either choose primal, angry punk rock songs like ‘Bodies Hit The Floor’ or songs about male prowess and conquest like ‘Blurred Lines,’” says Wolf. “I’ve literally seen someone do ‘My Dick’ by Mickey Avalon.”
That’s why Wolf applauds a pair of lesbians dressed as 1920s gangsters who are set to make their drag king debut with Jidenna’s “Classic Man.” It’s an outstanding song choice, Wolf assures them, since it’s about being a vintage, dapper man rather than a stereotypical modern golden boy.
Sure, the facial hair screams newbie, Wolf tells me out of their ear shot, but that’s typical. “A lot of new kings will grab a tube of spirit gum and look like they fell asleep on a pile of hair clippings. I try to teach them about the way hair grows on the face. I even have a post I share periodically about the proper way to shave.”
As Les Luther & Lush B. Anne take the stage, Wolff reminds them once more to swagger, not sashay, and to never lose eye contact with the audience. Moments later, they do just that and Luther falls off the side of the stage. “The important thing is he got up,” Wolf says to me in the wings. “Like a real man.”
Wolf is familiar with getting knocked down. Some, like RuPaul, arguably the most influential drag performer in the world, consider Wolff’s presence on the drag scene to be inherently less-than. That’s because, as RuPaul explained to The Guardian in March, “[Drag] changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different meaning and changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.”
“The main criticism is they’re cheating in some way,” explains Baker Rogers, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia Southern University who has recently conducted two studies on the subject. The gripe, Rogers tells me, is that some believe drag is no longer performative after a transition. “Which is interesting,” she notes, “since gender in-and-of-itself is always a performance.”
While drag queens date back to the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1990s that drag kinging became popular in the U.S.. Previously, masculinity was so normalized that people didn’t consider it to be something that needed to be performed. “Masculinity wasn’t an act, it just was,” Rogers explains. “Femininity was a performance because it was something different.”
As for the specifics of where and when drag kinging began, Rogers says the comprehensive history is largely unknown. One of the kings in her study first took the stage in South Carolina in 1969, and she assumes others performed informally in queer pockets throughout the country. The current iteration, however, was born in lesbian bars, which didn’t emerge until the 1990s, at which point, drag-king shows began popping up in San Francisco, New York and L.A., before spreading nationwide.
Rogers says drag in the South serves as a stepping stone for many people considering gender transition because it’s a way to “learn” socially constructed masculinity. That’s why one of the subjects in her study considers drag kings to be “the gender equivalent of middle schoolers.” (As opposed to drag queens, which Athens vintage burlesque star Miss Effie considers to be more like “the gender equivalent of going through menopause.”) Since most kings didn’t learn masculinity norms as boys, they view drag as a crash course in dude-ness before attempting to perform it in their everyday lives.
That’s how it went for Wolf, too, who obviously wasn’t always a drag king mentor. In fact, he wasn’t always Diego Wolf — he used to be Lacy. Back in November 2003, Lacy excitedly wrapped layer upon layer of a wide ACE bandage around her chest. Most rookie drag kings bind their breasts using household items like duct tape and saran wrap. But Lacy knew better given her background in stage makeup and prosthetics. So instead, she pushed her breasts up and out toward her armpits, thereby creating a flattened space across her clavicle to look more like pec tissue (or “pit titties,” as drag kings affectionately call it). Most kings also start out using a sock to create their bulge, but Lacy found a recipe for slime online and then filled a latex condom with it.
Back then, Lacy was working toward her master’s in mass communications and journalism at the University of Georgia. Two trans men performed spoken word as the “Athens Boys Choir” when they guest lectured at her gender and music video class. When Lacy struck up a conversation with them afterward, they mentioned a friend was starting a local drag-king troupe at Boneshakers, the only gay bar in Athens at the time, and invited her to perform that night. Having grown up in rural Arkansas — in a town with a road adopted by the KKK — Lacy had never been to a gay bar, let alone performed in one. (Which is also why he asked that I use a pseudonym.) Without hesitation, though, she said yes.
Again, having taken a special-effects makeup course as an undergrad, she knew exactly how to apply makeup and facial hair to masculinize her look. First, she shaved her face to eliminate what minor peach fuzz she already had. Then she used a dark brown eye pencil to draw out the shape of the facial hair she wanted and darkened her brows and sideburns accordingly. Contour and highlight powder sharpened her jawline, while fine-cut hair clippings from her own head that she bound together with silicone adhesive created a five o’clock shadow.
On the drive over to Boneshakers, Lacy considered what kind of man she wanted to be: “I’d always favored the ‘smokey-eyed man of mystery,’ so that’s who I became, adopting all of the natural male traits and presence I wished I’d been born with.” Since Lacy says she always had a masculine body shape — i.e., tall, broad shoulders, longer trunk, etc. — the desired illusion was more about altering her soft face. To do so, she darkened her eyes using thick mascara, which served a couple of purposes: “First, I thought it would intimidate hecklers, since if a guy is brave enough to wear eye makeup in downtown Athens, he’s probably brave enough to hit you. I also think the way I use my eyes is one of my most masculine characteristics — while I won’t bat my eyelashes, I will look at you with an intensity you can feel in your core. I wanted that to be on display.”
