The macho in me
A female SN&R writer joins the Sacramento Kings of Drag to explore the gender divide and release the masculine within
“Hello. I’m Hank Shank.”
The crowd was rustling and talking, but I couldn’t see anything other than the white light that surrounded me and the bright pinpoints, made by a string of Christmas lights, that had been taped down to mark the edges of the stage and runway. I was hot, sweaty and close to freaked out. But when the opening bars of the song began, I had to strut out onstage anyway. I hoped desperately that he’d be there as promised: my new buddy, Hank Shank.
Members of the Sacramento Kings of Drag had told me that once I released “the king within,” everything would be just fine. But backstage, I hadn’t felt so fine. How did I ever wind up agreeing to go onstage as a drag king?
It was all Tina Reynolds’ fault. It had been her idea to invite an SN&R writer to join in the drag kings’ summer performance. An attractive ball of energy, Reynolds is an artist, businesswoman (owner of Uptown Studios) and, yes, a drag king. She thinks of the shows she organizes as entertainment, first and foremost. The July 16 performance at the Sacramento YWCA was to be no different.
“The basic premise is to do to masculinity exactly what the drag queens do to femininity: to mock it by exaggerating it,” she said. The idea is to open up our conceptions of gender by recognizing how artificial most of the hallmarks of masculinity and femininity are.
“The indoctrination in gender starts young,” Reynolds pointed out. She said that her 3-year-old granddaughter had asked her if she was a man or a woman. “I told her, ‘I’m a woman.’ Then she said, ‘But you have short hair.’ Those gender markers start from day one.”
Reynolds had produced drag shows of the traditional “drag queen” variety, where men—often with amazing verisimilitude—don both the dress and mannerisms of women and lip-sync performances to screaming audiences of adoring fans. Her longing to perform herself, coupled with a desire to do things a little differently, led her to organize and produce shows for the Sacramento Kings of Drag.
“I can’t sing!” she said. “My singing is so bad, people won’t let me hum. This is my chance to be a performer.” So her “king,” Louie Luxury, a goatee-wearing, womanizing aficionado of hats, was born. “I don’t want to be a man,” she said. “I want to be a performer.”
Reynolds acknowledged that playing with gender roles can be disturbing to some. Our society isn’t particularly kind to people who stretch the boundaries of gender—ask anyone who’s been on the receiving end of words like “sissy” or “dyke.”
“Honestly,” she said, “as soon as you start tampering with gender, things get weird.”
And things did get weird for me. In a hurry.
Always a lesbian, never a butch
When I came out as a teenager in the late ’70s, the lesbian feminist movement was in full swing. Among its tenets was the rejection of anything “male identified,” including such politically charged personal-hygiene choices as shaving legs and underarms, wearing makeup and using a curling iron. I tried to fit in—I really did—but almost all the lesbians I knew looked like 19-year-old boys: short hair, faded jeans, work boots, plaid flannel shirts and flat chests.
I’ve lived in the land of foundation garments with D-cups since ninth grade, and I like pink. Ditto for ruffles, lace, long hair, dresses with modest necklines and makeup. About the only things I had in common with the lesbians around me was an affinity for comfortable shoes and the whole “preferring the company of women” thing.
There’s no other way to say it: I’m femme. I definitely operate within the traditional parameters of female gender presentation. These days, middle age and a sedentary lifestyle have shaped me into more of the matronly type, but back in the day, I could make a mid-length skirt and a peasant blouse look good. I’ve always been a dyke, but never a butch. Unlike women who fall more on the butch—or stereotypically “masculine”—side of the continuum, I’ve never been mistaken for a guy.
My feminine presentation caused a few problems for me. Not only did I have people who couldn’t believe I was really gay, but also I was often accused by other dykes of political incorrectness. Especially suspect in lesbian circles was anything that smacked of heterosexual “roles.” It’s a ban that’s been breached—hopefully for good—in recent years.
But the prospect of dressing up as a man—of “releasing the macho within,” as Reynolds described it in one e-mail—produced a bit of anxiety. Although I don’t doubt my stage presence, the ability to really act like a man caused some anxiety.
It’s not that acting itself held any fear for me—I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had stage fright. In fact, I was born to be center stage—a diva trapped in the body of a stagehand—and have no doubt that, had I been blessed with actual talent instead of just a mania for attention, I’d have been Bette Midler. When SN&R Arts Editor Becca Costello came looking for someone to take Reynolds up on her invitation, I signed up without a second thought. Such thoughts arrived later, though, when I began to think about how hard it would be to approximate the appearance of a man in any realistic way.
