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History exposes the real reason Republicans are trying to ban drag shows

For decades, conservatives were fine with sexually charged cross-dressing entertainment — so long as it reinforced traditional power structures

Drag artist Vidalia Anne Gentry speaks during a news conference held by the Human Rights Campaign to draw attention to anti-drag bills in the Tennessee legislature in Nashville on Feb. 14, 2023. (John Amis/AP)
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On March 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a law restricting public drag performances in the state. The bill targets any performance “that features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers.” The bill is commonly understood to be aimed at drag shows, which according to their critics pose a threat to children.

Yet, shortly before Lee signed the bill, images of him wearing a short dress at a Franklin High School event in 1977 surfaced. When critics pointed out the apparent hypocrisy, a spokesperson for Lee called it “dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families” to conflate a “lighthearted school tradition” with “obscene, sexualized entertainment.”

But attempting to draw such a distinction is historically inaccurate. Throughout most of the 20th century, Tennessee and other conservative-led states contemplating passing similar legislation, including South Carolina, Arkansas and Texas, held a long tradition of performing “womanless weddings.” These shows involved men, typically leading figures in their towns like bankers and business owners, dressed as women, exaggerating their figures with well-positioned padding and performing mock weddings. Despite often being suggestive and sexual in nature, conservative organizations including Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, the American Legion, local chambers of commerce and church groups staged the shows as fundraisers. Far from communities seeing them as a threat to children, schools put on these performances as well, with costumes provided for boys by their sisters and girlfriends.

The main difference between these readily accepted performances and today’s drag shows is who acted in them. Womanless weddings typically involved elite White men and popular male students, and they reinforced existing hierarchies and power dynamics. The performers in drag shows, by contrast, are LGBTQ people and the performances challenge such hierarchies. That, not their content, is what has prompted conservatives to try to restrict them.

The womanless wedding emerged from a long theatrical tradition of cross-dressing. In 16th and 17th century English theater, boys and men played all roles — male and female. Consequently, several of William Shakespeare’s plays drew humor from characters’ gender masquerades. “Twelfth Night,” for example, features a mind-twisting scenario in which a male actor plays a female character who falls in love with a female character who disguises herself as a male character and is, of course, played by a male actor.

Cross-dressing plots remained a staple of the stage into the 19th century, when theater became a popular form of entertainment across the United States. The French play “Le Mariage Impossible,” in which a female character disguised herself as a man, was performed in Louisiana, Maryland and New York. The actress Adah Isaacs Menken earned her fame by appearing cross-dressed onstage in New York and San Francisco in the titular male role of Mazeppa, based on the Byron poem about the Ukrainian folk hero. Like “Le Mariage Impossible” and “Twelfth Night,” performances of “Mazeppacarried a sexual charge. The “hippodrama” titillated audiences with Menken appearing in nude tights, carried across stage by a horse.

The womanless wedding developed in the late 19th century in this context. The performances were especially popular in the South, but were also common in the Midwest.

The stagings emphasized the gender upheavals of the reversed casting. Often, large burly men were cast in the role of the bride, and small or slight men were cast in the role of the groom. The shows drew humor from satirizing and mixing up masculinity and femininity. They relied on popular scripts such as Hubert Hayes’s “The Womanless Wedding” (1936) to guide the performers.

These scripts revealed how sexualized humor played a central role in the plots of womanless weddings. The plays could be ribald and left lots of room for suggestive improvisation by actors. Photographs of performances show male actors dressed in costumes of brassieres, garters and slips. In an attempt to make the performances even more provocative, brides wore extra padding to appear pregnant. In Hayes’s script, the ceremony even included a pun about a “party of the third part,” a phrase which would have raised the specter of queerness for audiences who viewed gay men and lesbians as the “third sex” in early 20th-century parlance.

In Tennessee, thousands of womanless weddings entertained audiences in big cities and small towns across the state during the 20th century. They took place in churches, schools and small theaters, raising money for causes ranging from war bonds, to building funds, to the PTA.

Decades of newspaper coverage illustrated how womanless weddings were a well-accepted part of the mainstream culture in the state. Journalists reported on the packed audiences, improbable castings and high spirits. “Can you imagine Rufe King as bride,” the States-Graphic newspaper of Brownsville asked its readers in April 1917. Three decades later, in March 1950, three different schools in Clarksville staged womanless weddings in one week. One of them, Elkton High School, also included a “black face minstrel” according to the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle. In a 1971 review of a performance to entertain the Nashville Women’s Bowling Association, a reporter for the Tennessean conceded that the womanless wedding “may be an old theatrical ploy,” but “when the participants throw themselves into the act with such apparent enthusiasm, the audience responds with warmth.”

Womanless weddings weren’t the only common, mainstream entertainment involving cross-dressing during the 20th century. Women also performed “manless weddings” as fundraisers, with all the male parts played by cross-dressed women. Manless weddings were also popular entertainment at bridal showers and at women’s colleges in the South. Like their womanless counterparts, these performances emphasized the carnivalesque reversal of gender norms, with small women cast as grooms.

This history reveals that, from a performance standpoint, drag shows fit squarely in the mainstream culture of many of the places now contemplating banning them. So why are politicians now claiming they are harmful or not family-friendly? The answer revolves around power and traditional hierarchies.

Historian Craig Friend argues that the actors in womanless weddings were elite, straight, White men who used the performances to mock people who challenged their authority, such as bossy women, effeminate men, unruly Black people and pregnant girls. By contrast, the stars of today’s drag shows are often people from diverse backgrounds who identify as LGBTQ, and who may use the performances to challenge traditional hierarchies of race, class, sex and gender.

And it’s this challenge to traditional power structures that is at the root of the backlash by conservative politicians. The laws they are contemplating are an attack on LGBTQ performers and the message that their performances convey: that traditional hierarchies can be challenged. As long as cross-dressing was used to mock the socially subordinate, male elites in Tennessee and other states had no problem with the lighthearted tradition. Now that cross-dressing has become popular for liberating the socially subordinate to imagine alternate arrangements, this lighthearted tradition has become very scary indeed.