Letting out ‘The Monster’: modern drag at Oxford

Laela Zaidi dives into Oxford's queer subculture: modern drag at Haute Mess and student drag princes

Overdrawn lips. Glittered beards. Thick, coloured-in eyebrows. Face paint. Wigs of all shapes and sizes. Torn-up shirts and disfigured dresses. Queens, Kings, aliens, monsters, and everyone in-between. The performers—Dinah Lux, Ginger Tarte, Lady B, Jeneva Convention, and more—mingle amongst the colourful crowd. Some wear ounces of makeup, others sport messy beards or abstracted faces. Yet, all of them stand out from the rest through their exuberant confidence and overthe-top styles.

As Oxford’s first ever drag night, Haute Mess has certainly earned the right to its name. This now-termly event brings together the likes of wide-ranging beauties and grotesque haunts who at once shock, disgust, and allure. The event has transformed Plush, Oxford’s LGBTQ+ club, each Thursday fifth week these past Michaelmas and Hilary terms. Haute Mess dubs itself as the “queerest and messiest space for total self expression,” and features lip-synced performers ranging from novices to well-experienced drag artists.

Despite drag’s only recent emergence at the Plush Lounge, students have seized upon both drag nights as opportunities for transformative self-expression. Haute Mess undermines mainstream restrictions on gender and sexuality, thereby enabling personal empowerment. Much like their predecessors from the UK or across what is now a worldwide conglomerate of drag stars, LGBTQ+ students in Oxford aim to dismantle heteronormative assumptions through individual acts of drag performance. Yet, students in this university town are also ushering in their own vision for drag by exploding expectations from within the niche itself. New-age drag is on the horizon, and Oxford boasts one of many LGBTQ+ communities catalyzing these trends.

Cross-dressing, and the derogatory use of the term “queen” for gay men, was common well before the 20th century. However, the drag queens we think of today got their start in the 1950s and 1960s in the US, and eventually migrated into the UK, though they were largely underground until the 1970s given the extent to which it was criminalised. Antisodomy and sexual indecency acts were on the books and regularly enforced in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In America specifically, states and cities across the country, stretching from Florida to Ohio and even to California, imposed anti-crossdressing laws from the middle to late 20th century. These laws prohibited people from wearing apparel typically worn by people of the opposite sex in public place, thereby institutionalising a strict gender binary as a cultural and social norm.

Despite the persistent legal suppression of transgender expression and drag performances, drag queens became intertwined with political resistance and the reclamation of queer identity. This most notably began in the 1960s when drag performers are said to have ignited the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, aseries of spontaneous riots in NYC which took place outside a popular drag queen venue and bar known as the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Riots led to the formation of various grassroots organisations in the United States, and even in the UK through groups like the Gay Liberation Front, who aimed to fight back against legalised censorship and oppression of LGBT+ expression.

Thus, by the late 20th century, drag was elevated in various queer countercultures as a form of empowerment through transgression. Although drag performers provided high art and entertainment in pre-planned acts featuring music, dance, and humour across clubs and venues, it was also a multidimensional tool of empowerment. By sometimes crudely caricaturing gender, and blurring the lines between many different types of gender expectations, drag provides commentary on society’s restrictive norms on gender and sexuality.

From the 80s onwards, drag queens became associated with a range of styles, from messy personas to the highly sophisticated Divine, an infamous drag queen, who became a cult icon after eating feces in front of the camera in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. In the 1980s, New York City saw the emergence of Club Kids, a group of individuals who invaded clubs and public spaces, restaurants, subway stations, and the like, with their “outlaw parties” featuring gender-bending and genderfluid costumes. Pervading all of these examples of drag was the idea that queerness could be reclaimed from the oppressive rhetoric and thereby eliminate its negative connotations.

In recent years, no other cultural force has done more to generate curiosity in drag than RuPaul, the first international drag supermodel, and his reality television series RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show, which is aimed at finding “America’s next drag superstar,” weaves together personal confessionals from each contestant alongside intense fashion and performance challenges. RuPaul’s Drag Race has specifically framed drag as a personally rewarding yet demanding and emotionally intense affair. For two Oxford student drag performers, Marcus Knight-Adams (he/they) and Re’em Moskovitz (he/him), RuPaul’s show provided a gateway into drag.  

Marcus nursed initial doubts about RuPaul’s show and drag itself, but he quickly became mesmerised. He was initially hesitant to watch the show not out of a rejection of his queerness, but because he did not “want to be overt about it. Two weeks later I was a raging queer ready to get into drag at any moment.”

