WHAT’S BEHIND THE DRAG KING REVOLUTION?
FORGET RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE. THE UK’S DRAG KING SCENE IS LEADING THE WAY TO A MORE INCLUSIVE, GENDER BENDING NIGHTLIFE CULTURE.
WORDS BY JAKE HALL
PORTRAITS BY JAN KLOS
originally appeared on SLEEK
It might be a weekday evening in East London, but the threat of a late night clearly hasn’t deterred the hundreds of drag fans clustered around the main stage of EartH, Hackney’s famously progressive multi-arts space. They’re gathered here tonight for the long-awaited finale of MAN UP, a drag king talent competition dreamed up by drag veterans Adam All and Jonny Woo, whose venue The Glory has been hosting heats for the last six weeks. The old-school gay pub can normally just about handle the night’s popularity, but not tonight: the grand finale calls for an even grander venue.
A grand total of sixteen performers take to the stage, showcasing skills which range from lip-sync and performance art to stand-up comedy and old-school crooning. What quickly becomes obvious is that there is no one drag king formula: some sport taped-down chests and sock-stuffed bulges, others toy with androgyny and use makeup to create works of painted art. “Kings are really deciding for themselves what it means to be a king,” explains Jonny. “The scene is still in its infancy, so they can explore these ideas of masculinity in all of its forms.”
What’s interesting is that tonight’s winner parodies a particularly headline-grabbing form of masculinity: toxic masculinity. Louis F.U. CK delivers a blazing takedown of – you guessed it – Louis CK, the notorious comedian who was ‘cancelled’ (this was short-lived – just a year later he was gigging again) after admitting to masturbating in front of women without their consent. With his straggly beard and disturbingly gross jokes, Louis F.U. CK commands the stage and pokes fun at a man whose gags have always been at the expense of others. Even if only temporarily, it feels like a shift in power. Naturally, the judges love it.
“Once you get beneath the veneer of drag, it’s easy to see the political significance of what’s being showcased by these amazing people,” Adam later tells me. Jonny echoes this statement, but argues that this significance sometimes gets lost: “as drag queens move into the mainstream, they’re becoming increasingly one-note – there’s just that emphasis on beauty and bitchiness.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race has come under fire in the past, both for transphobic remarks made by RuPaul and for seemingly gatekeeping who can and can’t do drag (spoiler: anyone can!), but the same can’t be said of the burgeoning drag king scene. “I think there’s a real awareness that the scene needs to be inclusive and diverse,” continues Adam, pointing to an extensive history of drag king brilliance which often gets ignored.
But this inclusivity hasn’t always been there; it’s been fought for by activists determined to bring new voices to the table. Zayn Phallic’s KOC Initiative is exemplary. “[The idea was] to create a night where drag kings of colour were prioritised, not tokenised,” he explains via email. “I grew tired of producers excusing all-white line-ups with the claim that ‘there just aren’t enough kings of colour.’” This obviously isn’t the case – Zayn is a well-respected name on the London scene, as are performers like Gusher, Sigi Moonlight and Romeo De La Cruz (another MAN UP 2019 finalist.)
It’s not just London leading the drag king revolution. Regular events like KINGDOM in Brighton and The Boi Zone in Manchester are cropping up across the UK, whereas venues like The Andro and Eve in Sheffield are still going strong despite the ongoing closures of queer bars in particular. But MAN UP is so well-known that kings travel from across the UK and even overseas to take part.
Nights like these aren’t just about performance — they’re about filling a vital gap in queer nightlife, which can often be disproportionately hostile towards women. Reports of misogyny and racism in gay venues are commonplace, and lesbian bars are currently few and far between. Factor in the common misconception that drag is a male-only practice and you have a real problem which competitions like MAN UP can truly help to solve.
“The contest brings opportunities with it,” says Jonny, who outlines that non-male drag performers are rarely given a platform as big as their cis male counterparts. “It brings the opportunity to discuss attitudes towards masculinity – whether they be discursive, celebratory or critical – but they also bring the chance for a crowd made up predominantly of women to watch other women and non-male performers.” Adam reiterates the importance of the night and the inclusivity of the drag king movement, adding, “there is no room for discrimination.”
What’s particularly exciting about the drag king revolution is that it’s still growing: it’s being shaped as we speak into a movement that’s arguably more progressive than the mainstream drag we’re now all familiar with. There are less limitations, and Zayn argues that performers are taking that freedom and running with it. “We’ve definitely seen a new generation of drag kings emerge, and they’ve been taking it to new and exciting places. At The KOC Initiative, we’ve seen everything from killer lip-syncs to wild, fantastical comedy, clowning, performance art and even a unicycle or two!”
Like the sixteen MAN UP finalists, every king is different. Some will seize the chance to cut misogynists like Louis CK down to size; others will stick to the tried-and-tested lip-sync; and some will push performance into experimental new realms. Whatever the case, Adam outlines that there’s room in the movement for everyone. “The practical techniques are things you can learn, so don’t hesitate to get involved if you feel like you want to unleash your inner drag king!”
This sense of community and togetherness can sometimes feel lacking in queer spaces, but nights like MAN UP are ultimately trying to rectify that and create a space outside of the cis, male-dominated nightlife culture that still prevails. They’re also going against the Drag Race insinuation that drag requires gatekeeping, or that it’s somehow a more radical artform when men are the ones engaging with it.
“It really has been a hard slog to get the recognition,” concludes Adam, alluding to the difficulties of fighting to make drag kings as visible as their queen counterparts. “But the drag kings in MAN UP have really proven there’s amazing talent and diversity emerging within our community. Now that I can see that talent bubbling up, I can recognise the wider significance of the competition – and I’m very proud to be part of it.