What Drag Has Taught Me

Gabbie in drag as a priest

Photo by Manuel Frayre

I want to be very clear from the get-go: I am not good at drag. I have only performed in a loose interpretation of “drag” about six times since August 2023, all at open mics or small venues. I would balk at the idea of calling myself a drag performer alongside others I know who are truly putting their heads, hearts, and body parts into the artform. That said, every time I have gotten the opportunity to do mediocre drag as a beginner, I have had some of the most fun a person can have.

It’d been a bucket list item of mine for awhile to perform drag, just once. Thankfully here in Austin, Texas, there are ample opportunities for beginning drag artists: from RAIN’s BYOT hosted by Basura, to Cheer Up Charlie’s Big Tits Bigger Dreams hosted by Brigitte Bandit, there are several ways for newbies to get a sense of this artform for themselves. In August 2023, I ripped off my self-adhered bandage and dove into drag with a performance of Harry Styles’ “Only Angel” as a priest. I tore pages out of a Bible I may or may not have stolen from a Boston hotel, and fed unblessed communion wafers to folks in the audience. Needless to say, sexualizing a queer’s religious trauma makes for a great tipping strategy.

While I’ve only performed a handful of times since then (most recently in a star-spangled duo number to Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy”), I have had an invaluable amount of fun and self-realization that I am excited to share with you here.

LESSON 1: Masculinity/Femininity Don’t Have To Be Cages; They Can Instead Be The Key That Unlocks Them

I self-describe as a “masc lesbian.” I wear button-downs and baggy pants far more often than makeup and skirts, but the full reality of my gender expression is more nuanced.

Growing up in the Missouri suburbs, gender was less a playground than a confined set of rules one need not break. I attended an all-girls Catholic school (yes, mark that off on my dyke bingo card), and before that co-ed Catholic education. I wore a skirt to school every day for 12 grades straight, and it was only when I reached college at 18 that I was thrown into figuring out my personal style all at once. I was more feminine in college, but it was a stocky, clumsy femininity: skirts with baggy leggings underneath, ugly hats, dresses that made me look like a four-year-old on Easter. It wasn’t until the latter half of college, and graduate school, that I played more with masculine styles, and began to feel much more at home. Finally I felt desirable, sexy even, not just for others but for myself.

And yet, even in that, I have still struggled with an internalized shame. I have often fought against the word “butch,” making sure people know while I may dress masculinely, I’m not “like that.” I am ashamed to have thought that way — to in some ways, without catching myself, still think that way — the voice of relatives and conservatives echoing in my mind, reminding me that “just because I’m a lesbian, doesn’t mean I have to be that kind of lesbian.” Despite viewing butches and masc lesbians as pioneers, despite getting emotional when I see pictures of old butches in black-and-white suit and ties, I still carry a shame that has disallowed me from accessing that same freedom. And similarly, I have remained uncomfortable in presentations of femininity. Dresses don’t feel like me, and most representations of femininity feel less like a choice than a compromise with what is expected of me from others.

When I started drag, though, I had an obvious but revelatory shift happen within me. While, again, my drag is not up to par with realer performers, even just drawing on a fake mustache, strapping on a fake member, and gyrating to a Harry Styles song lent me a particular power. I felt good. I felt attractive, powerful, engaged. I loved the attention (of course I did, I’m a Leo Moon), but more than that, I loved how I felt. The performance of gender that drag brings made it fun again: not just masculine performance, but the idea of feminine performance as well. In drag, gender doesn’t feel like a choice, but a gift: a gift you can play with, return, box, and unbox at will.

I was never interested in makeup or dresses or things associated with a feminine presentation — until drag. How funny is that? It wasn’t until I could turn femininity subversive that I wanted her back. More so than performing in drag (which I have only done a handful of times), watching others toe the lines between feminine and masculine, seeing what these folks look like in their everyday lives versus as their drag personas, made me excited at the thought of engaging with my feminine side without a sense of lacking control, or engaging with my masculine side without a sense of shame. Drag reminds me, reminds many of us, I’m sure, that gender is meant to be fun — gender is meant to be a toy we play with. Gender is not a requirement; it’s a hobby, and we should play with it however we want.