At long last, Lacy would be able to redefine her life in a place where no one knew her. She, however, needed a name to round out the persona. “I want to be someone sexy,” Lacy sighed aspirationally, “like a Latin lover named Diego!” She also wanted a moniker that meaningfully connected to her own story, so she blurted out “Wolf” because as a teen, she’d been diagnosed with lupus, the chronic autoimmune disorder whose name is derived from the Latin word for “wolf.”
Shortly thereafter “Diego Wolf” was introduced to a screaming crowd for the first time. “It was life-changing,” he tells me, “because for the first time people saw the person I always felt like on the inside.”
* * * * *
Of all the kings I meet while I’m in Athens, Billy Jean has been performing the longest, wrapping himself in sequins and feather boas since 1995. That year, he won a drag competition at the annual Boybutante Aids Foundation Ball, employing feminine features and masterful dance chops to effortlessly morph into the likes of Prince, Marilyn Manson, Steven Tyler, and the love of his life, Michael Jackson. “I have his initials tattooed right here on my arm,” he shows me over brunch. “I could relate to him on so many levels: His dad beat the shit out of him, my dad beat the shit out of me; he was the youngest, I was the youngest; he was androgynous, I was… complicated.”
Billy Jean was, in fact, born intersex, meaning there was a discrepancy with his anatomy. The doctor told his parents they could leave him in tact, which might lead to a lifetime of social issues in the locker room and the bedroom. Or: “My dad agreed with the doctor to make me female,” he explains. “Back in 1975 in western Kansas, you didn’t get second opinions — you took a doctor’s advice as the gospel truth.” So Billy Jean’s penis and testicles were removed, which, along with a series of kidney and bladder issues, began what would amount to more than a million dollars of medical treatments and plastic surgery to make him look like a woman. The birth certificate was amended, too, and after three months, the baby briefly known as “Chad Matthew Townley” was suddenly “Denise Danielle Townley.”
The doctor told Denise’s parents never to tell her, but once puberty hit, she began finding women attractive. Plus, the doctor had advised her mom that once Denise got to a certain age, if she ever wanted to have “normal” sex with a man, it would require one final surgery: vaginal construction. (Mind you, Denise had absolutely no clue about any of this; her parents explained her absence of a period on “birth defects,” but offered no further explanation.) “And so, when I turned 16, they cut open my abdomen and created a vaginal canal using a piece of my colon and a piece of my intestine,” Billy Jean tells me over breakfast. “The next three years were a very embarrassing, cruel experience in my life.”
To make things more complicated, when Denise was 19, she came out to her mom as a lesbian, since she’d always been attracted to women. It was only then that her devout Christian mother came clean. “Well, actually,” she said after taking a deep breath. “You’re not really a lesbian…” Next, she told her the whole story, concluding with, “So it’s natural for you to like women since you’re actually a man, but you cannot call yourself both a lesbian and a Christian.” (That would mean being a “bad testimony.”)
At age 19 then, doctors cut Billy Jean open once again to remove his vagina. “I went fucking crazy,” Billy Jean says matter-of-factly, before adding, “I don’t blame my mom at all for any of this, it’s just the way it went…”
Like Wolf, though, he found refuge in drag kinging, helping start the Classic City Kings (CCK), along with his fellow co-founders “Mccain” and “Blaze,” the first drag king troupe in Athens — and one of the first in the nation. They began performing regularly at Boneshakers and toured Atlanta and beyond.
Most memorably to Wolf, who joined CCK at Billy’s request, was a 2005 appearance at True Colors in Hartford, Connecticut, a conference meant to ensure that the needs of sexual and gender minority youth were being met. In 2005, that meant CCK offering a tutorial to trans teens on best practices for binding, makeup, facial hair and packing. Mccain told the gender-bending teens the same thing that his “Drag Daddy” told him when he was starting out: “Packing is what will enable you to feel masculinity because it’s a totally different kind of presence. It’s commanding and changes your demeanor, which is partially physical, but also psychosomatic. Suddenly, you’re magically on the same level playing field as men.”
But as magical as it may be, packing is just one element of presenting as a man. As Harry Dixon, a drag king who lives her life as a straight woman named Amanda Knisley and who also appeared at True Colors, explained to the junior kings: “The most important element of performing masculinity is the way you stand when you’re not talking or doing anything else. Are your hands on your hips or in your pockets? How do you cock your hips when you’re standing? Are you smiling? Things like that can really give away feminine versus masculine.”
* * * * *
The utilitarian aspect of drag kinging in the South sets it apart from kings in metropolitan queer hubs in other parts of the country. Rogers notes, for example, that Southern drag kings don’t share the same intentions with drag kings in larger cities, as they’re more often in it for self-realization rather than challenging the gender status quo. Or as Wolf puts it, in the South, it’s more common for drag kings to view dragging as a “life-stage progression,” not an artistic or political statement.
