Drag culture in Ireland

As drag culture is increasingly in the spotlight, Michelle Nicolaou uncovers its history within Ireland

Photo by Sam Cox

Drag finds itself in new bloom as wider recognition of the art form, partly due to the popularity of hit shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, has brought it to the forefront of pop culture. The very practice of drag creates a fertile space not only for exhilarating performances but for the exploration of the making and unmaking of the self, as well for as crucial cultural and political commentary. The influence of drag is visible in pinnacles of pop culture– for example, Ursula, the villainous sea witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, whose look was a direct inspiration from a legendary comedy queen, or Jimmy Fallon and Spike’s “LipSync Battles”, in which we can witness an immediate affinity with fundamental drag expression. This, however, may also serve to point out how little credit drag and gay culture have historically received for their contribution to pop culture.It is important to be aware of how drag elements that crop up into the mainstream as apparently isolated phenomena are the result of a pick’n’mix attitude that borders on appropriation. This attitude may propagate a distortion of drag culture and an alienation of the art form from the historical and sociopolitical struggles connected with it. Today, however, drag is becoming embraced for what it really stands for: a celebration of the deconstruction of social binaries and a safe haven, backed strongly by its community, for the expression and development of marginalised voices. Its expanded popularity has managed to propel drag out of the underground onto an internationally recognized stage, where queens can make their livelihood as performers and the LGBTQ+ experience can enter into the collective consciousness as a redefined and relatable human experience. Drag stands beyond the limitations of social rules, where issues like gender are challenged as received belief systems, provoking a general questioning of social norms and behaviours.

Before Ireland became the first country to votes yes on the marriage equality referendum, it was characterised by a domination of the Catholic Church where echoes of LGBTQ+ discrimination and victimisation reverberated strongly. Irish drag queens such as Candy Warhol have spoken out about how “daunting” being openly LGBTQ+ was in Ireland, particularly in rural communities. However, drag has had a slow but rather smooth development into existence here, in comparison to America, for example. Even when Ireland was wallowing in extreme Catholicism, Micheál MacLiammóir, co-founder of the Gate Theatre and remarkable playwright, was appearing on Irish television in full drag as early as the 1950s. MacLiammóir was a trailblazer for the LGBTQ+ community, even referring openly to his life partner on live television at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The concept of “gender discombobulation”, as Irish drag mother Panti Bliss puts it, was introduced into the Irish psyche on platforms readily viewed by the entire nation and embraced as a form of entertainment. MacLiammóir facilitated a TV presence for the LGBTQ+ community so that today drag has a place on Irish primetime TV, with Dublin drag queen Shirley Temple Bar presenting bingo every Sunday.

In more recent years, RTÉ ran a documentary on Shirley Temple Bar travelling the US, while nights like Alternative Miss Ireland featuring the likes of both Panti and Shirley Temple Bar, as well as Veda Beaux Reves and Tina Leggs Tantrum are apparently “always a full house right up to the gods”. This visibility is crucial as it demonstrates inclusivity within national institutions where drag can unravel into artful performance, staunch political activism, and a symbol of solidarity and inspiration for the community itself. Platforms where the art is valued, protected and shared become a significant source of power for a chronically oppressed community, providing the medium by which they can express themselves and change the status quo perception of drag within Ireland. Creating space for these artists and the LGBTQ+ community itself is a central concern for the dissolution of the phobia of the “Other” that causes a wider rift between equality and the LGBTQ+ community.

Gay bars have historically served an important role as places of belonging. They function as political arenas and as a place of congregation for people who share similar struggles. They also happen to have been the original stages for drag queens and spaces in which drag culture was able to flourish and situate itself amongst its community. The George in Dublin, the oldest gay bar in Ireland, opened eight years before homosexuality was legalised, and pioneered a monumental socio-political space for the LGBTQ+ community. The George seems to have breathed life into drag, claiming patronage of the Irish drag renaissance that took place in the 1990s amidst a climate of improved economy, liberalisation of Irish attitudes towards homosexuality, and the diversification of gay culture. The stage at the George is never without a queen, with shows every night performed by its resident drag stars who encompass a wide variety of drag, from camp comedy to outlandish disco queens. It has paved the way for the opening of the likes of PantiBar on Capel Street, whose profits are said to have soared, and the Front Lounge, marking an important development within the social fabric of the city. LGBTQ+ watering holes are invariably important as sanctuaries against aggression; they need to exist as spaces where LGBTQ+ people can safely explore their sexuality, body and what being LGBTQ+ entails. These bars are particularly invaluable for people who don’t come from supportive backgrounds, as they lessen the feeling of isolation and confusion that may prevail in other surroundings. They act as positive affirmation for people who are living their truth while helping those who are on the way to transition to the next step. It is where the community can gain visibility and where LGBTQ+ people can be themselves without fear, without having to calculate the risk before inhabiting the space they need to express themselves.

Irish drag mother Panti Bliss encapsulated this feeling of public anxiety and danger calculation in her TEDx talk “All the Little Things”. The talk is a heartfelt testament to the fear surrounding careless acts of affection and how they are problematised in a public setting for LGBTQ+ people. She speaks of operating in a world where the simple, everyday act of holding hands can become a political statement – an act of defiance. At forty-five, she admits to never unconsciously, comfortably or carelessly having held a lover’s hand in public due to the necessity of considering the risk and implications before doing so. She concisely articulates the experience of being gay in public, contrasting it to the privilege of heterosexual couples who can enjoy the simple act of taking their lover’s arm without a thought, and more importantly, without danger. She speaks of those stuttering moments before the choice is made on whether hands are to be held and how they ultimately ruin what should be a simple, banal, everyday activity that is nevertheless extremely important to the human experience. Equality does not come in the form of legislation, it comes with being able to reach over to your partner without a single hesitation or fear of your surroundings; it comes with not having to shrink yourself according to the liking of other people; it comes with being able to access the same things as heterosexual people, socially, politically, economically and emotionally. Panti, also known as the Queen of Ireland, uses her drag to be what she refers to as an “accidental activist,” yet the power of her platform is tremendous. Drag is reinstated as a political powerhouse as through the imitation of gender identity, particularly hyperfemininity, it exposes and satirises the performative elements of gender and therefore de-naturalises the binary system. Drag has the power to illuminate how heteronormativity intervenes with social hierarchy, making exclusionary practices more easily detectable but also void of meaning due to the redefined gender spectrum that it encompasses.