For many Oxford LGBTQ+ students, whether freshers or finalists, drag ignites empowerment through newfound confidence and transformation. Re’em, who performs as Salmonella Versace, says “Once you do it, with the fifteenth layer of makeup and so much power you can barely breathe, then it’s kind of like wearing a battle suit and you gain a new confidence that you never had as yourself..but as soon as you wipe the makeup off nothing you did really still counts within limits.”

Drag performers rarely go unnoticed when donning over-the-top outfits and striking cosmetic transformations. Many drag performers are motivated by their audiences’ genuine admiration for drag as a form of performance art. Marcus notes the power of absorbing admiration whilst appearing at Haute Mess as Donner Kebabe.

“The way people treat you when you’re in drag, when you have those 8 inch heels on, when you have those huge eyelashes that come up to here, when you’ve got on your beat on and you’re fierce, people really treat you with such reverence,” says Marcus.

Drag enables empowerment through its genuine entertainment value, but its power does not come simply from on-stage performances or from gaining a spotlight in front of the camera. Rather, by erecting a context in which typically-suppressed acts of expression are overturned and actually celebrated by both audiences and fellow performers, drag encourages self-discovery.

As Marcus notes, “One of the best things about it is you are using your own queerness which people tell you you should be so ashamed of to actually empower yourself. I really think that is what is really addictive.”

For Re’em and Marcus, who together organise and host Haute Mess, building a drag community is integral to its success as an empowering form of expression. Although college events, like queer bops or themed parties, were Re’em’s and Marcus’ initial outlet for their work, both of them saw a need to develop a more formalised drag night in a queer space like Plush.

“When we met, we knew that in a kind of semi-selfish way, that we want a platform for our own drag and everyone else’s drag to be celebrated. We are the ones that seem to have an overt craving for it, so we were the ones that had to do it. If we weren’t going to give ourselves the stage for drag, who else will?” Re’em noted.

The formation of drag spaces typically emanates outward from queer, safe spaces such as Plush or during queer-specific events. However, celebrating drag need not be limited to LGBTQ+ bars or clubs. At Oxford, volunteers and exhibitionists are working at the Pitt Rivers to emphasise drag as an integral part of celebrating queer history month. The museum invited London-based drag king Adam All to lead a drag king workshop and perform at the launch party “Party at the Pit” for Out at Oxford, a month-long “specially commissioned trail highlighting LGBTQ+ experiences.”

Intentionally showcasing masculine-leaning drag performers at Party at the Pitt can be considered a milestone given marked tension within the drag community regarding drag kings and non-male performers. Many take issue with the association between “real” drag and what is known as the fishiest, or most realistic, feminine looking, queens.

According to Marcus, “The biggest issue in the drag community right now is the inclusion of drag kings and appreciating them as an equal art. Because It really is. Honey—there are some really fierce queens—I mean kings —see immediately when I say fierce I want to go to queens like instinctively.”

Party at the Pitt was hosted by two university students, Ellie McDonald (she/they) and Ellie Dibben (they/them), who are self-ascribed “drag princes.” They comprise the duo PATRIK and ARCHIE (Patriarchy). Patrik and Archie have planned several upcoming drag workshops for non-male identifying individuals, whether novices or veterans, who want to either step into or enhance their male-leaning drag looks. For both of them, drag should not be limited to a specific type of gender schema.

“There is no “ideal” form of drag as it’s a highly individualistic thing—we even both do it slightly differently. So long as drag is done consciously—avoiding cultural appropriation, mocking of trans people or other offensive parodies—then its diversity is its strength,” both said.

Patrik and Archie are an example of individuals moving beyond the typical male-to-female schema that defines common drag queens or even bio-queens, cisgender women who do exaggerated, female impersonations. Both Patrik and Archie say they “wanted to do drag as a way to disrupt ideas of gender and show that nonmale people can appropriate masculinity in a disorientating and empowering way.”

The duo constructs their looks through the use of more abstract materials and designs, which they see as a step away from strands of drag which aim to realistically depict an opposite gender. Although Patrik and Archie appropriate masculine elements, they prefer to do this in surrealist and intentionally-obscured ways. In doing so, they both describe their drag personas as breaking away from “established tropes” in drag culture.

“We started out by attempting ‘realistic’ drag, stubble and the like, but both of us find typical masculine attire too bland for our personal tastes. We took inspiration from surrealist artists such as Noel Fielding and Sussi, and ended up with an odd amalgamation of many styles,” they note.

Although Patrik and Archie see their art as disrupting the gender binary in equally empowering ways as drag queens, they point out exclusionary attitudes build into the public’s consciousness of drag culture. They see RuPaul’s show, for example, as presenting “a particular definition of femininity which the queens can express and—there are no drag kings. Hence it is very exclusive and one dimensional.”

