Fifth Place Writing – Features

Katherine Lester

Fifth Place
Texas Christian University
$1,000 Scholarship

The Queer Art of Drag

A new course taught students how to create their own drag personas.

By Katherine Lester

The room is a rainbow as the lights change every few seconds from red to green to purple.

The audience chatters and giggles in anticipation of the show. Rainbow flags and masks spill out of goodie bags, a decidedly queer statement at a private Christian institution.

Students and their professor walk around in intense makeup, their faces adorned with glittery blue eyeshadow and dramatic shading. There’s a pair of stilettos here, a pink wig there.

The event? A showcase of a unique final project assignment: perform in drag.

Students in the Queer Art of Drag class recorded videos as their self-created drag personas to display at the show.

Drag queens and kings danced in sparkly glam drag looks, wigs and fake beards at the “Night of Drag” presented by theEnd and Spectrum. The event was hybrid, with a small audience viewing in-person and streaming available online and in the Campus Commons. A few local drag artists performed in person.

Nino Testa, the associate director of women and gender studies and professor of the course, appeared as Maria von Clapp. Her name is a play on the protagonist of “The Sound of Music,” with “Clapp” short for clapback.

Maria von Clapp pulled out a book labeled “Drag 4 Dummies” and taught the audience the do, re, mis of drag — “re” for RuPaul, of course.

The crowd cheered for the students’ recorded performances. Each created their own lip-sync music video, often incorporating their personal interests. Color guard performers threw colorful flags in sync to intense techno music, a drag king named Marshall Arts maneuvered through karate moves in a thirst-trap video, and a queen called Jizzica Sarah Parker sang along to “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj in a saturated TikTok.

While the event was a celebration of drag, the students were also completing their final projects as part of TCU’s first-class dedicated to drag.

“I feel like a part of history being in this class,” said Anna Grace Fleet, a senior news and media studies major. “At least a part of TCU’s queer history.”

Other colleges and universities have included similar courses on the performance art over the past couple of decades, but a smaller number includes both a historical lens and a performance component.

“The class is really about giving students space to think about drag of course and its importance and history and its uses, but it’s also to think about who can do drag,” said Testa. “How can I do drag? What do I have to say and how can I say it through drag, and to give them the tools they need to perform in the Spectrum show.”

Testa said he modeled the class after that of a former colleague of his at Tufts University. Kareem Khubchandani, an assistant professor at Tufts, created the course ‘Critical Drag,’ with drag performance practices in mind.

Khubchandani said he began performing drag as part of his research on LGBT nightlife for his dissertation for a PhD in performance studies at Northwestern University.

“By doing drag, I saw that there was a lot that I was seeing that I wouldn’t get if I just observed,” said Khubchandani.

Later, he took a class in an Austin bar on drag, inspiring the future format of the class.

“Every week it was a new challenge,” said Khubchandani. “It wasn’t necessarily a university classroom, but I learned a lot by doing that. I was like, ‘Oh, there is in fact pedagogy that can happen with intention when doing drag.”

Offering the courses on drag itself defies what is institutionally accepted.

“We’re going to create queer spaces, we’re going to challenge non-queer people to think queerly, and that’s more of a transformational experience rather than you’re welcome here or you’re safe here,” said Testa.

Drag shows at TCU

TCU’s first drag show was held in 2008. The TCU Gay-Straight Alliance club sponsored the annual event.

Spectrum, the current LGBTQ student organization on campus, rebranded the event in 2017 as the Spectrum Drag Show. The show has been held off-and-on and was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Spectrum show has been very popular, garnering 350 attendees in 2019, drag has still had some pushback on campus.

Testa said that as a part of a drag residency they were planning in the fall of 2019, they hoped to include a Drag Queen Story Hour. At the community event, drag queens read stories to children, usually with themes of acceptance or gender identity. The queens reading them act as “glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models,” according to the organization’s website.

The university asked them to cancel the event, he said.

Drag has always been about subverting societal expectations.

During the Stonewall Riots in 1968, Marsha P. Johnson and other women who identified as drag queens at the time but would now be considered transgender women, helped catalyze a movement against law enforcement who targeted gay bars.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a popular reality competition TV show between drag queens, helped make drag mainstream. Though the art is more popular, it is still nonconforming. The New York Times called the reality competition show “the most radical show on TV.”

“We believe that being exactly who you are is the biggest resistance of all,” said Christa Franks, the emcee of the event.