So what is Irish drag? Though the scene is bursting with an endless variety of queens, there is something that ties them all together: Irish humour. This very particular style of comedy differentiates Irish drag from its American counterpart as it expresses itself primarily through anecdotes about itself and from itself, exposing the very Irish workings of self-effacement. It is storytelling that finds itself at the heart of Irish performance and the language it is versed in is a nationally understood lingo of craic in which everyone can partake. Queens use their stages as places of sharing, of spinning narratives about themselves and how their drag relates to Ireland (or vice versa). In Sadhbh Murphy’s “Dragumentary,” Irish drag is chronicled as a vivacious scene full of ethos and talent. Queens Regina George, Pixie Woo and Victoria Secret speak to Murphy about how they go about animating their characters, mentioning how important it is to curate one’s look. A transformation is not just about wearing women’s clothes; as performers, these drag queens are expected to hold regular shows with refreshed content and new looks, all while being able to hold an audience. The queens delve into the business aspect of drag: invoices, receipts, tax, burning CDs, dealing with middle management in clubs and bars and of course, the cost of wigs, make-up, and other necessities for the transformation. They speak about how performing in drag has helped them find their place within the LGBTQ+ community and have a deeper understanding of their identity. The queens hint at levels of saturation with an increasing number of LGBTQ+ people trying drag for themselves, though Shirley Temple Bar warns that if a queen is not original, she will fade away. The industry has exploded and a lot of the older queens have complained about the state of drag affairs at the moment, with the rise of “baby” drags storming the stage with little to no respect to their predecessors who have worked hard to blaze a trail for them. The internet and media has allowed queens who have “not earned their dues” to accumulate an audience by projecting an image, but this does not always translate to the stage. It must be reiterated that drag is an art form which travels far beyond the surface level of simply looking like a woman. Drag is inextricable from performance and cannot be sustained without a stage that would compromise its richness and potential for socio-political subversion.

Another addition to the Irish scene has been bio-queens or faux-queens, who are biological women who perform in drag. These women are using the same binary ideals of femininity that were pushed upon them to topple traditional forms of masculinity and the ways in which they infiltrate our ideas of femininity. Sadly, these queens sometimes experience discrimination and misogyny even within the LGBTQ+ community. Bioqueens can choose to experience and view their drag as political, whereas for trans women and women of colour, there is no option. For them, there is no escape as their mere participation in drag in the face of everyday violence is an inherent act of defiance – just by existing, these queens are defying all odds against the externally imposed limitations of LGBTQ+ expression, as well as against persecution. A change in the law last March which criminalised the purchase of sex has driven attacks on transgender women to new heights. Over 1,635 reports have been issued in the past six months alone by sex workers who were concerned about putting themselves in danger with certain clients. The Gardaí reported that transgender women were found to have been the most frequently targeted, particularly in armed altercations, as they were considered the least likely to report a criminal complaint. Ireland also has insufficient hate crime and hate speech laws, as per EU standards, allowing for such attacks to happen without repercussions and driving the LGBTQ+ community into even more vulnerable positions. We cannot move forward without acknowledging the ways in which society further marginalises members of the LGBTQ+ community through inadequate legislation. Ireland must stand up to protect its most vulnerable minorities, so that whenever an attack is predicated on either race or sexual identity, the state can easily protect individuals rather than leaving them exposed to further susceptibility.

The Irish drag scene is vibrant and spirited, yet most of its life is concentrated in Dublin. Rural areas have a much less developed scene, with gay bars being significantly sparser. It is in these areas where the gap between 21st century Irishness and Catholic conservatism is very tangible. Panti insists that the marriage referendum was a great way for people to be exposed to the LGBTQ+ community, its lack of rights at the time and the struggles they face. This must have spurred change even in rural areas, with people becoming more aware and conscientious at the very least. The BBC featured small-town drag queen Grant, from Portrush, Northern Ireland, in a short film for a series called “Gay in Northern Ireland”. Grant’s universe seems wildly different from the Dublin drag scene; his small town is a quiet and unassuming place where any ripple of difference would be felt. Grant is exemplary in his take on drag; he states that kindness is his main feature, explaining how much love he feels he could share through drag. His story is one of pioneering courage as through the expression of his truth, Grant managed to educate others and feel valued and accepted by his own community. He now runs a drag night called “Splat” at a local pub where he is at the forefront of making a viable LGBTQ+ space in one of Ireland’s more rural areas.

“It’s pretty wild how queer Ireland has become,” says Panti Bliss. As more people come to term with their identities, Ireland’s queer culture has blossomed, but it is not yet in full bloom. Though Panti has become a symbol of modern Ireland and a huge cultural export, Ireland must dedicate itself further to the protection of the LGBTQ+ community. Drag is a “fuck you” to society, sharing some of the same values and origins of punk as an anti-establishment, rule-breaking form of expression. The blurring of the absolutist lines of a binary gender system is invaluable to a modern society, particularly during a time when extremist ideas are being propagated around the world. Drag is inadvertently a political tool that demands to be used. It is up to the queens of Ireland to dance on, and to be mindful of their legacy.