With the popularity of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag performances are quickly blending into mainstream culture. In this Psychiatric Times article, Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW, talks about the psychology behind drag.

The Joy of Drag

Season 14 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” included many firsts this year, least of which was that a heterosexual man was competing for the first time as Maddy Morphosis. This year’s biggest moment came when contestant Willow Pill won the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. She transitioned to female prior to the finale of the show and became the first transgender contestant to win.

Up until now, most of the contestants on the popular drag competition had been gay men who are cisgender, meaning their gender identity aligns with their sex at birth. But the show also underscores one of drag’s higher purposes: to challenge how we think about gender identity and expression.

What is drag?

Drag has many interpretations but is loosely defined as performing in an exaggerated way that caricatures or challenges male or female stereotypes. With bold costumes, makeup, and characters, drag taps into our human desire for fun, play, and creativity.

Anyone can do drag. In fact, drag kings (women who personify men) have been around just as long as drag queens (men who perform as women). Drag is different from cross-dressing, which can be a personal and private act.

Performers like David Bowie and Billy Porter have been seen by many as pioneers of the gender-fluid style movement. This has paved the way for others like singer Harry Styles, who became the first heterosexual male featured on the cover of Vogue magazine wearing a dress. Drag is sweeping into the mainstream, with more individuals using it to explore sexual ambiguity.

Drag fundamentals

Modern-day drag grew in the 1970s and ‘80s. “Balls” in New York City provided an arena for drag queens to compete for money, awards, and bragging rights. The 1990 film “Paris Is Burning” documented the ball scene and portrayed many of those who walked in balls as poor, gay, or transgender minorities struggling to survive in a “rich, white world.”

In the heat of competition, ball contestants would often bicker over how each category should be interpreted. This led to the tradition of “reading,” or crafting the perfect insult designed to cut to the core of an individual’s insecurities. Meant more as a good-natured roast, reading has its roots as a defense mechanism. Subject to intense rejection and discrimination, many gay and transgender individuals have had to rely on their wit and bravado to diffuse dangerous situations.

More than 80% of LGBTQ+ youth have said seeing LGBTQ+ celebrities positively impacted how they felt about themselves. The show also gives heterosexual audiences a glimpse into the lives of individuals from the LGBTQ+ community, including those who identify as transgender or nonbinary. Seeing them get nervous during the competition shows they are human beings like everyone else.

Positive effects of drag

One of the protective factors associated with drag culture is the sense of community it can provide. For many, house families replaced the biological ones that had rejected them. Drag mothers and fathers would often provide food and shelter to frightened LGBTQ+ teens who had nowhere else to go.

Drag is a powerful symbol in the LGBTQ+ community. During the HIV and AIDS epidemic, drag competitions and performances across the country raised awareness and money for research and treatment. They also provided needed comfort, community, and encouragement during a time when many were dying.

At its core, drag is meant to be playful and fun. Balls and shows are filled with irreverent humor, biting sarcasm, and scandalous double entendre. Meant to catch viewers off-guard, drag bends gender interpretations and is constantly stepping outside the box.

The challenges of drag

Like other members of the LGBTQ+ community, drag performers can endure minority stress with their experience of sexual orientation and gender identity. When compared to heterosexual or cisgender populations, minority stress in LGBTQ+ individuals can lead to elevated rates of depression, suicidality, and other forms of psychological distress.

Gender dysphoria, the significant distress or impairment that comes from a strong desire to be another gender, has been studied extensively among transgender populations. Although there is not a lot of research on the condition among drag queens, a 2019 study indicated self-identified cisgender drag queens reported lower levels of gender dysphoria compared to transgender women.

Read the full Psychiatric Times article with sources.

Kiana Shelton, LCSW

Katy, TX

Kiana has over 11 years of experience working with adults. She provides a safe atmosphere to help her patients cope with challenges. Utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy techniques from a person-centered and trauma informed lens. Kiana also provides LGBTQ+ care and can assist with navigating major life transitions such as birth/adoption, foster care issues and grief/loss. She follows Maya Angelou’s quote: ... Read Full Bio »

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