Greg Stephen Reigh
Some of the performers in "2,000 Years of Drag." Top row: Lucy Stoole, Eva Young, and the Vixen. Bottom row: Imp Queen and Dorian Electra.
When filmmaker and musician Dorian Electra decided she wanted to create a pop song and music video about the history of gender-nonconforming performance, Chicago and its drag scene were at the forefront of her mind.
Last month Electra, who bounces between Chicago, LA, and Houston, released "2,000 Years of Drag: A Musical Odyssey" in partnership with women's fashion and entertainment website Refinery29. The music video was codirected by Chicago drag queen and artist Imp Queen and features several Chicago-based drag queens as well as trans rapper London Jade, who recently moved from Chicago to San Francisco.
The song and video strike a celebratory tone that challenges rigid definitions of femininity and masculinity while simultaneously summarizing the history of gender-bending performance across cultures and civilizations. During the chorus, Electra sings: "Drag / You can create who you are / Drag / Gender bending is just the start / You dress to impress to express who you are / Drag / You are a superstar."
A 24-year-old Texas native, Electra attended Shimer College in Bronzeville from 2010 till 2014, and she's previously produced a string of educational pop songs accompanied by eccentric videos, covering topics as diverse as "easy credit" (and its role in the economic crash) and the "dark history of high heels." She says she teamed up with Refinery29 about a year ago to release a series of music videos with a focus on sexuality and gender. Following last year's release of "The History of Vibrators With Dorian Electra" and "Our Musical Ode to the Clitoris," she wanted to create a music video that included queer and trans voices and their perspectives on gender.
"I'm a cisgendered woman, so there's only so much I can speak to, but so much of the history of femininity in general has a lot to do with the oppression of trans women and gay men and all these other people that aren't necessarily thought about when people think about women's history and the history of women's sexuality," she explains.
Focusing on the history of drag culture and gender-nonconforming performance allowed Electra to highlight the construction of gender roles as culturally imposed norms, while also placing transgender voices and their contributions to the modern LGBTQ movement at the forefront. During the four years she spent in Chicago, Electra says she became friendly with many members of Chicago's thriving drag scene. Given the opportunity to showcase their talent via Refinery29—a platform she describes as catering to a progressive but predominantly straight cisgendered female audience—she couldn't pass it up.
Imp Queen, who also stars in the video, says these performers have never been exposed to such a wide audience—the Facebook post for "2,000 Years of Drag: A Musical Odyssey" has more than a million views. "I think one of the challenges of being a queer artist or a trans artist is getting your work seen by people who aren't queer, because there is still a lot of prejudice against engaging with queer forms like drag," she says.
The video and song are divided into distinct historical chapters arranged in chronological order: ancient Greece, Shakespearean times, the days of the Victorian "freak show," the years of Prohibition in the early 20th century, the Stonewall Riots. The video ends with a massive gender-bending dance party filmed in November at Queen! (a weekly drag event held at Smart Bar), while other footage was shot at artists' collective Firehaus. The song was recorded in Chicago by producer Andy Milad.
Though she's never previously collaborated lyrically with anyone, Electra says this song required it. First try or no, Imp Queen thinks it went well. "I feel like [Electra] did it all in an ethical way," she says. "Everyone wrote all their own stuff and had a lot of creative control over what their section looked like and felt like and how it went."
The song moves from a period when "drag or some form of cross-dressing was a sanctioned part of the entertainment," through subversive forms of drag culture in a 1920s speakeasy setting, and into the fledgling LGBTQ movement of the 1960s, Imp Queen explains. Electra says performers were given their choice of era.
Chicago drag queen and rapper the Vixen
, a gay man from the south side, took on a black Betty Boop persona for the song's Roaring 20s chapter. "I wish we had four more drag queens, because there are so many different time periods where drag has been influential," the Vixen says. "It's really good to show that and remind people that even something seen as under the radar has actually been really important to our history as people."
Imp Queen acknowledges that the short video leaves out quite a bit of relevant subject matter. "There's only so much you can fit into a three- or four-minute music video, especially when the goal is to be accessible or entertaining."
Electra says the overarching aim was to cast light on themes and historical perspectives "not covered by textbooks in high school." For example, she says, few people are ever taught about the participation of transgender women—particularly transgender women of color—in the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, a series of uprisings by LGBTQ people provoked by a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
London Jade, a native of NYC who learned to rap while in prison in upstate New York, says it was initially difficult for her to jump on board with the project. "As a trans woman, people mistake me for a drag queen all the time," she says. "And that makes me very fucking angry."
"It's just ignorance within the community and outside of it," she says. Jade decided to get involved because of her close relationships with the drag performers featured—including Imp Queen, who's also a trans woman.
Both Imp Queen and Electra say that in telling the story of drag and trans-feminine performance, it was important for them to highlight trans women's voices. Putting Jade center stage during the Stonewall Riots section was a conscious choice, they say.
Greg Stephen Reigh
London Jade (center) in the Stonewall Riots segment of the video, surrounded by (left to right) Imp Queen, Darling Squire, Faeline Sharrieff, and Mané
"[Jade]'s verse is the longest in the track," Imp Queen explains. "She ends up having a very strong statement about how important it is for gender-variant people to come together and support our sisters and celebrate ourselves."
Celebration is key, Imp Queen notes, and it wasn't always an easy feeling to capture—they shot their footage immediately after Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election.
"I was so glad to have something to work on at that moment," she remembers. "It felt very cathartic to be doing something with a group of drag queens and trans women that had political heft to it."
Electra says Trump's victory made it more important than ever for her to broadcast a message of inclusion and self-acceptance, as well as a forceful challenge to prescribed gender roles—all set to the beat of a catchy pop tune.
Over the next four years, the LGBTQ community will need investment and support to ensure the safety and survival of its members, Imp Queen says. She hopes viewers unfamiliar with drag and gender-nonconforming performance take away a new compassion for trans-feminine people and an understanding of their history. She also hopes they'll feel more empowered to take charge of their own gender identities.
"Drag is about resilience," says Imp Queen. "It's about doing it for yourself and being beautiful for yourself and putting yourself into the world in a visible way for your own satisfaction."