You Might Not Have Heard
of Drag Kings. Here's Why.
Jack Lope, 2022
Photo by Jack Lope
At a drag show in Kentucky, King Jack Lope watched the Queen performing before them, nervously anticipating their set. Lope was the only King booked that week and felt pressure to perform well for all Kings. There was a large crowd, primarily of men, and they could feel the high energy.
Excitement grew as Lope watched a group of men scream, shoving large bills at the Queen as she walked around the room lip-synching to a pop ballad. However, when Lope’s set began the mood shifted. The same table of men that had just been praising the Queen now appeared disinterested, refusing to even look at Lope.
In Lope’s documentary, “Drag Kings: A Reckoning”, they said, “when you’re performing in front of the same audience as these queens who are sometimes making hundreds more than you are and you put in so much effort it feels shit… it feels really shit.”
According to Lope, Kings struggle for months to get bookings. They said there are currently no recurring weekend performances by Kings in Kentucky. And when a King is booked, they tend to be the only one.
The Drag King scene is growing in a few major cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. But in other states, Lope says some people don’t even know Kings exist.
Although growing in size, members of the Drag King community say they struggle to receive respect, bookings and the resources needed to create a career out of their artform.
Helixir Jynder Byntwell, 2022 San Fransisco Drag King of the year, said that among the great success they’ve found in the drag community there has also been great amounts of discrimination.
Internal discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community is reflected in the treatment of Drag Kings.
‘I’m not a Drag Queen’
Byntwell recalled one particularly annoying moment at a show they competed in recently. The theme was pastel blue, and they were dressed accordingly.
“I got acrylics on my toes done. I'm wearing like, the tights, the whole nine, right. My nails match everything,” Byntwell said.
But when judging began, one of the judges told Byntwell they’d prefer to see them with bigger boobs.
“My name is literally Helixir Jynder Byntwell. Well, I’m bending the gender. I’m not a drag queen. I don’t have gigantic fake boobs, you know? I feel like I was being held to Queen standards when it’s like you’re literally missing the point. Like, I’m a big man,” Byntwell said.
Byntwell detailed many similar experiences, from more than judges, describing them as not one-off events. They described being ridiculed regularly about their appearance, including their makeup, not packing (putting something in your pants to appear to have a penis) and their outfits.
“When you have people within the community being like, you're not this enough. You're not doing that. It's like, all I'm asking for is that you see me, not what you think I should be or what you hope to mold me into,” Byntwell said.” Just see me. That's it, you know?”
The comments bother Byntwell and make them uncomfortable in what’s supposed to be a safe space. To Byntwell, drag is a place to express themselves and their lived experiences whether that be with or without packing or binding (using tight fitting sports bras, shirts, ace bandages, or a specially made binder to provide a flat chest contour).
Genevive Berrick, a writer and feminist, queer, and social justice researcher wrote the book, “Drag King: Camp Acts, Queer Bodies, Desiring Audiences.” Berrick writes, “as a human being, I am an implicitly gendered subject - with or without my permission. This is a fact which follows from the regulatory fiction that governs our world.”
Currently all forms of Drag are under attack along with other issues that target the LGBTQ+ community. In March, Tennessee’s Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed a provision into law banning drag shows in public spaces. The bill specifically prohibits “adult cabaret performances” defined as “adult-oriented performances” and including “male or female impersonators” in spaces open to minors. Similar anti-drag bills have been introduced in at least 14 other states.
The discrimination against drag, and Kings in particular, bleeds into the LGBTQ+ community.
“Even though we’re outside of the binary, there are still norms,” Byntwell said in an interview. They described microaggressions such as being called a Queen or being misgendered.
Lope says, “I personally believe that having a marginalized identity doesn’t absolve you of the potential to cause harm to other marginalized identities.” Comments made to Kings in particular from people within the Drag scene reflect this view.
Similarly to Byntwell, Lope’s documentary details many experiences of discrimination.
Lope shared an experience in their documentary, saying, “I’ve personally done competitions where the judges have had no problem with Queens not padding or wearing breasts but immediately critiqued me and another King for not packing or binding. Considering that you’re surrounded by people that devote their lives to pursuing womanhood, the misogyny in the drag community is debilitating.”
In addition to comments from judges, Lope said they receive similar comments from Queens.
In their documentary Lope describes being presented with backhanded compliments such as, “I normally don’t like drag kings but you’re pretty good,” or straight insults like, “Kings aren’t as entertaining as Queens.”
For many Kings, their time in Drag has assisted them in learning more about themselves and their identity.