I do like makeup, I do like skirts and doing my hair and parlaying generally with femininity. I just want to do it on my terms. And masculinity too — I don’t have to be ashamed of it, because it is what makes me happy and makes me feel good and sexy and like a person, not a gender. And that’s what we should all feel like.

LESSON 2: Drag Comes In Many Shapes

RuPaul’s Drag Race would have many folks who otherwise don’t engage with local drag scenes believe there’s only one, maybe one and a half, ways to do drag. While in more recent seasons Drag Race has opened up the competition to openly trans women, and an increase in more androgynous presentation, the series still displays a very narrow scope of what drag can be.

When I started engaging more with drag in the Austin community, of course I found stellar queens whose sharp, curated femininity was enchanting to watch. But, both through booked shows and drag open mics like the ones I’ve participated in, I’ve been able to witness so much more. I’ve seen Austin’s fierce community of drag kings, comprising cis women and trans men alike, as well as drag performers who either do not pick between masculine or feminine presentation or forego a particular categorized “gender play” altogether for something more monstrous or amorphous. The “drag thing” versus king or queen is a figure I’ve seen in the Austin drag scene more than once, and each time I see a performance rooted in the weird, the ugly, the creaturely, I fall more in love with the act of drag.

Of course before doing drag for the first time myself, I knew drag was not the box Drag Race may have one believe. Dragula, another popular drag competition show (and one with not one but two Austin queens on Season 3, Louisianna Purchase and Evah Destruction), prides itself on having “filth, horror, glamor” as its pillars. (It also had a drag king, Landon Cider, winning Season 3, while in 16 American seasons and over 20 international iterations, Drag Race has not even cast one.) But it’s one thing to know an artform exists, and another to get to experience it, sitting in the hot squelch of Texas summer flinging damp dollar bills at a hot drag cowboy with prominent top surgery scars, or a sort of amorphous radioactive Rugrat-adjacent androgyny. The commitment to seeing more drag by participating in it, introduced me to all the ways one can do drag, express it, have fun with it. Which leads me to my next point:

LESSON 3: You Can Still Have Fun When You’re Bad At Something

When my editor saw my fledgling drag Instagram, she asked that I write about my experience. But like I said earlier, I don’t consider myself a drag performer so much as a person who has done drag a handful of times with a poorly drawn-on mustache and a willingness to look stupid in front of drunk strangers. So a part of me feels false writing this article — I would never say I am good enough at drag to write this. But then, does one have to be an expert on something to talk about it? Better yet, does one have to be an expert on something to find joy in it?

The first time I did drag, I had planned an elaborate routine to “Only Angel” by Harry Styles. I would dress as a priest, rip pages out of a bible, and hand out communion wafers. I had each lyric detailed with a move, planning to be as sexy as possible. I’d practiced countless times in the shower and my small, oblong-shaped living room. And then within the first few seconds of the number, I tripped over a fan and fell flat on my face. Thankfully, the adrenaline of performance was enough to push me past it — everyone was laughing, thinking the clumsiness was part of a high-camp act, so I went with it. Most of my choreography went out the window, some of it because of this fumble, but mostly because the heart-beating energy of the performance just threw the script out of my brain. Instead, I ended up gyrating, jumping, throwing my body against the stage. It was ridiculous, and I thought I would feel embarrassed for an imperfect performance, but instead I did the simplest yet most evocative thing: I had fun.

As someone who suffers from the affliction of “if I can’t do it perfectly on the first try, I don’t want to do it at all,” being forced into a position where from the jump I couldn’t make it perfect was terrifying and electrifying. And is that not, in many ways, the point of drag? The latest seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, rife with couture and designer dresses, may fool us, but the root of drag is in its scrappiness, its imperfections, it’s artistry borne from a need for expression, not for a lust for fame or a mainstream popularity. Drag at its core is a communal, DIY artform, where the purity of its language is in expression and just plain joy. Even doing it poorly, even doing it just every once in a while with a bad mustache and hastily applied eyeshadow, gets to the root of it, which is that it’s about expressing and sharing queer joy.

