The art of drag, where individuals, often men, dress and perform as women (or vice versa), has a rich and varied history that spans centuries and cultures. Drag queens, in particular, have become iconic symbols of LGBTQ+ culture and pride, representing a vibrant and dynamic form of gender expression and performance art. This article delves into the history of drag queens, exploring their origins, evolution, and cultural significance.

Early Beginnings and Theatrical Roots

The concept of drag can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where gender fluidity and cross-dressing were often part of cultural and religious rituals. In ancient Greece and Rome, men commonly played female roles in theatrical performances, as women were not allowed to perform on stage. This tradition continued into the Elizabethan era in England, where young men portrayed female characters in Shakespearean plays due to the prohibition of female actors.

The term “drag” itself is believed to have originated in the theatre, referring to the long skirts that male actors wore to play female roles, which would “drag” along the floor. This theatrical tradition laid the foundation for modern drag performances, where the blending of gender roles and exaggerated femininity became a form of entertainment and expression.

Drag in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

In the 19th century, drag began to emerge as a distinct performance art form, particularly in vaudeville and burlesque shows. Male performers like Julian Eltinge and Bert Savoy gained fame for their female impersonations, captivating audiences with their glamorous and comedic portrayals of women. These performances were often satirical, poking fun at societal norms and gender conventions.

The early 20th century saw drag performances flourish in underground clubs and speakeasies, particularly during the Prohibition era in the United States. These venues provided a safe space for LGBTQ+ individuals to express themselves and find community. The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s also played a significant role in the development of drag culture, with legendary performers like Gladys Bentley challenging traditional gender roles and celebrating queer identities.

The Rise of Drag Balls and Pageantry

The mid-20th century marked the rise of drag balls, particularly in the LGBTQ+ communities of New York City. These events, which began as clandestine gatherings, evolved into elaborate competitions where drag queens showcased their fashion, talent, and charisma. The drag ball culture provided a sense of belonging and recognition for marginalized LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly Black and Latinx communities.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of drag pageants, such as the Miss Gay America pageant, which offered a platform for drag queens to gain visibility and recognition. These pageants emphasized glamour, elegance, and performance, further legitimizing drag as an art form.

The Cultural Impact of Drag in the Late 20th Century

The late 20th century brought significant visibility to drag culture, particularly through the efforts of LGBTQ+ activists and the rise of queer cinema and media. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, led by drag queens and transgender women like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were a pivotal moment in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Drag queens became symbols of resistance and resilience, using their visibility to advocate for equality and acceptance.

The 1980s and 1990s saw drag queens gain mainstream attention through films like “Paris Is Burning,” which documented the vibrant drag ball culture of New York City, and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which highlighted the lives of drag performers in Australia. These films brought drag culture to a wider audience, showcasing the creativity, talent, and struggles of drag queens.

Drag in the 21st Century: Mainstream Recognition and Global Influence

The 21st century has seen drag queens achieve unprecedented levels of mainstream recognition, largely due to the success of the reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which premiered in 2009. Hosted by drag superstar RuPaul, the show has brought drag culture into the homes of millions, celebrating the artistry, diversity, and talent of drag queens from around the world. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has not only popularized drag but also highlighted important issues such as gender identity, self-acceptance, and LGBTQ+ rights.

Drag queens have also become influential figures in fashion, music, and social media, using their platforms to advocate for social justice and LGBTQ+ visibility. Performers like RuPaul, Bianca Del Rio, and Trixie Mattel have achieved international fame, inspiring new generations of drag artists and fans.


The history of drag queens is a testament to the power of self-expression, creativity, and resilience. From ancient theatrical traditions to modern-day pop culture phenomena, drag queens have continuously challenged societal norms and celebrated the diversity of human identity. As cultural icons and advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, drag queens play a vital role in promoting acceptance, equality, and the freedom to be oneself. Their enduring legacy continues to inspire and empower individuals around the world.

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