by Angela Bonavoglia

On a sizzling summer night, I head to the Outpost Lounge in Brooklyn to Switch N’ Play’s Open Drag Night to watch gender-based performances, mainly by drag kingswho I’d never heard of before this year.

I’m greeted at the door by Ellen Vas. I’ve worked with Ellen and known her as a smart, quick, efficient staffer in a highly regarded Manhattan communications firm. She’s also a no frills lesbian, very butch. But tonight, Ellen’s not around. In her place is her drag king personae: Manny Mango.

Manny’s short dark hair is moussed up and spiky. He’s sporting long thin sideburns and a soul patch. His eyes flash big and brown, beneath long, curly lashes. He wears lots of silver earrings, a man’s long plaid shirt, shorts and sneakers. But the biggest change isn’t the look. It’s the bearing. Manny swaggers a bit when he walks. He takes long, purposeful, confident strides. I notice that for a short person, he’s taking up a lot of room as he blazes a path from one end of the bar to the other. I don’t remember Ellen walking like that.

The show begins. To the strains of the Buckaroos’ Highway Man, “Jonathan Bitchman” takes to the stage, sitting on a bench to eat a tomato. He begins with legs demurely crossed, daintily slicing the vegetable, then spreads his legs out, leans his elbows on his knees, and gobbles. He follows with a strip, down to a tee-shirt, sexy black stockings, sneakers, and baggy white briefs with a bulge in front, into which he reaches, pulling outtwo big red tomatoes.

Later comes “Bianca Dagga,” sailing out onto the floor in a dark three-piece pin-striped suit, a top hat, and a scary male mask, prancing and preening and finally stripping down to pasties and a thong. The mask is one of the last things to go.

The seven performers who make up thisdrag alliance toy with gender, explore its myths and constraints, deconstruct and confound it.

Manny’s group is the last to perform. To the R&B strains of Color Me Badd’s I’m Gonna Sex You Up, he and two other guys in sport coats and jeans do a lip-synched, choreographed performance in semi-unison, eventually whipping offtheir jackets.

They’re cute, boyish and sexyespecially Manny. He looks as if at any moment he might get in your face, become aggressively sexy, but I know from our earlier talk that that won’t happen. “When I perform male drag, I realize I’m putting on a privileged gender, writ large,” he said. “When Nikki, my girlfriend, and I danced our Salsa piece at our last performance, I wanted to be really aware of the machismo attitude in the Latin culture,” [his own, he’s part Puerto Rican], “so I didn’t come all up on Nikki and be like Yo!’ I didn’t act like I owned her.”

Ellen is a drag king, but not a transman. A former high school prom queen who dated a quarterback, Ellen was very athletic growing up. She always identified more with boys than girls. Today, she considers herself genderqueer, a gender nonconformist. “For me, it encompasses fluidity between what my anatomy is and how I want to be seen in the world, the fluidity between masculinity and femininity.”

Ellen does not identify as male, and she’s okay being thought of as a woman, as long as people don’t think of all women, or her, as “vulnerable, accessible, weak, less than, a sexual object or a toy,” or expect her to be married to a man, with children. “Woman, as much as it’s an identity, it’s also a label,” she explains.

And Ellen doesn’t like labels. “Gender to me is constructed sociallyI want it to be this thing that should be played with, as opposed to this thing that we have to be.” Nor is she “opposed if someone gets confused, if their response to me forces them to rethink their assumptions about what a girl’s supposed to look like or even what a boy’s supposed to look like.”

After my visit to the Outpost, I find myself wondering, what does it all mean, this shuffling of gender

Certainly, throughout history, women have dressed as men. The author George Sand began to do so as a budding music critic, in order to get cheap theater tickets in the male-only pit. She continued to do so because it protected her, made her, as a translator of her work wrote, “enviably unobtrusive.”

Today, defying clothing prohibitions endangers many women. In July, journalist Lubna Hussein stood trial in Khartoum, facing the threat of flogging, for violating the Islamic dress code by wearing pants in public.

While drag queens are a fixture in our culture, a source of great hilarity as they exaggerate the outward signs of what makes a female “female,” drag kings remain a pretty well kept secret. It may require special daring to take on masculinity and turn it into, well, a couple of ripe tomatoes.

So perhaps some women, pondering all this, might feel open to new possibilities. Step up their resistance to rigid cultural gender imperatives. Take longer strides. Claim more space. And maybe even, adopt a little swagger.

See a video clip of Switch ‘n’ Play at the Outpost Lounge

August 25, 2009

Angela Bonavogliahas written for Ms., The Nation, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications. She is the author of “The Choices We Made: 25 Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion,” and most recently, “Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church.” She’s at work on a book about the challenges and triumphs of living in a female body.

Also see “Crossing the Gender Rack” by Joel Vig in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

The Art Perspective featuring Tammy Rae Carland: “On Becoming; Billy and Katie, 1964,” curated by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.