How in the world was I going to pull this off?
“Don’t worry,” Reynolds said. “We can make you a man.”
She suggested finding the song first. “Look for a song that expresses your idea of masculinity,” she wrote me a week before the first rehearsal. “And let me know what your drag name is going to be.”
The song seemed an easier proposition, so I started there. I toyed with Elvis, but frankly, he’s just not macho enough. Other than his black-leather-’68-comeback self, he’s more what Camille Paglia describes as a “Lord Byron type.” A pretty boy. I was looking for a man.
That left a fairly short list: Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Steve Earle. A pattern emerged: Working-class guys who don’t take any more shit than they absolutely have to, who keep their pain to themselves and don’t whine about it, who get things done and don’t expect the world to make a big deal of it. Guys like Johnny Cash.
When I was quite small, I used to get my dad and Johnny Cash mixed up. The guy on the cover of the Ring of Fire album—with the slicked-back black hair, and muscles bulging from beneath the rolled-up sleeves of a slightly sweaty work shirt—looked an awful lot like my father. I suppose there are worse things than confusing your dad with Johnny Cash.
So, Johnny Cash it would be. A short list of songs assembled, I consulted my colleagues, and “A Boy Named Sue” was the overwhelming favorite. I didn’t even have to learn the lyrics; I’ve been singing that song, loudly and off-key, since I was 10 years old.
It also seemed like a perfect fit: The song, written for Johnny Cash by Shel Silverstein, is about the stress caused by carrying a name that doesn’t match the expected gender presentation: “Some gal would giggle and I’d get red, / and some guy’d laugh, and I’d bust his head / I tell you, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.” Performed for the first time at San Quentin prison in 1969, it was recorded that night for a live album and became a smash hit.
Next, I needed a drag name. Reynolds’ e-mail had a list of my fellow performers: G-Luv, Buck Naked, Kenny Rideher, Jason Shark … you get the idea. Over coffee with my friend Kimberly, I did some brainstorming.
“It needs to be strong,” I said.
“What’s you’re dad’s name?” she asked.
“Eldon. Not gonna work.”
But she was on to something. My dad loved the name Henry so much that he wanted to use it for both of my brothers. So, Hank it was. Since the song was from one of Johnny’s prison albums, I’d just go with the prison theme: Hank Shank was born.
But with a name like that, I could surely manage to act butch for one night.
It’s just wrong
Over the years, I’ve seen my share of drag shows, including a spookily accurate portrayal of Judy Garland at a club in downtown Chicago. Drag as performance has a history as old as theater itself. Not only did boys perform as girls on the Elizabethan stage, but also in some plays they took on the role of girls pretending to be boys. Shakespeare was quite fond of drag kings; think of Twelfth Night or As You Like It with their cross-dressing heroines. Anytime he needed to give a female character a little freedom, she put on a pair of pants.
But there’s more to it than that. Gender performance is closely related to gender identity; most of us have been told to “act like a lady,” or the inverse, at least once. We all know the stereotype of the “limp-wristed” boy who doesn’t conform to gender performance and suffers for it, or the tomboy who’s constantly encouraged to put on a dress and cross her legs when she sits. The first thing our parents want to know about us is if we’re a boy or a girl; those blue- and pink-labeled cigars reflect the pattern of behavior that’s expected of us for the rest of our lives.
Over the last few decades, there’s been some loosening up of those expectations, but they still exist. That limp-wristed boy probably wouldn’t be tormented so fiercely if we were genuinely comfortable with both our masculine and feminine selves, suggested Reynolds. “We all have both male and female energy. Drag shows let us play with it a little,” she said.
Kelly Howard, whose drag-king persona is Valentino Pantelonni, agreed. She described herself as falling “more on the butch side of the butch-femme continuum. Drag shows are a fun, safe place to play with it.”
In addition to performance, Howard plays with gender in real life. “To say, today I’m feeling really feminine, so I’m going to wear my girl clothes. Tomorrow, I’m feeling really masculine, so I’m going to wear my boy clothes.” In the real world, she said, “if I don’t get addressed as ‘Sir’ very much, I wonder if my masculine side is coming out enough.”
