Drag and cross-dressing

Because of its political potential, queer theory has come to focus on the actual practice of sexuality. Here, too, it is interested in boundaries and, more in particular, on the (for queer theorists) liberating circumstance that seemingly clear visible boundaries turn out to be blurred upon closer inspection. Not surprisingly, queer theory has taken a special interest in cross-dressing, and in particular cross-dressing by males. Cross-dressing is perfect for destabilizing generally accepted views of gender and sexuality: a man in a long evening dress or a pleated skirt will in most places draw a good deal of attention. Men in drag are so interesting to queer theorists because they simultaneously position themselves on the 'wrong' end of two axes (or oppositions): on the gender axis they identify with the feminine pole, in spite of their male-ness, and on the axis of sexual orientation (with its hetero/homo opposition) they take up the homosexual position. In so doing they first of all blur the boundary between gender and sexuality (which the feminists had fought so hard to establish with the argument that while sexuality is a biological given, gender is nothing but a social construct). Clearly the act of cross-dressing – that is, the appropriation of gender characteristics normally associated with the other sex – has significance beyond gender and is simultaneously a Sexual Act. In drag gender and sexuality have become inseparable. From the perspective of queer theory cross-dressers effectively illustrate the constructed character of gender and sexuality, while they also draw attention to the enor-LITERARY THEORY: THE BASICS

Mous difference between sexuality and acts of mere procreation. Human sexuality clearly involves much more than procreation. Drag exposes femininity as a role, as a performance. Cross-dressing undermines the claim to naturalness of standard heterosexual identities and emphasizes a theatrical, perform­ance-like dimension of gender and sexual orientation that our discourses seek to suppress. For queer theory, drag and other unusual intersections of gender and sexuality are, so to speak, sites where the constructedness of sexuality becomes visible and where we are confronted with the fact that there are only ever-shifting differences, even in the field of sexuality. Because of their parodic character, drag and other 'deviant' sexualities thus come to function as the heavy artillery in the war against the fixed categorizations of the 'phallogocentric' centre. They are important instruments in the development of what Judith Halberstam has called 'new sexual vocabularies that acknowl­edge sexualities and genders as styles rather than life-styles, as fictions rather than facts of life, and as potentialities rather than as fixed identities' (Halberstam [1994] 1998: 759).

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