Drag is part of American history
by Nicole Murray Ramirez
Drag performances have long been a part of America’s history, including its military, tracing back to the late 1800s. Drag performers were especially popular during World Wars I and II. Both on and off military bases, drag performers raised millions of dollars for the Army Emergency Relief Fund, and President Franklin Roosevelt even attended performances and raved about them. Women soldiers held workshops to teach the soldiers how to dress in drag with lessons in makeup and how to dress in female clothing. Interestingly, because the Armed Services were racially segregated, there would be two ongoing shows separately performed by Black and white drag performers.
One of my good friends, in fact, was the late Army Sergeant Perry Watkins, who was a proud Black drag queen while in the military. He performed across Europe at military bases with his impersonation of Diana Ross, always ending with standing ovations.
In 1961, a proud Latino World War II veteran, and the most famous drag queen in San Francisco, “Empress” Jose Julio Sarria, became the first openly gay candidate to run for public office. While he did not win his race, Jose went on to found the International Imperial Court system in 1965 (often referred to as the LGBTQ+ Shriners or Elks), which now has chapters in the U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico. These camp, royal-titled drag queens have raised millions of dollars that have benefitted children’s toy drives, Easter egg hunts, women and children’s abuse agencies, and distributed thousands of scholarships through their youth/student programs. Jose Julio Sarria also co-founded some of the first LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations in the 1960s. This is why I call Jose “the Rosa Parks of the homosexual civil rights movement.”
And we cannot forget that at the famous Stonewall Uprising in New York City in 1969, when drag queens, queer youth and trans activists played an important role in this historic three-day uprising. Additionally, many drag performers have been honored by the U.S. Congress, Canadian Parliament, and even by the late Queen Elizabeth II herself.
Drag performers have played important roles in theater around the world, from the Shakespearian days of England to the stages of Japan, as drag performances are considered a true art form and talent. Countless movies (since the silent film days) and television shows have featured drag queen characters as well. As we all know, one of TV’s most popular shows, the Emmy Award-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race, is now in its 15th season.
What’s lesser known is that drag played a vital part in building the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement and fueled our community’s growth. Drag performers played a major role in fundraising and charity causes, and they still do to this day. Funds raised have benefited countless causes and organizations inside and outside the LGBTQ+ community.
So with such a rich history of drag in this country, why are conservative politicians now coming after a community that has done so much for so many? How do you strip away the rights of a few? You launch a fear-based campaign that creates confusion and incites panic in communities. It’s sad that the Right Wing is trying to portray the drag community as predatorial people looking to corrupt the youth of tomorrow when that couldn’t be further from the truth. We lift up our communities. We’re artists, we’re performers, we’re brothers and sisters, we’re parents and we’re children and we’re your neighbors. Most of the time we live our daily lives out of the spotlight passing by people who have no clue we are part of the drag community. While we might go unnoticed outside of drag, we are also a force to reckon with when backed into a corner, and we won’t sit idly while our rights are being stripped away from us.
These politicians are dividing their constituents on issues they think will help mobilize their base. These tactics of sowing fear on baseless issues are a distraction from the real issues facing our country. For every baseless soap box speech spreading hate, these politicians have one less journalist asking them about gun control, women’s healthcare rights, and the economy – or the real issues the LGBTQ community faces, from discrimination to violence. This recent series of anti-LGBTQ legislation is leveraging the popularity of culture under a misguided pretense of ‘protecting our children.’ What our children need protection from is the very people who are creating this divisive legislation while remaining silent on issues that are literally taking the lives of our children.
Recently, the world’s longest-performing drag queen, 92-year-old Darcelle XV of Portland, was honored by the State of Oregon and the City of Portland after her passing. Before she passed, Darcelle and I spoke of the anti-drag bills being introduced across our nation. I promised Darcelle that we — America’s drag queens who have never been in the closet — would continue to fight these homophobic bills and protect this historic American form of expression and art.
It is in this spirit that the drag community, our supporters, our friends and family, and everyone else need to take action to stop this hatred. Support organizations that advocate for equality by signing petitions, volunteering, or donating money. Make your voice heard by contacting the lawmakers who are behind these heinous bills. Take to social media in support of the drag community. This will not stop with the drag community; it will spread to affect others in the LGBTQ community, people of color, indigenous people, and beyond. I, for one, can’t imagine how boring life would be without drag culture. Our contributions go beyond the glam and glitter.
San Diego City/County Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez has been a Latino/LGBTQ activist for over 50
years, is one of North America’s most well-known drag queens, and is the “Queen Mother of the