“Helixir has helped me take myself out of the boxes that I put myself in,” Byntwell said.”I came out as nonbinary through doing drag. I’ve been more in touch with my feminine side because being AFAB (assigned female at birth) and being more masc it’s like fighting so hard for your masculinity.
“Anytime I found myself being flamboyant it felt like a betrayal of my earned masculinity. But then I was like I can do both. I’ll be masc with my pinky up.”
Brooklyn Drag King Maxx Pleasure shared the sentiment.
“I used to think that femininity had this specific definition, and this is how you do it and how you have to do it,” Pleasure reflected. “Then I realized I can pick and choose some things. That’s allowed for so much.”
Jack Halberstam, a professor in gender studies and English at Columbia University, asks in his book, “Female Masculinity,” “female-born people have been making convincing and powerful assaults on the coherence of male masculinity for well over a hundred years; what prevents these assaults from taking hold and accomplishing the diminution of the bonds between masculinity and men?”
Tanja Aho, a senior professional lecturer in gender and sexualities at American University who focuses on disabilities, said in an interview, “Halberstam is one of the few academics that writes about Drag Kings.”
There is very little academic work on Kings specifically. Aho points out that few people think of Drag Kings, let alone racism and other forms of oppression that influence their treatment.
Drag Kings are actively challenging masculinity, and many have experienced the resistance of that firsthand.
While Lope experienced men loving a man in a dress while disinterested in their act, they felt as though masculinity was expected to not be made fun of. Yet, when femininity was made fun of, it was praised and monetarily rewarded.
Lope’s experiences have led them to believe that society values masculinity so much it makes them fear Kings in a way. Their documentary shares their opinions on the double standard held on Kings VS Queens that many Kings echo.
Excluding People from Safe Spaces
Drag has been given a large, growing global platform with the reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” In its 15 main seasons and all of its spin offs, the show has yet to feature a Drag King.
Drag Kings have been historically underrepresented in the media and performance world, if featured at all.
Pleasure believes that the exclusion of Drag Kings in Drag culture is eradicating the history, identity, and experiences of a large population of the LGBTQ+ community.
In their documentary, Lope said, “It’s excluding people from spaces they’re supposed to feel welcomed and celebrated in as well as denying them huge amounts of money and resources.”
Some reality shows have stepped up and included Kings in recent years. The Boulet Brothers Dragula season three had its first Drag King winner, Landon Cider.
Lope’s documentary discusses the double standard put on all kings to be similar to the one well known King they know.
According to Kings, other barriers beyond gender are placed on them such as size, race and ability.
Byntwell described how the BLM Black Lives Matter movement coincided with his King career taking off.
During these performances, Byntwell reflected a similar sentiment to Lope’s, feeling as though they had to represent all Black Kings.
“Do they want me to exclude a certain thing because I’m Black and I’m the only King?” Byntwell asked in an interview.
When talking to Byntwell they explained to me that after the BLM protests they started receiving more bookings. They described the benefits and cons of this performative activism.
“Around that time a lot of people were like, we need to support and lift up Black artists. But a lot of people do it just for the show of it. They’ll be talking about supporting black artists during my intro, and I look around and I’m the only Black artist there, and the only King on top of that,” Byntwell reflected in an interview.
Byntwell said they were grateful to be receiving bookings, but in the back of their mind felt that “essentially (they’re) just a box to be ticked.”
Kings also have a lack of representation and visual references for how to do Drag. Lope says society condemns men for wearing makeup, and copying one of the few references for male makeup such as David Bowie, Prince and Steven Tyler could easily be taken as impersonation.
“The longer I do drag as a King, the more I’m convinced that it’s wildly unfair and close-minded to hold Kings and Queens to the same expectations,” Lope said in their documentary. “Primarily because in our current drag world those rules are set by Queens.”
Give Space to Kings
Drag exists in part to challenge biases toward gender and power, biases that Pleasure says can always continue to be reworked. All styles of drag are art that now more than ever need to be protected and uplifted.
Lope sees change coming from that support.
“If you give space to Kings and non-conforming performers on your stage, it will inspire more Kings to come up in your area,” Lope says in their documentary. “But people have to know that option is even open to them.”
Helixir Jynder Byntwell, San Francisco Drag King of the Year (2022)
Photo used with consent from Helixir Jynder Byntwell
Helixir Jynder Byntwell (2022)
Photo used with consent from Helixir Jynder Byntwell
Jack Lope (2022)
Photo by Jack Lope
MAXX Pleasure (2022)
Photoby MAXX Pleasure
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