Will drag ever go mainstream? While it’s been a fixture in the culture of Provincetown in one way or another for close to a century now, the idea of men reveling in femininity still elicits strong reactions in a variety of ways. But most of all it seems to fascinate. And while the mainstream may come calling every now and again, like RuPaul receiving an Emmy nomination or a few Drag Race alums appearing at the MTV Music Video Awards, the art of drag still very much appears to be fed from the underground and gay outsider culture. In many ways drag queens are the modern day court jesters of the LGBT community. They get to tell the truth through illusion.
Photographer Magnus Hastings’ new book Why Drag? asks this most basic question of drag queens in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. And the answers range from cliché to surprising in this gorgeous and lush coffeetable tome on this bombastic cultural phenomenon as it reaches new heights in a time of cultural change about gender identity and expression.
While there have been many photography books of drag queens, no one has given it the polish and sparkle that Hastings has with his 135 portraits, including familiar faces in Provincetown like Trixie Mattel, Paige Turner, Bianca Del Rio, Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales, Jackie Beat, Milk, Lady Bunny, Tammie Brown, Raja, Peaches Christ, Detox, Willam, and cover model Courtney Act, who is also the subject of the vivid and provocative Hastings’ Caught In The Act photo series. Hastings’ photography is a visual feast, but when accompanied by an interesting survey of drag queens, the book takes on a new level of cultural importance. Whether it’s Mutha Chucka from San Francisco who answers “why drag” with “To change the world, one look at a time,” the Boulet Brothers from Los Angeles with “It’s a natural evolution towards assuming your true form,” or London’s Dusty O with “To escape tedious normality…,” the text in Why Drag? provides insight into the motivations of those who dedicate their lives to this imaginative art form. Sometimes it’s just as basic as Willam’s answer: “I really like shiny stuff.”
With two compelling introductions, one by Hastings and the other by Boy George, Why Drag? also asks another question, albeit covertly. In this time of rapid progress for LGBT people in many parts of the world, what will happen to LGBT culture? Is assimilation inevitable? While drag itself may change, it’s so rooted in rebellion and risk-taking that while it may influence culture-at-large it will also be an outsider art. It, at least for the moment, seems to be a sharp reminder of the culture that LGBT people created on their own to reject strict social mores and roles that seek to oppress. The sheer diversity of that expression included in Why Drag? is evidence that there are no limits to human imagination and that this example of LGBT culture is robust, dynamic, and ready for more.
Why Drag? by Magnus Hastings is available locally at the Provincetown Bookshop, 246 Commercial St. and at magnushastings.com.