Drag isn't pretty. Uproarious, grotesque, savage, saintly, terrifyingly gorgeous, mind-endingly glamorous, yes. But pretty? No. A drag queen's ultimate compliment to one of her sisters best sums up the whole enterprise: "She is fierce." Drag queens are often credited with starting the 1969 Stonewall riots, the Boston Tea Party of the modern gay rights movement.

Along comes the king of Hollywood sentimentality, Steven Spielberg, whose production company, Amblin, makes a movie called "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," which opens nationwide Friday. Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo and Patrick Swayze play three New York drag queens who set out for Los Angeles in a yellow Cadillac convertible, carrying a photo of camp icon Julie Newmar as a talisman. High jinks ensue. Lessons of tolerance are learned (drag queens are people, too). Small-minded bad guys are humiliated, and a dust-speck Midwestern town is liberated from its gray existence by three big gals with style to spare.

The popular appeal of cross-dressing is not remotely new. According to Nan Richardson's introduction to the book "Drag Diaries," it was seen in classical Greek theater, Elizabethan performance, the balls of the belle epoque, Native American rituals, the English music hall and American minstrel shows. "The first governor of New York and New Jersey, Lord Cornbury . . . reviewed his troops in a hoop skirt and bonnet," Richardson writes. The word drag began to appear in the early 1800s and refers to the sound of heavy garments against a floor. Then there are the scores of Hollywood stars who wedged their way into dresses (usually to get either the girl or a laugh). Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Rodney Dangerfield, Flip Wilson, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and Johnny Depp have given it a whirl. And let us not neglect that movie favorite, the drag psycho-killer, wielding a butcher knife, wearing a tattered housecoat and fright wig, keeping Momma on ice in the basement. . .

Who can forget the pretty boys and butch girls who peopled the various Warhol scenes of the '60s and '70s? There was David Bowie's gender-bender phase, and the Kinks' haunting Lola, who, every high school boy and girl of the era will recall, "walks like a woman and talks like a man." Boy George sang the plaintive "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" in a dress -- and became an international pop star of the '80s.

We are now at the tail end of a trend best described as decorating with drag queens, using them as chic or slightly decadent accessories. It has its roots in the fashion world. In the late '80s, the influential fashion photographer Steven Meisel (as in those yanked Calvin Klein ads) began producing photo spreads for magazines such as Interview and Italian Vogue in which the models -- Christy, Linda, Naomi -- looked like drag queens and drag queens looked like models. It was, in fashion lingo, heaven, genius. It was so major.

Before long, drag was all over the fashion world. The queens needed the runway and the runway needed the queens. Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary, "Paris Is Burning," chronicled the lives of the black and Hispanic men who formed "houses" to compete in the elaborate drag balls of Harlem. The movie was a huge hit among fashionistas -- who thoroughly missed its angry core, the blights of poverty and racism and violence in the tinsely shadow world it depicted -- and popularized vogueing, or the aping of models' gestures in drag competition. Meisel pal Madonna was not far hehind with her MTV extravaganza, "Vogue." There was Wigstock mania (the annual Labor Day drag festival in Lower Manhattan), Lypsinka mania, RuPaul videos in heavy rotation on MTV, the cable TV show "Party Talk," featuring drag characters such as Linda Simpson and the Lady Bunny. Parties were seasoned with drag queens (either hired for the evening or just there for the free food or drink or fabulosity). Decoration.

Eventually, even movie people noticed a trend. What is new in the recent movie portrayals of drag, such as 1994's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," the plot of which is remarkably similar to "To Wong Foo," is the acknowledgment that in real life there is a person underneath the drag persona, and that person is homosexual and, in all likelihood, a swell guy. But, in "To Wong Foo" at least, something is missing.

"We know that it is homosexual excitement that is powering drag," says historian Anne Hollander, author of "Seeing Through Clothes." "The charge of this is immediately felt by both sexes as a sexual charge that is immediately recognizable as a homosexual charge. It is so marvelous. But it makes many people nervous."

Apparently it made the collaborators on "To Wong Foo" very nervous. For though the movie itself accurately defines a drag queen as "a gay man {who} has too much fashion sense for one gender," that charge Hollander speaks of is absent, removed. This is accomplished partly by the calculated use of three openly straight actors in the leads. (And it would be no surprise if each actor reasserted his heterosexuality on a nightly chat show, as Swayze already has done with Jay Leno.) Of course, this is not to suggest that a heterosexual actor cannot realistically communicate homosexual desire when he wants to -- the example of Daniel Day-Lewis and those electrifying champagne kisses in 1985's "My Beautiful Laundrette" quickly springs to mind.

"To Wong Foo's" queens are the most desexed, sanitized gays this side of "Philadelphia." And the chief reason for this is the suffocating treacle of the script. Screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane told Out magazine: "What Steven Spielberg saw in my script was the idea of people coming together, embracing each other -- the outsiders coming in. The movie was also accessible because these were ladies. I didn't want them to be low."

Vida Boheme (Swayze), the leader of this merry band, spouts G-rated pearls of drag wisdom with the delivery of a latter-day Glinda the Good Witch. One half-expects her to dismiss some meanie with the phrase "Now run along, before someone drops a house on you, too." In his Chanel knockoffs and matronly nightgowns, Swayze projects a contrived chastity -- and bears a rather astounding resemblance to Mary Matalin.

One of the most important lessons in this lesson-laden movie concerns the character Chi Chi's realization that to become a true drag queen, according to Miss Boheme's rules, she must give up any hope of a physical relationship with the town boy who doesn't seem to know that she is a he and has fallen so sheepishly in love with her. The two never kiss. They don't so much as dance together. Chi Chi (Leguizamo) sacrifices her boy to a "real" woman and joins the ranks of neutered queers. Chi Chi is congratulated by Miss Boheme for having the sense to "abide by the rules of love."

Rules of love? Would that be the "Drag queens don't deserve to make out with handsome young men from Nebraska" rule? What about the "Go, girl, he might like it, and save a bit for me" rule?

There is a driving need in "To Wong Foo" to see drag queens as just like you and me in the very respects that they are most emphatically not just like you and me. In one scene, Stockard Channing, who plays a battered but spunky housewife, puts on a flowing red number and declares to a buffoonish bigot lawman, "I am a drag queen." This is supposed to be an emotionally sweeping moment about human commonality and freedom (Ich bin ein . . . Divine!), but it is simply absurd.

But the sanitization doesn't stop there. This is a Spielberg production. Not content with making the gay men into maiden aunts who, after all, might indulge in a little slap and tickle on the side, the movie proposes that the drag queens are actually special, otherworldly creatures. Near the end of the movie, Channing says to her new-found friend Vida Boheme: "I don't think of you as a man. I don't think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel." An angel. And what do angels lack most significantly? Carnality. In a 1984 interview with the Village Voice, James Baldwin, discussing his own homosexuality, identified homophobia as "a terror of the flesh. It's really a terror of being able to be touched."

Through all its well-meaning posturing, "To Wong Foo" contains that terror. By removing the reality of the sexualized body, by making the sexuality of its three gay characters invisible, unknowable, unshowable, unthinkable, and by doing so with straight actors, for heaven's sake, "To Wong Foo" only reinforces the prejudices it seeks to dispel.

And what does the movie offer gays in return for this trip to bountiful? A few good yuks along the way, and the chance to see themselves -- in name at least -- on the screen. The likely response, perhaps sadder than the destination itself: We'll take it. CAPTION: That's Pat: Patrick Swayze in "To Wong Foo." CAPTION: John Leguizamo, Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar."