Drag Kings

From San Francisco to London, women are donning men's clothes, assuming males personas, and challenging the very concept of gender. Just what is male and female, anyway?

The gender bending begins long before drag king Elvis Herselvis takes the stage under the red tinsel at La India Bonita bar.

Women stroll the 16th Street and Valencia hideaway in mustaches, suits, ties, and wingtips. Women saunter in perfect male slouches across the checkerboard floor and sprawl on bar stools in perfect male repose: knees splayed, hands dangling in their crotches to protect their balls. Which they've got. Their jockey briefs bulge impressively with handmade penises fashioned with secret recipes proudly held: They're made of hair gel or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle slime squeezed into condoms, or they're fashioned out of rubber toys -- those Day-Glo balls from Walgreens make pretty good testicles, and there's a soft rubber snail you can buy at a nature store that looks like a penis, if you castrate its antennae.

Crotches, it goes without saying, are all-important. Particularly for tonight's Mr. Klubstitute contest, a drag takeoff on Miss America: a "he-man" event for the late-night Klubstitute club that meets at this bar each Sunday.

Sexual shapeshifting is the Klubstitute staple. Men dressed as women. Gay men dressed as redneck heteros. Women dressed as men dressed as women. But tonight for the most part, the crowd holds drag kings: women "passing" as men, and camping it up for "an evening of hyper-masculine hi-jinx," as the contest flier declares. "Be a dude, or just look like one. Pack a big one, draw on a mustache and march right down, Sept. 10," the flier reads. "No girls allowed!"

And so the women are doing the macho thing: leaning on walls, interrupting people, standing with their feet spread wide, belching beer vapors. They keep a hand in one pocket to jangle coins or check their bulges, while the girls in the crowd -- drag queens -- flutter fake lashes as if batting aggressive gnats. Two DJs cue up the Beatles' "I Wanna Be Your Man." A woman who calls herself KC from Chicago wears a mustache, short ponytail, and fawn brown tie, and she's practicing that poking thR>ing that men do with their tongues in their mouths -- that clucking-the-inner-cheek action that looks like a mini-erection fighting for air.

Another contestant, Crush Velvet, sports sideburns and a pink jacket from material vaguely reminiscent of fuzzy toilet-seat covers. She packs a mauve dildo, which she'll soon be using in the talent portion of the contest. And first-time drag king Buster Brown Eyes Feeling Blue -- in real life a professional teddy bear stuffer -- keeps checking her upper lip. She fears her mustache, which she made with her own hair and some spirit gum, will fall off during her Frank Sinatra lip-sync.

"Are we feeling butch tonight?" Elvis Herselvis, aka Leigh Crow, kicks off the pageant, playing her own special version of Bert Parks, channeled through Elvis.

"Ugh," the drag kings respond monosyllabically.
"Let's not ignore our male side. Let's get in touch with it, let's embrace it!" Elvis says.

The three judges -- also women in drag -- motion for the eight contestants to come onstage. Selflessly, they allow in two gay men, one of whom normally dresses as a drag queen. "It's probably harder for them to look like straight macho men than for women to do it," judge Annie Toone, leader of the dykeabilly band the Bucktooth Varmints, will explain later.

By midnight, when booze has helped blur life itself, not to mention sexual boundaries, the fashion portion of the show has begun, to be followed by the talent segment and question-and-answer period (sample question: "What is your favorite household hint?").

And at this moment, under the glitter of twirling silver balls on the ceiling, as men and women, gay and straight, bisexual, cross-dressed, transgendered, and pan-gendered, share beers and bathrooms -- queens using the women's, kings using the men's -- there appears to be a break in the universe: a disorienting, transmuting moment that sheds light, yet offers the very opposite of clarity. "She" and "he" -- the bedrock of most cultures, the basis for formiR>ng our first, most basic impressions of each other -- have been replaced by a murky, formless, ineffable spectrum where dyads don't exist. Male and female. Black and white. Good and evil. Breaking down the dualities, like splitting the atom, produces a charge that's staggering.

"What's your biggest problem with passing?" the judges ask contestant Pierre Byrd, who has wowed them with a campy country song about butt whipping and nipple clamps. On the TV above the bar, Fred Savage from The Wonder Years blows raspberries on the school bus, and, for a brief flash, looks like a girl in drag.

"I have no problem with passing," says Byrd. She speaks with the conviction of a 45-year-old former cheerleader who was once married, taught Baptist Sunday school, raised a child, wore frilly clothes, worked for a corporation in small-town Crosby, Texas, and knew every minute that, God strike her dead, she was nothing but an impostor. "If other people have a problem with it," says Byrd, "well, then, that's their problem."

The world has always had a problem with gender anarchy. The world has a problem even describing what a drag king is, though women today are doing "gender fucks," as some call it, from San Francisco to New York, London, and beyond.

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