The flamboyant world of drag doesn't draw the type who stays away from the spotlight. These cisgender and transgender performers sashayed their way into herstory, reshaping the political and cultural landscape into something more delightfully garish and unquestionably fabulous along the way.
Before the term drag queen could be coined, out British actor Douglas Byng honed the female impersonation craft back in the World War I era. He first donned ladies' clothes to perform comic monologues as queens and other historical figures in the Shakespearean tradition but eventually moved into cabaret-style acts in London's West End.
In post-World War II France, Coccinelle made her debut as a drag performer at Chez Madame Arthur, then performed alongside other female impersonators at Le Carrousel de Paris. But in 1958 she became a media sensation, according to historian Joanne Meyerowitz, after undergoing gender-confirmation surgery and returning to the stage. Suddenly Coccinelle appeared in films and headlined shows at the Paris Olympia. Her success paved the way for other trans performers who underwent “the operation” and continued to perform. Later in life, she became involved in trans activism and founded Devenir Femme.
Oh, what a bloody mess that Dame Edna legacy has become in recent years. But before creator Barry Humphries began spewing transphobic comments in 2016, his drag persona Dame Edna (who always referred to Humphries as her manager) offered a comic and palatable introduction to female impersonation. The purple-haired Melbourne queen made her debut in 1955 and brought an accessible version of drag to TV sets and even movie theaters around the globe.
The uprising at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 launched the modern LGBT movement in America, and drag performer Marsha P. Johnson at age 23 played a critical role, according to an obituary in The New York Times printed years after her death. After Stonewall, Johnson — who identified as gay and a "transvestite" during her lifetime but is considered a mother of the trans rights movement — helped found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to advocate for trans people years before other organizations did. She died from drowning in 1992.
An orphan who started streetwalking in New York at age 11, Sylvia Rivera found a home among the city’s drag community, then found herself at the center of activism after playing a key role in the Stonewall riots. Along with close friend Marsha P. Johnson, she became an early activist with the Gay Liberation Front within weeks. A self-described radical and revolutionary, she later founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaires with Johnson, and she pushed for the mainstreaming of trans people.
An Army veteran of World War II, José Sarria — also known as Empress José I, The Widow Norton — became a drag performer at the Black Cat Café. He also embraced a role as a leader in the LGBT movement as founder of the International Court System, one of the oldest continuously running activist groups fighting for gay rights. Sarria in 1961 became the first openly gay candidate for political office when he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After his death in 2013, mourners showed up for his funeral in full drag regalia before he was interred with full military honors.
Kicked out of a clerk position at the FBI for being gay, Lee Brewster moved to New York and became a major part of the Greenwich Village scene, opening Lee’s Mardi Gras Boutique, the first store catering primarily to cross-dressers. He also founded the Queens Liberation Army in the 1970s and began publishing Drag magazine in the 1970s, as noted by a New York Times obituary written upon his death in 2000.
RuPaul Charles first gained a following dancing in the Atlanta drag scene (you can see him in the B-52s’ “Love Shack” video among everybody movin’ around and around). He hit it big in 1993 with the release of the house album Supermodel of the World and its hit single “Supermodel.” Fast-forward through more albums and a stream of talk shows and reality shows until 2009, when the now world-renowned drag queen debuted RuPaul’s Drag Race on Logo.
While other drag queens found a way to attract a mainstream audience, likely none before Divine brought queer culture so aggressively to the wider world. A muse to movie director John Waters, the Baltimore performer starred in early Waters films Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, and, most notably, cult classic Pink Flamingos. He also recorded a number of disco tracks that became international hits, including “I’m So Beautiful” and “Walk Like a Man.”
Part of the Atlanta club scene around the same time as RuPaul, Lady Bunny would become a fixture in New York nightlife during the Club Kids era. In the mid-1980s, she founded Wigstock, a street festival celebrating drag culture. The festival that started in the East Village eventually drew thousands annually even as city leaders pushed the event around the metropolis.
The subject of Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning, Pepper LeBeija was remembered in The New York Times as the last queen of the Harlem drag balls. A married heterosexual (but who preferred "she" pronouns), LeBeija founded the first of the four famous Harlem drag houses and outlived the founders of the others. Doing so, she provided a home for many who were rejected by their families and wanted to be a part of New York’s thriving gay scene.
Tom Neuwirth performed in the late 2000s with the Austrian boy band Jetzt Anders! but found international fame after introducing the female stage persona Conchita Wurst in 2011. The bearded drag star stunned the world and won the televised Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, drawing acclaim and condemnation from all the expected places.
A performer for decades in Irish clubs, sometimes as Panti or Panti Bliss.
The club queen ended up making the biggest splash in the mainstream world in the daytime persona of Rory O’Neill during an interview on RTE’s Saturday Night Show when he accused a number of Irish journalists of homophobia. The episode later led The Independent to label Panti as “Ireland’s high queen of LGBT activism.”