The night was a celebration of the students’ hard work over the semester. Some in the class had been familiar with drag before the course, others not so much.

Madison Wutke, a first-year early childhood education major, said she signed up for the course as an accident, not knowing the special topics in women and gender studies class she added to her schedule was really centered around drag.

“I guess it was over Christmas break that I realized it was a drag class, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I done,’” said Wutke. “I think drag is so cool, but the idea of doing it myself was never really something I had considered, so I was panicked to be completely honest.”

Wutke said she emailed Testa who reassured her multiple times throughout the semester. One of Wutke’s concerns was whether it would be appropriate to perform as a drag queen as a cisgender woman. She said Testa told her that was absolutely okay, and that other cisgender women in the class would be performing as drag queens.

“Dr. Testa has been amazing,” said Wutke. “Had it been any other professor I feel like I would not have been able to do this.”

The first-year blew the audience away with her performance as Bianca Bombshell, who was inspired by her grandmother. Bianca Bombshell drove in a convertible to “I am Woman” by Helen Reddy, peeling off layers of her fur coat and headscarf to reveal a black leather two-piece at the end. The audience clapped and cheered.

Other students also felt supported by their professor and classmates, even if drag was out of their comfort zone.

Anna Grace Fleet, a senior news and media studies major also in the queer art of drag, said the typical atmosphere on campus is not open-minded and accepting, making queer spaces even more important.

“My experience was transformed when I found the queer spaces, being queer myself,” said Fleet. “Having these spaces is imperative. It’s life-saving and life-changing.”

Fleet said at least half of the class identifies as queer, something that’s not common at TCU, a place where she said she’s experienced homophobia.

In uncomfortable situations where Fleet said she may not be as confident, her drag persona, Marshall Arts, would take the lead.

“Marshall will jump into any conversation and be armed with whatever he needs to bring a person to understanding or tolerance,” said Fleet. “He’s the social justice warrior I want to be, and he also fights the binary.”

Students had the freedom to create whatever kind of persona they wanted but had to research and understand how they wanted to portray themselves. Having learned about the history of drag at TCU and in broader contexts by learning about Stonewall and watching the documentary Paris is Burning, students had tools to respectfully approach the art form.

What the audience saw on-screen took weeks of preparation. Students wrote essays and reflections on different aspects of the performance and learned how to do drag makeup or use video editing software. Local drag artist Tara St. Stone helped teach students some of the technicalities of drag makeup application. Lots of glue and stage makeup was involved.

All of these tools provided throughout the class culminated in their personas.

“They really had fun with it and reflected on how they wanted their personas to say something about them and themselves, and also their world,” said Testa.

Many students took drag to unexpected places.

Goldenrod Ryder, a cowgirl drag queen, lip-synched to Lady Gaga singing “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” while parading around the Stockyards in leather chaps and short-shorts.

Bella Black Heart lip-synched to “Can’t Be Tamed” by Miley Cyrus on top of the Worth Hills parking garage. Anne of Cleavage made her fraternity house her runway to show off her glitter beard and pink satin hoop skirt.

Students had seen each other’s videos before the show, so a highlight was seeing live local performers and the crowd’s reactions.

“I’ve gotten to see all of my peers’ videos, but I’m so excited to see them on the big screen in front of an audience and just watch them kill it up there and get the recognition they deserve,” said Fleet. “I’m also really excited for the queens and king who are coming because I’ve never been to a drag show.”

Four local artists showed off their acts on the Brown-Lupton University Union Ballroom stage. Brock Bottoms, Sapphire Davenport Daze, Tara St. Stone and Tulla Moore performed in between the screenings of the students’ videos.

Multiple TCU organizations helped put on the event. The Department of Women and Gender Studies, Gender Resource Office, Student Government Association, theEnd and Spectrum all contributed. Attendees were the first to hear of a new drag club soon coming to campus started by sophomore interdisciplinary studies major Dawson Holder.

The night ended by honoring Testa and his contributions to the class and program. The audience cheered for Maria von Clapp as she proudly took the stage in a shirt with “Yes, I’m gay” lettering on the front.

“Nino has just instilled so much confidence in all of us, just through being so encouraging and the nice version of RuPaul,” Fleet said.

For students wanting a RuPaul’s Drag Race experience without the shade, Testa said he plans to teach the Queer Art of Drag again in spring 2022.


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