Cross-dressing for entertainment is not new. In ancient Greece and Rome, and during medieval times, it was taboo for women to perform stage. A ban on female actors also forced men to portray women in Kabuki theatre in Japan, where the practice continues today. Legend has it William Shakespeare indicated an actor should enter ‘dressed as a girl’, abbreviated ‘drag’, in the stage instructions of Elizabethan plays.
Modern gender illusion can be traced back the late 19th and early 20th centuries through Vaudeville and minstrel companies in which ‘wench’ roles were played in both drag and blackface. Female impersonation was generally seen as wholesome entertainment and was suitable for the whole family, unlike its racier counterpart, burlesque. In those early days, the drag artist Julian Eltinge brought elegance and refinement to the art, and the more outrageous characters of Bert Savoy laid the foundations of camp present in much drag today. Most acts were essentially about illusion, a decidedly male performer transforming completely into a woman onstage.
In the 1940s and '50s, female impersonators, like Nashville legend Tobi Marsh, traveled in revues and performed at fabulous clubs all over the country, but drag was largely still underground due to discriminatory laws in place. To dress as another gender in public was illegal, and violence against gay and transgendered people kept many drag artists from seeking the limelight.
Widely considered Nashville’s first gay bar, Juanita’s on Commerce Street, was likely the first place in Nashville a man in a wig and a dress could appear safely, if only on Halloween. In the ‘60s, the legendary proprietress reportedly negotiated with the police to allow her customers to celebrate the holiday in drag without risk of being arrested or harassed. Halloween is still a common time for a first attempt at cross-dressing for entertainment, and many drag artists continue to get their start that way.
In 1973, Norma Kristie became the first winner of the Miss Gay America pageant in Nashville. Upon relinquishing her crown the next year, she purchased the still popular drag pageant and, as Norman, owned it for the next thirty years. Pageants still abound in the drag world and now include drag kings and female lip-synching divas, an offshoot of the drag kings made popular in Tennessee.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Warehouse II and The Cabaret were the primary venues for Nashville’s drag community with Bianca Page, Rita Ross and Vanessa Del Rio among the most popular performers. However, this was also a dark time in Nashville’s drag history as drug abuse and the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic began to cast a shadow on the gay nightlife community. Then, in the late ‘90s, Ft. Campbell soldier Barry Winchell was murdered by two fellow soldiers for his relationship with transgendered actress, activist and then-Connection performer Calpernia Addams.
Still, the 1990s saw an influx of movies celebrating drag. Paris Is Burning; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and The Birdcage sparked widespread attention for the art form, and its practice became more popular across the United States. In Nashville, the Cabaret and Warehouse II closed, and shows at the Jungle, the Chute and the Connection became the drag attractions of the day. Other venues like Victor/Victoria and Chez Colette came and went in the late part of the 20th century. In 2005, the Connection fell victim to the growing popularity of the clubs on Church Street, and the drag scene shifted again where it still thrives today at PLAY with cast members Sara Andrews, Nicole Ellington Du’pree, Deception, and Dee Ranged.
In recent years, RuPaul’s Drag Race has moved drag even further into the mainstream and onto television. The longtime custom of experienced performers mentoring new artists through drag families is still practiced, but the availability of internet resources also enables aspiring performers to study the craft at home. Facebook and Twitter have allowed artists to network and gather fans, some before they have even set foot on a stage.
There are always new artists finding inspiration in Nashville to make drag their own. Several performers who were featured at the Chute, the Warehouse or the Connection are still putting on their wigs and gracing stages today. Nichole Ellington Du’pree, Chyna and Kitty Kincaid are among those ladies and are beloved by Nashville drag fans as the grand divas they all have worked hard to be.