Gary Carmichael & Goldie Peacock are part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
The question has been asked before, but it's worth asking again: what is drag, anyway? While queens on mainstream TV shows like RuPaul's Drag Race have shown us one aspect of the artform, other drag artists in the underground are still struggling for acceptance and equality. Drag kings, who often perform and compete alongside drag queens, find themselves lacking visibility in mainstream media. As drag evolves, they see hope for the future of masculine and gender-bending performance art.
"A drag king is an entertainer who assumes a theatrical guise of male-ness in and for a performance," said Goldie Peacock, a beloved drag artist working in New York, offering a concise and simple definition of their chosen medium. On the question of what is a drag artist writ large, Goldie offered this: "An entertainer who assumes a theatrical guise of maleness, femaleness, in-between-ness, none-of-the-above-ness in and for a performance. By that definition, drag is for everyone."
Goldie started performing in drag at college and snatched trophies in a university competition — one year she performed as a male and one year as a female. "That was very controversial," they said. "People thought that because I was assigned female at birth I didn't have to put in the same amount of effort as men who were queens. Just by virtue of that, they thought I shouldn't have won. But I cinched my waist, I stuffed my push-up bra, I wore a crazy tutu, 10-inch tall platform stilettos, and a wig. I walked down a huge staircase and a runway without busting my ass. I absolutely maintain that I still should have won."
Goldie describes their drag persona as "super flamboyant and light in the loafers ... I do a lot of numbers that are movement-based because I'm a trained dancer. Genre-wise: I truly do everything. I have a piece to Britney Spears. I don't discriminate on musical artists that I'm performing to based on gender."
Goldie Peacock by Suri
Peacock's looks are certainly striking: colorful, dandyish, and sometimes playfully androgynous. "I think that doing drag is inherently political just because in this capitalist society we are taught to be ashamed of ourselves and need to tow the line, and purchase whatever in order to make ourselves feel better," they said. "Getting up on stage and presenting yourself as a fierce human being who inspires others is political."
On this point, Gary Carmichael, another acclaimed New York City king, doesn't feel the same way: "I can bring about a social message but as far as politics I don't really see my drag as being political," he said. "The only thing I want to do is entertain people and make them feel good. There's so much politics out in the real world, outside of the walls of the clubs, I feel like drag should be a safe place for people to have fun and be entertained and escape the real world for a few hours."
Gary's drag is starkly different from Goldie's. A beefy, bearded, and burly dude, Carmichael's looks are traditionally masculine, as are his powerful lip syncs often set to old Hollywood legends. "[Gary is] mostly an old school crooner like Dean Martin, like Tony Bennett ... Gary is basically an extension of who I am. I am kind of masculine already as a woman. I guess you would label me as soft butch. But I'm more feminine than some and I'm more masculine than some. I'm the type of woman that I want to be and Gary is an extension who I am as a person, but as Gary I can do a lot more – I can be more masculine with no limits."
"My aesthetic as far as male drag is concerned: I like to show power, confidence, a little bit of swag, cockiness. But I also love showing a tender, compassionate side," he added.
What Gary and Goldie do have in common is their ambivalent relationship to the normalization of their art form: "In order for drag to survive it has to go mainstream. Since Drag Race it has had a wider audience and a wider acceptance," said Gary. "The more people see drag as an art form, the more acceptance it will gain. The problem is that now you watch TV and you see the queens fighting and arguing amongst themselves. There's good and bad to everything. It's a double-edged sword."
Goldie largely agreed: "I think that in general it is a good thing just because when we're out walking in drag in the streets I think we're more likely to not have to face harassment just because people have a framework for who we are and what we're doing. Of course, whenever any artform goes mainstream, that creates a pushback and an alternative. Whoever is at the forefront of the mainstream will say, 'This is how you do it.' And other people are going to disagree with that. It makes it more interesting."
It isn't exactly surprising that In my conversations with both artists, the subject of harassment appeared numerous times. While drag queens and other gender non-conforming individuals often encounter daily violences, drag kings face a specific kind of misogynistic hatred from even within the gay community.
"I definitely am on my guard when I walk around in drag. I have had people be visibly confused about my presence in a bathroom when there are only gender binary bathrooms. I've had people giggle. I haven't had anyone punch me in the face. Which actually, unfortunately, did just happen to a drag king in Washington State," said Goldie.
"There was one night I was doing Star Search at Barracuda and one drunk guy spat on me and said 'I'm more of a man than you are.' That kind of upset me. Sure, I've gone through a lot of that," Gary responded.
"...One drunk guy spat on me and said 'I'm more of a man than you are.' That kind of upset me.
"For all the people that don't get what I do as far as drag is concerned, there are a lot of people who have embraced me," he continued. "The ones that do stuff like that: it only toughens my resolve, it only gives me a thicker skin. If I had a thin skin I would have quit after that. Like, am I going to let that one guy do that to me? Am I going to let him ruin everything that I've accomplished? Or am I going to continue doing what I love?"
But both artists have perservered and continue to gag competitions and spread the knowledge of their craft. With big hopes for the future, Gary is already in the process of raising his own drag family: "I have two drag sons that I'm going to be training. When I eventually retire form the drag world my sons will carry on my philosophy on male drag and they will be taking over this city."
Meanwhile, Goldie has been teaching performance and movement at a handful of universities around the country, including NYU: "I think that it is so important to take workshops if you're a person who is interested and if you can. While it's great that people can learn from YouTube and Instagram there's nothing like just being in a classroom with experienced professionals who can answer all your questions."
"Everyone should try it!" exclaimed Goldie. "Just put on a garment that you wouldn't normally put on and look at yourself and the mirror and move around in it. See you how you feel. Clothes really do make the man — person — whatever!"
[Featured Images: Gary Carmichael by Jessye Herrell, Goldie Peacock by Stacie Joy, courtesy the artists]