AuthorJaffe, Sarah

The attacks on gender nonconformity of many types have come fast and brutal this year, in the form of street violence accompanied by a mad flurry of legislative attempts to ban behaviors, health care, and the mere existence of trans or gender-nonconforming people.

But the attempts to ban or eradicate drag are unique in that proponents are not only attacking a form of expression, a creative performance--drag is also a job.

The attacks on drag in particular--the first law banning drag in public places passed in Tennessee, although at press time, it was temporarily halted by a judge, and at least sixteen other states have since introduced similar legislation--aim not just to shut down a particular kind of performance that relies on playing with the boundaries of gender, exaggerating its characteristics, transgressing its rules. They also intend to make it substantially more difficult for performers to make a living in a field that is already expensive and hard to break into.

"What's interesting about drag is the sheer amount of overhead asked of a drag performer to ever be taken seriously," says Ryan Houlihan, a drag artist and journalist from New York City, who has been doing drag since college. "It requires you to do hours and hours of preparation and practice and learning. And all of that requires materials." Learning makeup skills alone takes a lot of time and expensive purchases, and then there are the clothes, the accessories, the wigs, the jewelry, the learning to dance in precariously high heels. "Because it requires so much up front, most drag performers don't expect to make money in their career in the long term. Or if they do, it's never going to be enough money to actually justify the amount of work and hours that they need to put in," Houlihan says.

In other words, the odds are stacked against drag workers, particularly those who don't come from money, being able to make a living at it. Even when they make money, the overhead costs continue to expand. Contestants on RuPaul's Drag Race--which has contributed perhaps more than anything else to the main-streaming of drag--regularly cop to spending tens of thousands of dollars of often borrowed money on costumes to have a shot at the show's six-figure prize. "I probably wouldn't be able to live in New York or pay my bills if I was just depending on the drag aspect of things," Houlihan says.

New York might be pricey, but at least it's a place where drag performers are relatively...

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