In contrast, for the L.A.-based drag kings in Nicole Miyahara’s forthcoming documentary The Making of a King, there’s a lot of underlying tension between the internationally renowned drag-queen culture immortalized in RuPaul’s Drag Race and new kings on the block who are lucky if they’re able to perform at one of two monthly drag king shows in Santa Ana and Long Beach, both dozens of miles outside of L.A. proper.
“Drag kings in L.A. are sort of in the shadows,” Miyahara tells me. “Both in terms of exposure and being seen as equal in the drag community by their peers. They’ve been forced to prove that they should be equal to the queens. RuPaul’s Drag Race has made that difficult, because it’s the only drag show on mainstream TV that’s gotten notoriety and fame, but they continue to only have drag queens compete — to the exclusion of other drag performers.”
“There’s not a lot of queens who respect us,” agrees Phantom, whose whimsical, artistic portrayal of Edward Scissorhands and Mad Hatter verges on feminine. “There’s a lot of trash talk [from drag queens], like, ‘You’re just a boy in a T-shirt.’”
That’s a shame, Miyahara says, given that L.A. drag kings, unlike those in the South, present myriad masculinities at the highest caliber of artistry that she says warrant more respect. None more so than Kristine BellaLuna (aka Landon Cider), whose unrelenting drive and transcendent artistry has earned her a regular slot on the highly competitive drag queen circuit in L.A. At the Halloween show I attended at Hamburger Mary’s in West Hollywood, Cider stole the show as Beetlejuice as well as a spellbinding androgynous witch in a bodysuit airbrushed to look like ripped pecs and abs.
“Here’s the thing though: She’s the only king in those shows most of the time because the queens are like, ‘Okay, we’ll let Landon in because he’s incredible, but we won’t allow any more kings than that,” Miyahara notes.
As BellaLuna insists to me, echoing a scathing 2016 op-ed she wrote in the Advocate, “Kings can reign just as fierce as queens.” And yet, after three years of sending 20-minute submission videos into RuPaul’s Drag Race, she assumed she wasn’t getting called back because she wasn’t ready for prime time or they couldn’t figure out how to fit her into the cast.
But in 2016, when RuPaul dismissed drag kings as lacking the requisite irony for drag, and therefore, claimed that they’re unable to sufficiently “blend” with the queens, the hairs on BellaLuna’s stache bristled. Per usual, she was being judged by what was — or wasn’t — between her legs.
Lacy wanted to settle some unresolved matters between her legs, so she had both a hysterectomy and gender reassignment surgery in 2009, after which “Diego Wolf” was legally born. When I meet Wolf and Billy Jean for brunch, both refer to the other as a brother. That’s partially because both men’s biological brothers died tragically within a month of each other in 2005 — Diego’s from a car accident, Billy Jean’s from suicide — but mostly, Wolf says, it’s because they have opposite perspectives on an identical journey. “We had completely different origins,” he explains, “but ultimately, it’s the exact same path to achieving the exact same goal: to have our bodies align with our truth.”
For his part, Billy Jean proudly notes how supportive his biological family is now. His older sister is quick to correct anyone who uses the wrong pronoun, and his mom wants nothing more than for him to meet a sweet woman and fall in love. “Sure, the initial shock when I found out from her was a bombshell,” he admits, “but I have no doubt of the pain she endured watching me grow up.”
* * * * *
On my last night in Athens, I’m invited to attend a body positive Vaudeville-inspired Burlesque show hosted by “Miss Effie,” the alter ego of Amanda Nicely’s drag king character Harry Dixon. She tells me Harry couldn’t be there tonight because “the #MeToo movement spooked him.”
“I was having a difficult conversation with a close friend about everything that’s going on with Kavanaugh and the political climate,” Nicely explains. “She said, ‘I don’t want to hear from white men for a little while.’ It made me realize it probably wasn’t a good time to give someone with Harry’s kind of masculinity a microphone.”
Diego Wolf’s form of masculinity, however, may be exactly what’s needed these days. Per usual, he’s the only man in the lineup, and dressed as a dapper wolf, he performs his take on “Little Red Riding Hood,” doting over a feminized mop to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.”
Perhaps it’s because he spent most of his life in a female body, he tells me after the show, but inappropriate treatment of women — by men, by trans men, by lesbians — makes him “see red” and he finds abuse of any kind to be abhorrent.
And so, he wanted to show a softer side of masculinity in his closing number. “Guess what ladies?” he explains. “There are actually men out there who get as giddy about you texting them as you do. Which is why, even as a super masculine trans performer who drives a Ford F-150 pickup with a crew cab, it’s refreshing for me to play a devoted man who dances for a woman like a ballerina while reminding her how beautiful she looks.”
After all, he adds, “Not all hairy guys are scary guys.”