My masculine side seemed to want to hide out rather than come out, but I was willing to give it that old college try. But there turned out to be repercussions, starting with my partner. She wasn’t at all interested in seeing me in drag. Just the thought of it creeped her out.
On the one hand, that’s flattering. Apparently, the gender I perform as on a regular basis is the right one to attract her. On the other hand, why was the thought of me with Johnny Cash-style sideburns and a 5 o’clock shadow so creepy? I wanted an answer beyond “It’s just wrong.”
“It’s my worst nightmare,” my partner told me. “Some macho guy is what my parents wanted for me. It’s not what I wanted.” It became a bit clearer when I started thinking about what she’d look like as a man. Ugh! Run away, bad thoughts!
She didn’t come to the show. And that was just fine with me.
Good Hank hunting
Over and over, Reynolds stressed to the assembled performers the importance of taking on the persona of our king. “Be butcher than butch,” she said. “Go in and mock that whole masculine flirting thing.” The point was to become someone else, someone “bigger than normal.”
Pam LaRue, who performs as Buck Naked, may be the most experienced of the troupe; she’s done three shows since last year and also performs at parties. She spoke about the freedom that comes with adopting a male persona. “It’s a different world when you’re a guy,” she said. “When I had my hair down, I looked like a thug. I was scaring people.”
I don’t think I want Hank to scare people. I see him more as a comforting fellow with a wicked sense of humor, the kind of guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
I can’t dance, which means the same goes for Hank, but both of us can tell a good story. I made up a few little moves to match the song’s narrative and decided to do my best at walking like a man. A short lesson in Reynolds’ office included the instructions that I should pretend there was a string tied around my (imaginary) penis and let it pull me along. Didn’t work. It looked more like an Ewok waddle than a masculine swagger. But I managed to keep my hips from swaying and turn my toes out enough to eventually swagger a little.
We also got instructions on how to “work” the audience. Normally, I’m not in the least shy, but even at my most outrageous I’ve never been one to grab my crotch or rub up against strangers. Well, not while sober, anyway. Emcee Jackie Taylor, who took on the role of “Sheriff Snatch” for the show, took a seat and invited me to “work” her.
Yes, I blushed. And stuttered, too.
Then one of the kings shouted, “Hump ’em. They always love that.” That was the end of my attempt to “work” anything or anyone; I was simply laughing too hard.
“About your breasts …”
At the first rehearsal, LaRue leaned toward me and dropped her voice, her dreadlocks obscuring her face as she spoke confidentially. “About your breasts,” she began. “You might want to practice with them tied down before the show, because it changes the way you breathe.”
Exactly how does one “tie them down”? The thought is a bit disturbing; except for a brief period of freedom in the late ’70s, “the girls” have been constrained by well-constructed undergarments ever since I hit puberty.
“It usually works to use really wide Ace bandages first and then put duct tape over that,” Pam told me.
Does it hurt?
She chuckled. “Try not to think about it.”
I was completely unsuccessful with my attempt at self-binding; I’m just far too round—not to mentioned stubby-armed—to do the job alone. It resulted in one wadded up Ace bandage and another one of those “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea” moments.
As it turns out, successful binding requires a certain amount of practice; it’s not a do-it-yourself endeavor. The night of the show, Catlyn O’Proinntigh, who assists Buck with dressing and makeup, had the expertise necessary to do the job with a minimum of fuss. I watched as she wrapped both Buck and Valentino, trying to get a fix on what to expect.
The “bindee” stands with her arms in the air, hands above her head—exactly the same stance one takes to measure bra size—while a large cloth bandage is wrapped around her chest. It has to be high enough to cover and compress the cleavage, so it runs from the top of the armpits and stretches down to the mid-rib area, and it’s pulled tight. Then, wide duct tape is used to hold the whole thing together. The result is not truly flat but, under a loose shirt, can pass for well-developed pecs.
Buck’s wrap went quickly, but wrapping Valentino turned out to be more of a problem. O’Proinntigh had to try the bandage wrap a couple of times to get it high enough to eliminate cleavage. Then it was my turn. First problem: I’d brought 4-inch bandages, which weren’t really wide enough to cover “the girls,” but at least I’d bought two. O’Proinntigh decided to use one bandage wrapped down from the top and another wrapped up from the ribs for full coverage. “You’re a little big for this to work,” she said.
Second problem: The self-adhesive bandages kept catching on themselves, forming unsightly puckers and bulges. Eventually, she got things smoothed out and then covered the binding with heavy black duct tape. Now I know what it feels like to have a corset tightened.
