Deep History of the Culture Wars
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Published in: March-April 2024 issue.

A Cultural History of Drag in New York City
by Elyssa Maxx Goodman
Hanover Square Press
464 pages, $25.90

IN THE SUMMER OF 1997, I gave birth to two beautiful drag babies on Pier 54 in Manhattan. We were at Wigstock, the raucous drag festival. Like many mothers, I neglected their development, but they have since grown into upstanding, fierce queens. Hundreds of drag mamas, whom Elyssa Maxx Goodman lovingly documents in Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City, were far more committed to their drag careers and to nurturing newcomers to the culture of drag than was I.

            While focused mainly on New York City, Goodman covers a wide historical frame from 1865 to the present with appropriate geographical forays beyond the Big Apple to give deeper cultural context to the history of drag. In the same vein, her subjects are far more diverse than the term “drag queens” suggests. She includes a wide range of “female illusionists,” female and male impersonators, cross-dressing vaudevillians, and burlesque performers. While the majority of these are males who dress (and undress) as women, she also includes the rich (but less documented) history of male illusionists. From the 1960s onward, the place of transgender and genderqueer people in society has been complicating and politicizing the question of who qualifies as a “drag queen” or “drag king.” Throughout her sensitive narrative, Goodman emphasizes the personal and cultural challenges gender non-conformists have faced in America, the political defiance that is drag, and its sheer liberatory deliriousness.

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Vernon Rosario, a historian of science and child psychiatrist, is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He is the author of Homosexuality and Science: A Guide to the Debates.