An often heard first impression of the Radical Faeries is that “they are all about drag”. Of course, anyone who spends time with us soon realizes that drag is only part of what we do and the dressing up is not all drag. Costume is a very old art, perhaps as old as our species itself. The faeries have their own expressions of this art and it is these expressions that I want to explore now.
Peter Hennen in his book Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen posits that the faeries use drag to tweak the noses of our oppressors. He states that those of the masculinist hegemony assert that, as gay men, we are failed Men and therefore must be feminine (ie. effeminate). Some gay men are naturally effeminate and some internalize and adopt the stereotypes forced upon them. The faeries response to all this is to say “Fuck You”. They visually assert their effeminacy and demand recognition despite not meeting conventional standards of masculinity. In effect saying “I am soft/caring/emotional/creative/colourful/etc. and I will not let you devalue me. We are different but we are still equal.” Some of the gay men who are particularly troubled by drag have internalized the masculinist agenda and fear the loss of power that comes of being classed as non-men.
A second kind of drag found at our gatherings is the channelling of trickster/clown energy. Clowns can say things that no one else can. We can hear things from clowns that are hard to hear from mere mortals. The kings of old kept court fools around to speak the truths that others feared to voice. Laughter eases the sting of these painful truths. Much of the performance drag that we see at our talent shows and auctions is, in fact, commentary and teaching in the guise of foolery. An uncommon but important kind of clowning occurs when leaders publicly make fools of themselves. Like all small communities we are prone to pulling down our leaders and one way a leader can avoid this is to show vulnerability. Leaders appearing foolish in public gently deflates the balloon of self-important puffery that others might be inclined to pop.
Sometimes the drag that we see at our gatherings is the experimentation that can lead to the “coming out” of unexpressed parts of ourselves. The safety of a gathering can be a safe place to try on a new skin.
Another common form of dressing up is the use of costume as a form of self-expression. As gay men we have a long and rich history of viewing costume and fashion as forms of artistic expression. Art craves outlet and drag is a form of artistic expression that seems to suit us. Many of us delight in showing others how well we can mix colours and how we can combine disparate elements into a coherent and beautiful (or ugly) whole. Beyond appearance we weave meaning and emotion into our outfits. We are at play with our art and our hearts sing with the joy of self-expression.
With all of this going on at our gatherings I begin to wonder how we find time for anything else. We accomplish a lot in our times together and drag is just a small (but significant) part of it. So the next time you hear that “faeries are all about drag” go ahead and explain about everything else we do but try to remember that even if all that we did was drag, it would be a lot.