Drag and Double Drag

Frieda Belinfante -Dutch Resistance Fighter

Frieda Belinfante – Dutch resistance fighter

I never pretended I was a boy. I just was the way I was. This flustered adults who (mis)gendered me as a boy. As if I was trying to pull something over on them. As if I was being dishonest. As if it was a game that went to far. It embarrassed the adults; they didn’t like being fooled.

Being seen as a boy is different from pretending I was a boy. I continued seeing myself as a boy long after I should have gotten the picture that being a girl is permanent. I refused to inhabit the pink world, the Barbie and ballet class world. I refused to think of myself as a girl. Other people call this denial, but I see it as a form of self-determination.

I tried as much as possible to stay in the range of activities where I could see myself as a boy. This required a fair amount of magical thinking, e.g. “This isn’t a three-quarter length sleeve shirt – it’s a football jersey and I’m a quarterback.” I dissociated from my body. By staying inside myself I avoided having to face the world as a girl. I would rather do nothing than do something girlish. I played by myself a lot.

The stereotype of butch lesbians is that we are pretending to look like or act like men. Some butches (and some trans guys and some cis guys) may lay it on a little heavy for some people’s taste; we may project a type of masculinity that some find offensive or unattractive. After a life time of being told to tone it down and not be so blatant, it is not easy to trust my instincts or to get it right. 

If I ever pretended to be anything, I pretended to be a girl who wants to be a boy. I never tried to be a girly girl. It reassured the adults if I said I was a girl even if I didn’t act like one. I learned to throw a few girl’s toy’s around me while I played with boy’s toys. I learned to take out a couple of girl’s books for show at the library when I took out the boy’s books that I wanted to read. I learned to create the illusion that I was doing both girl and boy.

When Craig Russell dresses up and performs as Mae West; he is doing drag. When Mae West dresses up and performs as an actor playing Mae West she is doing double drag. If this sounds convoluted, trust me, it is. But, double drag is more common than you would think. Here is a video of Craig Russell singing Frankie and Johnny (1979), and here is Mae West singing the same tune (1976).

I was eight years old when I first tried to wrap my head around this concept. I knew being a girl was a charade, but I couldn’t find a way out of it. It was impractical to insist that I was a boy, but I continued to hope that eventually everyone would get it. It was equally impractical to pretend I was a girl; I was incapable of acting like the other girls. Claiming I was a tomboy gave me an excuse for being unable to assimilate as either a boy or a girl. I learned how to do double drag as a way of being myself in public. Boy-girl-boy.

Notes: I first read about double drag in this (long and academic) essay by Wendy Doniger – “The Mythology of Self-Imitation in Passing: Race, Gender, and Politics. If her name sounds familiar, it is because her book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” created a controversy and was withdrawn from publication in India because of objections from Hindu ultra-conservatives. It is still available in print outside of India.

Frieda Belinfante (photo) was a lesbian, a cellist, an orchestra conductor, and a fighter in the Dutch resistance movement during WWII. When the Nazis were hunting for her she avoided being captured by passing as a man. She emigrated to the US after the war.

13 thoughts on “Drag and Double Drag

    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks! It is hard to explain to people who take their gender for granted what our starting off point was as kids (before we had it explained to us over and over that we should be “lady-like”) and how we found our work-arounds as we grew up. It is great to have a community that knows what i’m talking about.

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  1. krisalex333

    Like Frieda, passing as a man, although mainly in my mind, is saving my life as well. I could and would not live as a woman any longer. Your posts are always thought-provoking, thanks. Happy holidays and happy healing!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I found Frieda Belinfante by accident looking for pictures of women passing as men. Her story is really interesting – there is an hour long documentary on her at:
      http://www.tv.com/shows/lets-come-out-gay-and-lesbian/watch/but-i-was-a-girl-the-story-of-frieda-belinfante-2722505/
      If the link doesn’t work you can google it. The healing is going very well, except that I feel “to good” and have to keep reminding myself to take it easy. It is getting boring but I am very happy with the change.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      If you still have more time to kill you can look for videos of Jim Bailey. i realized how middle age I felt looking at the clip from Outrageous (which I saw when it came out) and then realized that Craig Russell has been dead for 25 years, and that there is a whole generation or two that never saw this stuff. My favorite is the line about the leather boa.

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  2. Tea With Ess

    I totally get it. I’ve always felt like I’m in drag every time I wear womens clothes. And when wearing make-up, I dont just feel like I’m in drag – I look lile a drag queen. For real!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      There are only a select group of people out there who get the concept of feeling like you are drag when you are doing your “assigned gender” and feeling natural when you are “cross dressing”.
      Hope you find some nice masculine diaper bags and baby carriers so you can be a natural dad.

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      1. Tea With Ess

        I already have one! 🙂 we got a simple, black one a few weeks back and i picked it out. My criteria was more about the design of compartements than colour and pattern, but you can never go wrong with black!

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  3. singhey

    Esther Newton wrote about something she called “double inversion” — [in the case of drag queens:] drag making the claims that the outside [appearance] is female but the inside [body] is masculine, yet in another sense also making claims that the outside [body/sex] is masculine while the inside [internal] is feminine.
    If I’m understanding what you wrote, I relate strongly to it; thank you for this post.
    Hope your recovery’s going well!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Recovery is going well, I’m just getting bored not being able to resume all my regular activity. I’m generally not good with the concept of delayed gratification, and i want to enjoy my chest!

      I have Esther Newton’s Cherry Grove book, but it sounds like the “double inversion” might be in Mother Camp – which I haven’t read. If so, I might try to see if I can get it out of the library. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  4. micah

    I found this an interesting concept. What mental gymnastics children will go to in order to survive in a world they don’t understand… by the time you grow up, the ridiculous mental framework you’ve built just is, you don’t stop to think there might be another way out of it.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Nor is it easy to change a pattern that you’ve been in since elementary school. It is why a lot of people have trouble giving up their private trans fantasy life – it got them through for so long and was much more controllable than reality.

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