My fascination with drag culture began at the age of ten, when I demanded that my family rent Kinky Boots from Blockbuster, much to my mum's confusion. Fast-forward to 2014 and I'm rolling about on the floor, off my tits, as Sink the Pink host their late-night gender-fucking club night at Bestival. Drag, for me and so many, has always been the brightest jewel in the queer scene's crown, a glittery thread running through the fabric of what makes our community so wonderful.
This week, one of London's top drag venues, The Black Cap in Camden, shut its doors for the final time and it's a fucking travesty. Gay people had been going there since 1965, when homosexuality was still illegal. Meth, the queen whose notorious Lab has seen homegrown and international talent take to the Cap's stage in the past couple of years, is hurting. "The loss of such an incredible queer space and over 50 years of queer history is a devastating blow to our community."
Meth isn't binning her lippy quite yet, though. "It has been an incredible, invigorating year for drag in the UK and though the Cap was an integral part of this movement, it does not end with her." Such is the determination shared by all the young queen's I've spoken to.
Watching the outpourings of sadness and disappointment within the community at losing the Cap, it made me think about how much of a pull drag and drag nights have for young, gay 20-somethings. For something that has been around for so long, it's amazing how many young people find excitement and belonging with drag – and not just through watching Ru Paul's Drag Race. Nights hosted at the Cap weren't catering to a threadbare, niche audience – they were packed to the rafters each and every time, with young people. That says something.
I grew up thinking drag was supposed to give a boost to a section of society who, in the past, had been treated as pariahs for their whole lives. But in a country where we are continually told that the LGBT community has it better than we've ever had it before (we can marry each other now, y'know), why are young gay men still so excited by chucking on a maxi dress and taking to the stage?
I went to The Meth Lab at the Cap a few weeks back, where a queue of people were stood in the pissing rain to see Raja, of Drag Race fame. I asked some people in the line why they'd come along. "Have you got any ket?" was the first answer I got. But then I found 24-year-old Joshua, who'd travelled down from deepest Wales for the night. "Drag has always been both on the edge of and central to gay culture," he said. "They're the nasty, indigestible underbelly, but get on the stage and become a freaky ambassador for the community at large."
He's right, of course. Drag queens have a history of being at the forefront of the fight for LGBT rights. When the Stonewall riots sparked in New York in 1969, paving the way for a less shitty future for the queer community, it was when three drag queens and a lesbian were dragged into a paddy wagon by the NYPD that the community said, "Fuck this." The riots began at about 3AM after a police raid of the Stonewall Inn – a gay club on Christopher Street – turned nasty. Although the police were legally justified in their raiding of the club (they were serving booze without a license), New York's queer community were sick of the police targeting their venues with such singular vision and fought back. The crowds gathering on the streets watched, quietly, as the bar's employees were arrested, but grew more animated when the queens and the lesbian were forced in the van. They started lobbing bottles at the police, who were forced to scurry into the bar for shelter. The protest bled into several neighbouring blocks and was not abated until the riot police were called in.
Today, we still have plenty of politically-motivated queens. Ireland's Panti Bliss is a prominent example, using her platform to actively fight against homophobia wherever she can. But what's driving the young queens of today? The ones not long out of university, who can only relate to events like the Stonewall riots through historical texts?
For 23-year-old Lydia L'Scabies, drag has been a salvation. "I was going through a pretty messy break-up, woke up one morning on a stonking comedown, looked in the mirror and saw a seven stone mess staring back at me." A quick trip to the doctor confirmed that Alex had scabies ("it looked like Freddy Kruger's leg by this stage"), and it suddenly seemed to just click. "I saw all these parallels," she says. In what way? "Drag queens are parasites too; they live off their audience, without which they die."
Lydia has now taken it upon herself to be a one-stop shop for STD awareness. "We're pushing the boundaries," she says. "Drag creatures have always kicked up a fuss, made a scene about something or other. For me it's openly discussing sexual health and HIV. I saved myself from something potentially really bad through drag." Lydia might have "more STD's than GCSEs" (her words not mine), but she's a fighter.
When Lydia talks about her inspiration, there's an air of vulnerability that we don't often associate with drag – something she says plays a massive role. I've been watching Drag Race religiously for a long, and I reckon Lydia's right. One queen, Detox, reveals on stage that she was in a horrific car accident, having found her ex-boyfriend dead at her apartment. In a reading task (the girls rip each other to shreds, often holding a puppet), one says, "It's illegal to have sex with Detox, because the majority of her is under 18-years-old". In the same season, a transgendered woman beautifully makes her transition public. There's those whose parents disowned them, the ones who ran away to New York as teens, and haven't spoken to their families since. She's not the only queen to say the drag persona is a way of dealing with personal trauma.
The now legendary documentary Paris is Burning, 25 years old this year, follows the lives of queens back in 80s Manhattan, where the scene provided a home for many; rejected by their families, subject to abuse and attacks on the streets. In one notorious scene, two 14-year-old boys are out on the streets alone at night, telling the camera they've nowhere to be, they have no parents.
Today's young drag artists aren't all aspiring for a hyper-feminised alter ego, contrary to what many outside the scene believe. Rodent Decay describes herself as a "millennium Myspace brat, born and raised in the sewers", unlike Benedict Douglas Stewardson, raised in the suburbs of Birmingham. "I don't want her to be too obviously feminine – she has a punk aesthetic, not one gender but androgynous". Rodent lets Benedict explore his female personality, not defining as a specific gender all the time.