The lack of diverse drag performers on Drag Race is, according to Patrik and Archie, just one example of LGBTQ+ communities’ systematic exclusion of drag kings on main stages. “Drag kings seem to be less represented on the whole and are generally found in explicitly non-male spaces e.g. ‘She’ in Soho [a specifically lesbian bar]. They also tend to be viewed as less talented or aesthetically pleasing as queens despite showing more diversity in their performances,” they say.

Although drag kings face obstacles in achieving equal access and esteem, Patrik and Archie have not stopped themselves from paving their own road in self-expression. In independently fashioning their own articulation of drag, they see themselves as part of a movement towards diversification in drag itself.

“Modern drag is based on a more conscious parodying of gender, often in a less binary way, for example, we see queens without hair and the use of more elaborate costumes instead of seeking to ‘pass’. We see it in figures like Sussi who parody gender in an increasingly grotesque way,” they both say.

Marcus and Re’em echoed Patrik and Archie’s vision of modern drag as a more inclusive, diversified manifestation of queer art.

“For Haute Mess,” Marcus says, “we wanted to showcase a wide-variety of drag. By that, we don’t just mean pageant queens, trash queens, but that means looking at the monsters, kings, queens, and every part of it.”

Re’em adds to that saying, “Drag doesn’t have to be pretty. Pretty drag is expensive and that is not accessible. We want messy drag. We want confusing drag.”

Marcus, “We want expressive drag. We want ugly drag.”

Given drag’s history of flourishing in queer, artistic spaces, Re’em and Marcus believe it provides gender liberation through collective transgressions of normative culture. Drag allows one to embody deep-seated “fantasies,” as both of them called it, thereby enabling one to explore parts of themselves that they may otherwise be unable to display given social constraints on all aspects of identity. This situation is one of finding balance between individual self-expression and engaging with the collective meaning of “queerness.”

Oftentimes, the experience is difficult to pin down. As Re’em explained, drag allows one to “ conform to queerness but reject conformity in a way. It’s, well, you can understand it by seeing it. But it gives you the absolute freedom to go and become the deepest, weirdest fantasy that you can find.”

Both Marcus and Re’em spoke of their desire to speak of drag as letting out an amorphous illusion, or inner “monster” so to speak, rather than adhering to either side of a gender binary. Marcus echoed this sentiment when describing his look for Michaelmas’ Haute Mess. “I was rocking out my reptilian face with balloons in my hair. I live for that fantasy,” he said.

For many, drag’s disruption of gender is an opportunity for profound insight into one’s own attachment with society’s categories of gender. Archie, who is non-binary, says, “Drag has confused my perception of gender a lot as it makes you realise how unstable it is as an idea. I’ve started drifting away from seeing myself as a ‘woman’, which had always been a key part of my identity, and instead view gender as inconsequential.”

For Patrik, embodying their drag persona blurs several lines of identity. “The more I’ve performed drag, seen drag and dressed up in drag the more it became part of my identity. Patrik became less of a performance and more of an alter ego,” they said.

The correspondences between one’s own ego and public drag persona helps many of Oxford’s drag performers to see the experience as an intuitive one that flourishes outwards from inner personality rather than the adoption of an entirely othered, fictionalised character.

“When I am in drag, I take these few aspects that are a small percentage of my everyday, go-to-work personality and take them to a ridiculous extreme. It does feel more natural, because it is a kind of hidden personality that you have within yourself. You’re letting out the monster,” Re’em says.

Although drag is described by Re’em and Marcus as a powerful affirmation of individual identity, they both recognised the difficulties that individuals in drag face in mainstream spaces. Both of them recounted experiences of harassment or violations of boundaries whilst in drag. Re’em described a situation in which another person felt him up without his consent, and he noted instance that similar instances are indications of a systemic issues regarding the public’s perception of drag stars.

“People think that when you’re in drag they can feel you up or they can touch you or they can ask you really invasive questions that they would never ask you if you were dressed up in your normal clothing,” he says.

Perhaps, then, because Oxford drag is pushing the boundaries on so many fronts, from within the tradition of drag itself and also in a strongly heterosexual sphere of traditional academia, there can be a tense response to drag at times even within LGBTQ+ spaces in Oxford.

Still, the lack of conscientiousness in nonqueer spaces is oftentimes described as far more negative since toxic heteronormative assumptions undergird many of Oxford’s clubs and late-night venues. Marcus says, “I’ve found that when I’ve been out in more femalepresenting drag, people treated me in a way more like caricatured, sexualised manner… And it’s only then when I really started to get an insight into what it is like to be a female in these straight clubs.”

