Bright colors, bold makeup, and someone lip-syncing to a pop anthem on stage: these are the basics of drag. For many people, the word “drag” also conjures immediate associations with RuPaul’s Drag Race, a popular reality TV show where drag queens compete in a series of challenges, wearing vibrant outfits and eventually “lip-syncing for their lives.” Since the show’s debut in 2009, it has become near-synonymous with America’s cultural definition of drag. Besides the show catapulting drag into the national spotlight, it also has avid Drag Race consumers conversing about a cast of characters with names like Aquaria, Trixie Mattel, and Sharon Needles. These names are essential parts of creating a drag persona, or “dragsona.” A drag name conveys a message about the performer and can quickly become essential to one’s branding. Drag performers’ names have become commonplace in many of our day-to-day vocabularies. However, their origins aren’t always as well known.
A quick Google search will tell you that RuPaul was born with the name RuPaul, and that Alaska Thunderfuck took her name from a strain of weed. But not all drag name origins are as simple. That same Google search will also tell you that Trixie Mattel adopted the name her father called her whenever she dressed feminine at home, and that Manila Luzon named herself in honor of her Filipino heritage after finding that every drag queen she knew was either Black or White. The variety in these names and their origins are as versatile as the art of drag itself.
First-year Juno Baier explained how their drag name arose from a pun. “I really like ‘D’ names, and I was thinking Damian for a while but couldn’t come up with any pun for that,” they recalled. After changing their mind, Baier finally found their name through collaboration with their friends—finding one’s drag name can be a communal process.
“My friend suggested Dustin and I thought about Dustin Tyme as a drag name,” they continued. “And it kind of just fit at the moment.”
Along with puns, which can be easy to spot in names like Pandora Boxx, Farrah Moan, and Eva Destruction, drag names often carry personal meanings beyond their word play. Sean Murphy, a Tufts sophomore whose drag name is Dawna Thyme, combined the pun with the personal.
“I was inspired by a couple different things,” Murphy said. “The first one is my mother… I have a really good relationship with my mom, and she fostered a lot of my femininity as I grew into it and I wanted to pay homage to that. Her maiden name is Donnatie.” Thus, Dawna Thyme became an homage to that family name. At the same time, it is also a play on the phrase “dawn of time,” and considering that his dragsona is what he describes as “a species-fluid lizard-woman,” the reference is apt.
Drag names can come from just about anything: puns, inside jokes, personal meaning, protest. One’s relevance to an overall dragsona and performance depends on the person, but there is always a story. Professor Kareem Khubchandani, who taught the Tufts class “Critical Drag” in Spring 2018, mentioned how important it is to find a name that represents identity. “It really is the sense that this fits or it doesn’t fit. When we choose a name for ourselves, there’s a way in which we settle into who we think we are as the persona, how it feels, and sometimes the persona doesn’t fit.” Although it may sound vague, “fit” is something that is often more intuitive to oneself.
Murphy is also someone whose drag name has changed over time. Though his first and current drag name is Dawna Thyme, he explained, “My friends thought it was kind of tacky and I was like, ‘better leave this drag name alone and come up with another one’…never let a group chat decide anything for you,” he joked. “So then I switched and became Alexis Crossover.” Murphy’s anecdote exemplifies one of the beauties of drag—it is an identity you can take off and put back on. But although performers have the freedom to change their persona, many eventually settle on one to maintain a consistent image. “There’s a branding that comes with it,” said Khubchandani. “The name produces a brand.”
Khubchandani went on to discuss how drag as a phenomenon is bigger than any individual performer, or the individual names themselves. “Drag is queer nightlife,” he said. “Drag is seeing an expansion into TV and into fashion, but to me when I think of drag I think of it as central to the cultures of queer nightlife.”
And drag’s importance to queer experience and communities is not only confined to nightclubs—for many, experimenting with drag can also be part of a coming out process. “It’s kind of funny because I started doing drag around the same time I started realizing that I wasn’t necessarily a girl,” Baier noted. “So that exploration of gender literally came just in time for me… it fell together.”
Considering its personal importance for many queer and trans people, the fact that the drag most highlighted in mainstream pop culture is often performed by cis, White, gay men who perform femininity is disheartening. RuPaul’s Drag Race, arguably the most visible medium of drag culture, has been casting less queens of color since its first season. White queens are often the ones who gain the biggest following through the show. Additionally, when considering the show’s lack of drag kings, as well as RuPaul’s recent comments about trans and non-binary queens’ eligibility to perform on the show, it is clear that Drag Race covers only a limited scope—one that is not representative of the art form as a whole.
Despite this, the narrow definition of drag presented on RuPaul’s Drag Race still contributes to the expansion of our ideas of gender and how to create protest through art. Drag Race’s position as a catalyst to exploring different ways to perform and subvert gender is powerful, and the portrayal of drag on mainstream television encourages others to explore drag on their own terms.
Senior Elise Sommers echoed this sentiment. “The explosive creativity [of drag] was so infectious…when I was coming into my own queerness, and seeing this deeply queer art form that had so much variety…[I] really found some affirmation in this queer culture I was seeing,” they said. “Drag feels like a really integral form of play that I can bring pieces of myself that I don’t have figured out or care a lot about, especially as a non-binary person living in a body that gets gendered constantly.”
Sommers’ dragsona is Mr. Frizzle, who they describe as “a glitter king driving his magic school bus all the way to anarchy.” The name arose from their love of Ms. Frizzle, the teacher in the cartoon series The Magic Schoolbus. Sommers, who is an early childhood educator themself, explained that they “wanted to bring [their] own kind of bent of gender queerness and radical politics and a vision of children’s liberation to [their] drag persona.” As an extension of this, their performances combine song and spoken word to comment on topical world issues. Last semester, in the Critical Drag class’ final performance, Sommers lip-synced to—among other songs—”21 Guns” by Green Day, and sampled a Donald Trump speech in order to protest the suggestion that school teachers be armed.
Similarly, Murphy eventually settled on a reptilian persona after noticing the way language about both reptiles and gay people is often negative, saying, “Because I think that reptiles and gay people have similar press problems…our language isn’t insular and it translates into the way we treat reptiles.”
Professor Khubchandani, on the other hand, started doing drag because of lack of representation. “I was organizing a fundraiser for LGBT South Asian organization in Chicago and wanted a drag performance there, and [I] couldn’t find any South Asian drag queens in the city at that time, so I just sort of did it myself,” he explained. Khubchandani also chose his dragsona, LaWhore Vagistan, to comment on accent, race, and British colonization in the Indian subcontinent. In contrast with the less political version of drag that is often popularized, Khubchandani’s idea of the art form is more radical. “I think that drag has been a part of an underground of gender revolution and body transformation and pleasure and performance,” he said. Drag undoes society’s ideas of gender through every drag monarch’s interpretation.
When it comes down to it, drag is a form of expression, and drag names are an enormous part of that expression. The names drag performers use are forms of protest and identification, both lighthearted and personal. Drag encompasses an exploration of oneself, and how one fits into the world around them. Drag names embody all of this. For Sommers, drag is “all the beautiful things I could be or I could imagine being.”