For Rodent, if female mimicry isn't high on the agenda, what is? "We need to move queer culture forward," she says, unequivocally. "We've got marriage, woopdy-fucking-doo. But trans people are still committing suicide. We've got internal racism and misogyny, and there's a fuck-tonne of body shaming in the gay community. We've got different targets now."
I met up with Crystal Lubrikunt, a student at Brighton University who isn't convinced that we've come all that far, either. When Crystal and fellow queen Meth (yep) jumped out their taxi in February last year after a night out on the town, two men and a knife were waiting outside the flat. "Within a few seconds of leaving the car, these two men started some trouble," she says. "One of them shouted, 'Oh look, a bunch of trannies', and I legged it over to the shop round the corner to get some help, but the bloke behind the counter refused to do anything. Meth and her partner were thrown to the floor."
For Crystal, getting up on stage and doing her thing is a chance to hit back. "I'm getting this platform and, rather than just talking about anal and slagging off some C-list celebs, I can talk about Pussy Riot while also having a laugh." She's not joking. The first time I saw Crystal and the other House of Grand Parade girls, they were tearing up pictures of Putin while slut-dropping to Lilly Allen's Fuck You on stage at Brighton Pride.
Rodent isn't alone in championing an ultra gender-bending style of drag, where the lines between male and female aren't just crossed, but intertwined and therefore dismantled in their entirety. For Cheddar Gawjus, an artist based in Manchester, everything she does plays with these boundaries. "Cheddar has the idealised male form, muscular and toned, and, in drag, a beautiful feminine face," she says. "There's no evening gown or padding involved." In some performances, she looks more like a sexy Avatar character rather than a traditional queen.
For Cheddar, drag is about challenging ideas of orthodox beauty. "When you combine the fetishised male body and feminine face," she says, "people become troubled. It disrupts the attractiveness of these features in isolation." Having studied for a PHD in anthropology, Cheddar's approach to drag is somewhat academic. "Drag is about pushing a boundary and it's also about variety. I think it is a lab for identity, a way of playing with different presentations of our self, which allows us to imagine different possibilities in life. This might be about gender, power or simply the way we define beautiful."
Joe Harwood, just 23, is described by some as the Dalai Lama of contemporary UK drag – an expert on the scene and its look. For Joe, gender politics is at the centre, too. "I never had a strong desire of performing as a conventional drag queen," he says. Instead, he's made his way as a make up artist, with an army of fans tuning into to each and every one of his tutorials and addicted to his range of slap. The internet is a whole new platform for people like Joe, who don't want to get up on stage to make their points. "I was mistaken for a girl as a child," he says, "and when I started becoming more in control of my image as a teenager, I looked very ambiguous without actually intending to. I was more interested in looking like a sci-fi character but in everyone else's eyes that looked very female, so I really didn't have much awareness when it came to gender identity and how binary we see things in our culture." For him, that's what the scene is addressing.
By rejecting the distinction of dressing like a boy or girl, you are fighting one of the most profoundly violent things in modern human history: the social distinction between men and women.
For many who seek out the drag community, it's in search of an extended family, a sense of belonging with other "others". For many of the guys I speak to, the drag community is a family for self-described misfits in a society where we don't all quite yet have the equality, acceptance, love and protection that our hetero counterparts take for granted. "I like to think we are all playing a part in forming a community of artists that care for and lift one another – something that is really needed among queer communities," says Cheddar, who considers herself as an aunt to many, and "mamma" to two. "So much of the gay scene is orientated around drinking, drugs and sex. I think the importance of looking after one another has been a little lost in the contemporary, commercially-focused gay village."
There's a lot of uncertainty, it seems, within drag communities, as to where it's all heading, though. Personally, I suspect it may well be onto primetime TV in the not so distant future. More international variations of Drag Race. But I can't help feeling that drag also needs to retain its fringe status, too. It's a necessary counterbalance to the cleansing that the gay community is experiencing.
Where drug-fuelled underground clubs once stood, corporate G-A-Y takeovers are now, pumping out the same 80s pop club classics night after night. Grindr has paved the way for sexual encounters without the need for public toilets (a Good Thing, don't get me wrong), but people once had to actually leave the house out to meet new partners. Apps, while fantastic as a conduit to satisfaction for people who might not yet feel confident to put themselves out there in the "real" world, are probably eroding a sense of community. For many, going to Pride now is little more than an excuse to get pissed against the backdrop of a giant Barclays advert being pushed down the street.
All this is fine and good, but the queens are right – we've a long way to go still. This new wave of young drag artists, with foundations in performance, academia and queer culture, are clawing a culture back. The Black Cap closing is terrible, but it won't be the first – or last – obstacle to this community, and it almost definitely won't be the last. Meth is confident that we will "continue to flourish and thrive". In the immortal words of Latrice Royale, she says, "we will 'get up, look sickening and make them eat it'."
Breaking gender binaries and saying fuck you to homophobes is all well and good, but the question you're left with is often: why do some people do it in a dress, and others don't. For me it's a two-fold thing. Crossing those boundaries is both the means and the end. By rejecting the distinction of dressing like a boy or girl, you are fighting one of the most profoundly violent things in modern human history: the social distinction between men and women.
But drag is more than that still. "Exhibition and spectacle are powerful things. You are immediately and sometimes intimately connected to every person in the room, sometimes that can be good other times bad," says Cheddar. "But you'd be surprised how putting three hours of make-up on makes people listen to what you've got to say."
More like this on VICE: