A new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race has just started, and I, personally, am pulling for Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale – the former because I love a talented underdog, and the latter because I am too scared of her not to be. I have had a soft spot for drag queens since the Imperial Court of Halifax and Atlantic Nova Society lovingly opened their arms to a shy little backwoods baby butch like me. And drag kings? Everything that is wonderful about butches, only hairier and musical.
History nerds, follow me into a wonderful little diversion on RuPaul’s historical predecessors in a segment I like to call “Gentleman Carries the Appearance of a Lady!”
Big Brother Is Watching You
In a memorable episode of Sliders, the eponymous dimension-hoppers arrive in a world where all police officers and military personnel stomp through the scenery in lovely skirts – a legacy of a world where ol’ J. Edgar became president and revamped the security of the United States into his own image. For lo, the sixth director of the FBI and most badass government official ever enjoyed lacy panties and high heels. Unfortunately, he was a self-hating queer. He violently hunted down anyone who dared accuse him of homosexuality, and gathered blackmail material on other suspected gays of his time. His femme side was well-developed, though; she went by the name “Mary” and preferred red.
Other than dressing priests in flowing robes and accessorising fiercely, the Catholic Church has a long history of cross-dressing – which isn’t surprising for a society that severely restricts the movements and behaviour of women. Want to get something done, do it yourself – but only if you can dress like a man. Joan of Arc did it most famously, but religious history is full of stories of women who dressed as men in order to better serve their God. Pope John VIII served the papacy for two and a half years as Pope Leo IV’s successor, some time in the ninth century AD. Pope John was also a woman! Her unidentified lover had dressed her as a man and exposed her to some of that unwomanly higher learning. She rose to the papacy and was eventually exposed when she gave birth during a public festival (oops!). She was disgraced, removed from the list of Pontiffs, and died shortly thereafter. She was the reason behind the popular folklore that all future Popes have to sit on a special chair with a hole cut in the seat so that the cardinals can verify the goods. Sadly, modern historians think that the whole story of “Pope Joan” is just that – a story.
Sound the Pibroch
If I was ever a drag queen, my stage name would be Betty Burke (my drag king stage name is Maurice Beauregard Dick – Mo B. Dick for short). Why Betty Burke, you say? But there are no terrible puns anywhere in that name, you say! I know. But Betty Burke existed for three weeks in 1715. She travelled from the Hebrides of Scotland to the Highlander-friendly soil of France, with the aristocratic and fairly badass in her own right Flora MacDonald. Betty Burke was also Prince Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, last rightful king of the Scots. After a rousing defeat at Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie had to get out of Dodge before the vengeful English found him. Flora MacDonald, daughter of the Lord of the Isles (a defunct title belonging to the MacDonald family), disguised him as her maid and, alone, the two made their way through the islands and south to freedom. Charles went on to try and raise the Scottish again without success, before dying in Rome. Flora went to the New World with her husband and raised an army of Highlanders to fight for England in the War of Independence.
Maybe I should be writing about her instead. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest literal balls under her balls of steel.
I could write another entire article about women who dressed as men to fight in wars (the Civil War might have had whole platoons of them), or to be pirates (sexy pirates), or cowboys (less sexy cowboys – most cowdragkings were of the grizzled and one-eyed variety) or to become musical legends (like Billy Tipton or Willmer Broadnax, both of whom died before anyone figured out that they were actually chicks).
Who has marched the proud halls of cross-dressing history? Any favourite stories?