Thus, it is not uncommon for audiences to misunderstanding drag by perceiving the exaggeration of gender as a reinforcement of an extreme binary rather than an act aiming to disrupt the restrictive nature of gender itself. Marcus notes, “If people are seeing drag as a stereotype of women or a caricature of women, they will then treat them as a caricature of a woman in a very particular way. So hypersexualised or revered in a particular way that actually becomes to be about the appearance and the body.”

Drag is marginalised in both queer and non-queer spaces, but Patrik and Archie note that space can crucially predict how one might be treated in drag. “Queer spaces are very important in developing drag performances as there’s a shared understanding of the possibility of alternative forms of gender expressionwe’d get a lot more harassment in a straight space. However, even queer spaces can feel intimidating and unwelcoming to female and non-binary performers as they tend to be male dominated,” they say.

Re’em notes, “I wouldn’t go to Plush with myself with less than a group of 5 or 10 in drag. I’m a six foot seven man, plush six inch heels, plus two foot head dress. I could kill a man by mistake. It’s still scary because even with the queer community there isn’t always enough support.”

Drag positions its participants, both audience members and performers, into a liminal space. They are simultaneously threatened by outside, heterosexual culture yet empowered through celebration of the transgressive in queer locations. Performers may vacillate between self-doubt and authentic confidence, or they may feel both of these simultaneously. These complexities amplify drag’s power, marking its experience as enthralling yet potentially destabilising in the same instant.

Marcus describe drag as being, at times, similar to an out-of-body experience. “I think I have these moments when I’m in drag when, sort of, especially if I’m alone just in a room for a second, I’ll look in the mirror and I’m back to Marcus just for a moment and I’m like oooh fucking hell, okay, back to the room. And then you just sort of note that, and you go back into a character when you go back outside. It’s amazing, and I personally feel that flow.”

As drag continues to diversify in personas, looks, and perhaps even the platforms and mediums it manifests in, Oxford students will certainly be on the forefront of ushering in a new and improved attachments to drag whilst stressing its importance as a distinctly queer artform. For Re’em and Marcus, should drag become assimilated into straight culture, it cannot continue its objective of rejecting gender expectations.

“The drag that the wider community—and when I mean community I mean global, not queer, since queer community is a different question can accept is limited I think. They can only deal with looking at queens who are campy and look like a “drag queen” with big lips, big eyes, over the top hair, over the top dress—the dame if you will,” Marcus says. 

The institutionalisation of Oxford’s LGBTQ+ community, from Plush or even to queer history or gender equality events, is consequential experience for every level of drag participants. These events are important even those who may never perform in front of a large crowd, since it normalises drag as a worthwhile experience. Whether we are speaking of lay participants adorning drag for the first time or decked-out artists going the extra mile during a Plush lip sync, drag elevates the significance of queerness in collective and individualised ways.

“The chance to explore my own gender has lead to me feeling more confident in going out in a waistcoat and ruffle shirt for a tute,” says Patrik. “I don’t really have a label for my gender because I don’t think it matters, I just exist and usually do it in a top hat and tails. The reaction of people to what I wear or what I do is what I find really cool. People are usually more curious and supportive of it then I ever thought possible, especially from people who aren’t queer themselves.”

Yet, for all the complexities and contradictions that empower drag as a form of selfexploration, it is also functions an absorbing, shocking form of celebration and excitement. For all these reasons, Oxford’s LGBTQ+ community’s talent and energy makes it uniquely situated to foster a type of unchained, purposeful self-exploration in a context in which anything is on the table. As Marcus puts it, “It’s fun. It’s just drag. In the end it’s really important to remember that it doesn’t matter if… if you’re eyelashes are fucking wonky, or if they’ve ended up under your armpit, or whether you’ve smudged your lips because you’ve been getting off with every person in the club. That doesn’t matter. That’s part of it.”

Re’em speaks of the future of drag not as a dichotomy between feminine or masculine parodies, but rather a medium that elucidates our deep-seated imaginations, the ones beneath our unconscious acceptance of gender schemas, as a form of emancipation.

“I think that we want to encourage everyone to find their own fantasy. We want our Haute Mess to be a collective safe haven for everyone regardless of what they want. If you can find your own fantasy by just wearing bunny ears, then that’s it. If you want to come in the decrepit wedding dress and full of blood, that’s also fine. It doesn’t matter how far you want to go, as long as you feel liberated, this is what we want. A safe haven for gender liberation.”