LESSON 4: Community is Yours, If You Choose To Engage With It

I’ve lived in Austin for almost five years now. I moved here pre-COVID to get my MFA in Poetry (lesbian bingo card filling up fast), and with intentionality to make new friends in a new city I could call my own. Of course, after COVID joined our lives, that made an already complicated effort even more difficult. I had had queer friends before — most of my high school and undergrad friends were either gay when I befriended them, or came out shortly thereafter. However, I had yet to live as an adult in a city of my own where I could truly engage in a queer community. I was in the GSA at my undergrad (forgive me), but a college club is not the same as engaging with your neighbors in queerness at bars, community events, in the grocery store line. I wasn’t sure how to navigate this as an adult. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to.

And of course, with the strain of schoolwork, COVID precautions, and more than a few indulgent heartbreaks, I didn’t have as much time or access to that engagement. After being vaccinated and with COVID restrictions lifted, I was able to go out (masked) with friends from my program, but I still kept my circle small. I pretty much didn’t meet anyone new outside of the graduate school social circle unless I was going on a date with them, and the two outcomes to that were often limited to a one-night stand or ferocious toxic entanglement (don’t worry, I have a therapist now).

It wasn’t until this past summer, when I gave drag a shot, that I found what it felt like to truly engage with the community at large. Anyone can get a couple cherry vodka sours at their local gay bar, throw a couple dollars at the drag performers, and go home, but what does it look like to be a part of something bigger than yourself? To know what it means not just to take but to give to a space — beyond just a few dollars for drinks. By performing, I got to access the social world of the other performers: some with more experience, others also starting drag for the first time, unsure whether it would be a calling or just a fun one-night stand. Folks I would’ve never met or had the courage to talk to otherwise were ones I ended up spending the remainder of that night with, swapping cigarettes and bad date stories. Since then, whether I’ve gone to perform at the bars, or just gone for a drink, it’s a guarantee I will know at least one person in attendance. And by knowing just one person, I’ve become privy to other events and places in Austin I would’ve never guessed existed if I hadn’t been brave enough to meet new people. Now I don’t even have to go to the bar: I go to an artists’ market and buy a print from a queen who did a slick sexy number to Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater,” or buy a coffee from the place around the corner and run into a performer who, last I saw, was wearing nothing but leather chaps and a whole can of whipped cream.

It may seem small and inconsequential, but the manner in which the city opened up to me changed the way I interacted not only with it, but with myself. I began to recognize I wasn’t as alone as I felt, that there is a huge world of amazing people to know. I just had to be brave enough to go look for them.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Gabrielle Grace Hogan

Gabrielle Grace Hogan (she/her) received her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. Her poetry has been published by TriQuarterly, CutBank, Salt Hill, and others, and has been supported by the James A. Michener Fellowship and the Ragdale Foundation. In the past, she has served as Poetry Editor of Bat City Review, and as Co-Founder/Co-Editor of You Flower / You Feast, an anthology of work inspired by Harry Styles. She lives in Austin, Texas. You can find her on Instagram @gabriellegracehogan, her website www.gabriellegracehogan.com, or wandering a gay bar looking lost.

Gabrielle has written 10 articles for us.


  1. Fascinating write-up, thank you. Your voice is very clear and clever, I love it. Setting aside my own complicated unresolved feelings about drag as a trans woman, I just have to ask: why did you apologize for being in your undergrad gsa? I’m so confused, I thought I was finally starting to be “in the loop”… 🤣

    (I was the president of mine, despite not being out as anything, but generally assumed to be just kind of a queer guy…)

    • Thanks for reading! I think for me I’ve found a lot of queer people around my age (I’m 27) find being in a GSA a bit cringey? lol I think it comes from an idea that sometimes GSAs can be a bit neoliberal in their politics. Of course this doesn’t apply to all GSAs — there’s clear nuance!

      • Ah, that makes sense. I’m about a decade older than you (oh I’m so old), and I wouldn’t really call ours neoliberal, we were doing pretty basic stuff like “reading queer news sites” and “safe space training with really 101 level content” because we were at a Catholic college 😅. Thanks for the clarification!

    • Drag thing is a new one. In my area the term is a drag monarch and I admit I like that better than drag thing. Thing is too dehumanizing for me personally. Interesting read! It’s been a while since I have been able to perform as a drag king because of grad school, but it would be nice to return to it someday. I’m glad you’re having fun with it.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!