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Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret

It’s Saturday night in Key West, and the “best show in town” is about to begin. Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret tells the story of the 801 Girls, a troupe of drag queens who perform every night of the year in Key West, Florida. It is the story of drag and what it means in contemporary American society. And through the story of the 801 Girls, it is an analysis of what makes a cultural performance such as drag serve as a form of social protest. Based on interviews with the drag queens, along with some of their boyfriends and mothers, observations at meetings and rehearsals, focus groups with audience members, attendance at the shows and other community events, and local newspaper coverage, Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor argue that drag plays an important political role in the gay and lesbian movement’s struggle for equality, with consequences for the values, ideas, and identities of twenty-first century American society. This is recent history, based on the shows from 1998 to 2001.

The evening begins with getting dressed for the show. In the dressing room, we meet the cast of characters and learn their methods of transforming their gay male bodies into something else—sometimes beautiful women, sometimes comic characters. We learn how they became drag queens: interest as young boys in wearing female clothing, the role that dressing up plays in both attracting attention and hiding oneself, the connections to early awareness of same-sex desire, the role of a theatrical background. We learn what it means to be a drag queen: how one acquires a drag name, the relationship of a drag persona to one’s male persona, and the possibility of a transgender subjectivity. In some ways, “drag-queenness” is a gender category of its own, making a space for those whose gender and sexuality does not fit easily into binary categories.

We then move on to the drag queens in their social context, exploring the history of Key West and its diverse population, the place of drag queens in the community as both celebrities and freaks, and the role they play in community events and benefits. Next the book explores their intimate relationships, including their desire for (and often heartbreak over) straight masculine men.

We then follow the drag queens into the cabaret, exploring their conditions of work—how hard they work for the money—and the complex labor that lies behind the shows. We see them onstage, performing protest, interacting with the audience, and being political. Rupp and Taylor argue that their performances question the meaning of gender and sexuality as we normally understand them. And the cabaret also performs protest by building community. From the troubled worlds of many of the drag queens, we move to the family they build—the “801 family” or “drag queen mafia.”

But what do the audiences take away from the shows? Putting the shows in the context of the history of drag, Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret analyzes the ways that the shows, based on focus groups with audience members, changed lives. In a theoretical conclusion, the book argues that the variety of drag performed at the 801 Cabaret, like similar styles of drag around the country, serves as a cultural tactic of protest because it embodies contestation, because such contestation is intentional, and because culture serves as an arena for the enactment, reinforcement, or renegotiation of collective identity.

In this way, the book is both an accessible and entertaining look into the world of drag queens and an analysis of the ways that cultural tactics are mobilized in the interests of social movements—in this case, the gay and lesbian movement.