Fully bound, it was difficult to draw a full breath. However, it seemed to change the way I walked and the way I swung my arms. And I comforted myself with the knowledge that I only had to leave it on for a couple of hours.
Hair of the dawg
Facial hair is a big part of the persona for most of the kings. Reynolds’ Louie Luxury sported a goatee and sideburns. Her facial hair was applied to matting and needed a careful trim after application; O’Proinntigh was happy to oblige. She’d brought an electric mustache and beard trimmer expressly to “clean up” the facial hair.
“The first job I ever wanted was to be a makeup artist,” she said.
She got a workout; almost all the kings needed a trim. The exceptions were those of us who were sporting sideburns only; mine were applied by Pam Lockrem of Wham Salon.
First, Lockrem used a greasy adhesive (apparently not gum spirits, because it had a dark color to it). After I told her what Hank’s sideburns should look like, she outlined the straight but narrow, long, ’60s-style ’burns I wanted; filled in these templates with the adhesive; and then patted small bits of real human hair into the area. This gave the impression of closely trimmed sideburns. But little bits of the hair dropped down the back of my neck, sticking to my skin, poking and itching so that it felt like I’d just had a haircut.
Then Lockrem added a 5 o’clock shadow by rubbing some dark but dry stuff all over my chin. She warned me not to rub my face, but I was more concerned about sweat. It was definitely warming up in that dressing room.
She then arranged my hair in a facsimile of the mid-’60s pompadour favored by both Johnny Cash and my dad. The stuff she put in my hair to hold it in place had the texture of Butch wax and the longevity of axel grease. That pomp could’ve ridden out a hurricane, particularly after she coated it with hair spray, producing a hard-core case of helmet head.
The art of packing
From the very beginning, it’s about the penis.
At the first rehearsal, Reynolds stressed that we should take on a persona. “Become the guy,” she said. “Really play with it. Become the person you’d be if there were no estrogen, only testosterone.” It’s about the swagger—and most of the kings agree that the swagger comes from that appendage that makes men walk funny—so they’re “packing.”
Reynolds’ “package” is a rolled-up and taped dishtowel about 14 inches long. Her “dong”—a word she can’t say without cracking up—is taped to her thigh so it won’t slide around under her dress pants. She learned that trick the hard way; the first time she tried this, the “accoutrement” ended up poking out the back of her outfit. “Really tape it down,” she told the woman helping her dress.
LaRue/Buck wears a “soft” package—a flaccid, extremely long and realistic-looking (or so the straight women reported) penis in a harness. She fastened the edges of the harness to her skin with duct tape so that the tabs wouldn’t show and demonstrated how she could make “lil’ Buck” bounce by shaking her hips.
Howard/Valentino wore a nice little thong/jock strap in tasteful black that looked sort of like a codpiece. Understated yet fashionable.
Before the show, several of the fully dressed kings walked around checking out each other’s “packages”—patting each other’s crotches, admiring the size and shape, and comparing the advantage of “hard” vs. “soft” packs.
For the first time in my life, I had penis envy. Poor Hank would be the only king without a bulge of his own. I decided to go the rolled-up-sock route and comforted myself with the knowledge that, though Hank may not be particularly well-endowed, he’s a mighty big man in many other ways.
A boy named Kel
I’d had to take my glasses off for the final preparations—hair, makeup, binding and facial hair. When I put them back on and looked at myself, it was pretty shocking.
I didn’t think I looked all that much like Johnny Cash—way too short and round. I thought I resembled Elwood, the character from the Luann comic strip that Luann didn’t want to go to the prom with. But mostly, I looked like my dad: a younger, rounder version of my dad.
The resemblance became even stronger when I started practicing my number. Looking at myself in the wall-mounted mirrors around the room, I saw that gestures that are normally just shadows of his were heightened by the way my “kingly” appearance removed the veneer of femininity.
I was a bit unnerved. Yes, I’d always been told I look like my dad and act like my mom—but I’d never before looked this much like my dad. It put an entirely new spin on the whole “releasing the macho within” idea.
Of course, it makes sense that I’d get my “masculine energy,” as Reynolds describes it, from my dad. Who better to learn about masculinity from? And given what I’d discovered in searching for Hank’s persona—that, in my mind, a real man is one that works hard, doesn’t take crap from anyone, does the job without whining or fussing and has a good sense of humor—well, that is my dad.
