By Margi Ende
It’s a half hour before show time at Pope Joan, a lesbian bar on Parliament and Wellesley Streets. Backstage, gender illusionists are in costume getting ready for the show. They filter through the halls and rooms, stopping to check their gelled hair in the mirrors or to adjust their facial hair.
Sean Con is listed as the first performer of the night, slated to sing “Toucha-Toucha-Touch Me” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Siobhan Conway Hicks, or Sean Con as she prefers to be called, could pass for a boy on a day-to-day basis, and when in drag, can dress up as either male or female. The 25-year-old, who has an anchor tattoo on her left arm forearm and all the charm and swagger of a sailor, often blurs the line between genders.
“Drag disrupts the idea that gender is natural and that you’re an unnatural freak if you’re a masculine girl or a feminine boy,” says Conway-Hicks.
Dressing in drag is also called gender-fucking and gender illusion. As a subcultural phenomenon, dressing as a man, or drag kinging is gaining popularity in major cities across the world, including Toronto, New York and San Francisco. Male impersonation has a history that dates back about 200 years, but drag kinging is a relatively recent marvel with its earliest roots dating back to the late ‘70s. A drag king is the counterpart to the drag queen, and most often involves a biological female who presents herself as masculine and exaggerates the traditional perceptions of gender roles in society. Technically, the term should be “drab” king, since “drag” stands for “dressed as a girl.”
Usually drag shows take place in lesbian venues, even though many bisexuals and heterosexuals are also involved. Drag kings, like Conway-Hicks, use tensor bandages and binding tape to flatten their breasts: pack dildos, socks and other homemade prosthetics in the front of their pants to give the illusion of a cock: and adopt masculine gestures, clothing and hairstyles.
Robin Polfuss, 28, loves performing because it takes her away from reality and it challenges her character.
“When you’re in the midst of a good performance, you feel the power. I don’t care if I’m in drag or a dragon,” says Polfuss, who began dressing in drag when she was 15 years old.
Drag has developed into a wildly entertaining scene that allows performers the opportunity to work our gender politics, by combining elements of burlesque, theatrical skits, singing and dancing. In the same show you can see a king who mocks all the posturing and pomp of a male, and another who adopts and pays tribute to the charm and romance of masculinity. The character of Elvis is used a a critique or tribute to masculinity, depending on whether the kind chooses to do young, handsome Elvis or fat, puffy Elvis. Often kinds take on the romantic male personas of Leonard Cohen and Garth Brooks and have the audiences screaming for more.
Conway-Hicks came out butch, transgendered, lesbian, going out in public appearing feminine is like taking on a forbidden identity. She started performing male drag two years ago, while working on her master’s thesis on drag kings for the women’s studies program at York University. The Drag has allowed Conway-Hicks to explore many identities including a sailor, an Italian-Canadian, a party-boy fag, and Chiffon, the glamorous pirate girl.
When she performs as a man, it’s a less dramatic transformation. She performed a transformation piece at the International drag King Extravaganza in Columbus, Ohio where she first performed as a feminine female.
When she walks onstage in a wig and black dress, Conway-Hicks appears withdrawn and uncomfortable. The emcee hits play on the stereo and over the speakers David Bowie belts out: “you’re got your mother in a whirl, because she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl …”
Conway-Hicks lifts her dress over her head and it falls behind her. She winds duct tape across her chest to flatten her breasts and stuff a cup down her pants.
Tonight she’s a man.