Drag Kings in Ireland.
Maeve Storey investigates the rising trend of drag kings in Ireland…
As Gringo O’Hara moves across the stage, the spotlight drops on his bulky form. Hands on his hips, he gyrates forward. The outline in his tight trousers is easily distinguishable. His eyes drop to below his waist. “My cup runneth over.”
Surrounding O’Hara are six women, each dressed in leather fetish gear, whips in hand. He sighs in ecstasy, moving his gaze slowly from one to the next. “I love a woman in leather,” he tells the crowd, grinning to acknowledge his privileged position amongst the ladies.
As O’Hara looks out into the audience, he knows he is the envy of every man in the room. Ringleader of a fetish-burlesque group known as The Pony Girls, the thickly moustachioed O’Hara is the ultimate alpha-male.
Except that O’Hara is not male.
Gringo O’Hara is, in fact, Tracy Ging, a 37-year-old Dubliner who has been performing as a drag king for seven years. She first entered Dublin’s drag scene as part of a drag king troupe called The Sham-Cocks, which formed during the Lesbian Arts Festival in 2003.
“It was a real shock to the scene,” Tracy recalls. “There weren’t many kings around. People had seen maybe a solo performance or duet. Then, suddenly, there was a gang of kings doing the circuit.”
The Sham-Cocks were the first drag king troupe to perform in Ireland. But they have also been the last. This is surprising, considering that the drag scene has exploded in Ireland since the birth of the Alternative Miss Ireland contest (AMI). The AMI, which began in 1997, has clawed its way up from the underground to become the most mainstream expression of drag culture in our country’s history. While AMI queens like Shirley Temple Bar and Ms Panti have gone on to have highly successful careers on stage and television, the first drag king to win, fellow Sham-Cock Sid Viscous, is far from a household name.
“The scene has always been full of queens,” says Tracy. “Men in drag is a more glamorous thing – big hair, big make-up. Clubs don’t like to have kings perform as much. It’s too grungy.”
Just as in the modern club scene, drag has historically been dominated by men. The word ‘drag’ in the sense of clothing or performance comes from 1870s theatre slang referring to the long skirts of male actors trailing on the floor.
Tracy believes that, while males in female roles have long had some degree of social acceptability, there remains a stigma attached to females in male roles. “Men as women are more accessible for audiences – it’s always been like that,” she says. “When people see kings, they think, ‘Why is she doing that when she has the ability to wear all the hair and make-up?’ Butch isn’t very cool.”
On top of this cultural disadvantage, drag is harder for women than it is for men on a purely practical level. Physically, there is more to cover up and fewer tools which to do it – no outrageous outfits, no make-up or hair extensions beyond a fake beard or moustache. Without these visual aids, being a king relies entirely on performance. “You have to really get into character,” says Tracy. “You have to be the man to really get the male posturing started. I’ve seen even the most mild and meek girls start strutting around like cocks.”
For Tracy these male qualities are left behind when she hangs up her moustache at the end of a show. Having worked as a director and producer in the theatre, drag is just another type of performance for her. “Drag is like a type of characterisation in theatre called Bouffant, where you imitate the extreme characteristics of a person. If you were playing a woman, for example, you might have huge boobs – just like Gringo’s exaggerated crotch.”
This is not the case, however, for all drag kings. Drag can be more than just a performance, becoming an exploration of sexuality and gender identity. “I think it’s a good way for some women who are naturally a bit more masculine to express that,” says Tracy. “Some of the kings I know have gender issues, so it’s their chance to explore the way they feel.”
For 23-year-old Jen Butler, a king from Kildare, this is exactly why drag is so appealing. “I don’t identify as a woman; I identify as gender-queer. In that I don’t see myself as definitively male or female. Biologically, I’m female. Emotionally and characteristically, I’m predominantly male.”
Gringo O’Hara wasn’t born until Tracy was 30. Declan Buckley didn’t don a dress as Shirley Temple Bar until he was 25. But Jen has been performing as the raucously named Justin Casey-Cummes since she was 17: “I’ve been involved in theatre from a very young age and I always wanted to be on stage. Gradually I decided that I wanted another outlet for my creativity and since gender identity has always fascinated me, I developed a male character.”
In performance as well as in age, Justin is a departure from traditional drag. In the past, many drag performers worked on and added to the same character over the years, just as Tracy has done with Gringo. In contrast, Justin embodies many characters.
“He’s performed as a gay bear, a mental hospital patient, a cocky rock star, Brian Cowen, a womaniser, an Italian mafia mobster, and a cross-dressing construction worker,” says Jen. “I like that he’s not a set-in-stone character. He never limits me in what I want to perform.”
And perform he does. This time dressed in Johnny Cash-black and cowboy-belt buckle, with slicked back blonde hair and a moustache drawn on with eye-liner, Justin lip-syncs to Tina Turner. Grabbing his also over-packaged crotch, he rips open his shirt to reveal a T-shirt that reads: “Your boyfriend calls me daddy.” The audience screams with laughter.
The fluidity of Justin’s character echoes the fluidity of gender, which is never more apparent than in drag. Scientifically, sex is a biological fact. But socially and culturally, gender is subject to change and debate. Academic feminist Judith Butler famously said that by living in a male dominated world “women have been in drag all their lives”.
But gender goes even further than the conventional male and female binary, says Jen: “The art of gender illusion is more than just drag kings and drag queens. For example, there are bio-kings (biologically born males), bio-queens (biologically born women) and gender fluid performers who identify as neither, or as their own interpretation of both.”
“You simply cannot put drag, in all of their many variations, into a category. That’s what makes it so intriguing.”
Intriguing as the world of drag is, it has yet to get the full attention of the Irish public. Despite Tracy’s assertion that “we’ve seen it all by now”, as a nation we are still rather timid when it comes to the issues of gender and sexuality. Although, this hasn’t stopped Irish kings from carving a unique place for themselves in society. “We’re always around,” says Tracy. Jen agrees: “You’re never too far from a king scene.” Perhaps you just have to look a little closer to see if that bulge in the crotch is real.