From the dressing room, we could hear a growing rumble of crowd noise as our audience arrived. When Louie took the stage, it grew to a roar. I kept reminding myself that anxiety and excitement produce the same physical responses, so my sweaty palms and fluttering heart were not necessarily bad things.
Along with a couple of the other kings, I snuck around through the lobby to the back of the showroom to catch part of the performance, including LaRue/Buck’s first number. Dressed in tight leather pants and wearing a Playboy-bunny medallion, she was “working” the crowd, shaking her butt and thrusting her pelvis. It was intimidating, to say the least. The audience was whooping, hollering and throwing bras onstage, as if she were Tom Jones.
When it was finally my turn to take the stage, the anxiety I’d been feeling seemed to lift. So I’m not going to have Buck’s raw sexuality or Valentino’s smooth moves, I thought; Hank has a homely charm all his own. I took a deep breath and dived into the lights.
I didn’t lip-sync. In fact, I sang at the top of my lungs. Fortunately, the recorded music, with Johnny Cash’s baritone booming out the lyrics, was loud enough so that no one could hear me: “I made me a vow to the moon and stars / that I’d search the honky-tonks and bars / and kill that man that give me that awful name.” Then Hank took over; perhaps there’s something about being loud and off-key that brings out swagger. The crowd was hooting and cheering, and Hank got more and more confident as we went along.
The particulars are a little fuzzy—I remember almost stepping on a woman with a camera who’d crouched down in front of the runway to take a picture, and nearly toppling off the stairs on my way back up (thankfully, I was caught in the nick of time by the stair attendants). I was just so into the song—and I felt really free. Powerful. Incredibly hip, slick and cool.
I was so into it that when I got to the song’s ending, I shouted out the final lyrics (“And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him / … BILL, OR GEORGE … ANYTHING BUT SUE!”) with such force that I felt a muscle in my belly pull uncomfortably. I’d almost forgotten that I had muscles in my belly—another gift from Hank. I quickly bowed and sauntered off stage.
The grand finale was a little more awkward; I was very aware of our—Hank’s and my—inability to dance. Shirley A. Saint started “It’s Raining Men,” and a parade of kings followed her out onto the stage and through the audience. Surrounded by such gifted dancers, Hank and I were overwhelmed. We tried to hide behind Buck and G-Luv. Then the bows and the final “crotch grab and grunt,” and it was all over.
I was euphoric. In fact, I think the experience ranked right up there on the list of the most fun things I’ve done with my clothes on. I mingled a bit with audience members, had my picture taken with a couple of women and felt the after-the-show letdown arrive. The binding, which I’d actually forgotten about while onstage, was beginning to feel like a python wrapped around my chest, trying to squeeze the life out of me.
Back in the dressing room, I tried pulling at the tape and looking for a spot to start unpeeling it. Unfortunately, between the adhesive on the bandages and tape, and the copious amounts of sweat Hank had deposited during the show, the binding had set—it was as solid as a body cast. I was getting desperate to draw a full breath.
Finally, SN&R photographer Jill Wagner whipped out her trusty Swiss Army knife, opened the industrial-strength scissors and sawed through the binding. Relief. I imagined my poor, crushed “girls” singing along with Aretha Franklin, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
“Freedom” is a fitting word to describe the entire experience. I don’t think I’ll need to do it again, but I’m glad I gave it a try. Mostly, I learned that there’s a surprising amount of freedom in being someone else—even if that someone else is male, and even if it’s only for the length of a song.
Thanks to the Sacramento Kings of Drag, I suspect I’ll be able to access that masculine energy a little more comfortably from now on. I’ve got no plans to change the way I dress, and “the girls” would never forgive me if I made binding a regular event, but becoming a bit more comfortable with all aspects of myself is certainly worth the minor physical discomfort.
I’m also grateful to be reminded how much I’m like my dad. It’s not just the Johnny Cash thing; it’s in the way I walk, the way I use my hands, what I think is funny and how I tell a story—and I hope it’s in how I work hard and don’t take any unnecessary crap from anybody. As for the whining? Well, you can’t win ’em all.
I could easily imagine my dad chuckling as, on my way out after the show, an impossibly young woman patted my butt and told me that I had a nice ass. I was embarrassed, but Hank thought she was pretty cute.
To see a video clip of Hank’s performance, please click here