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Melee the Queen on the art, artistry and legacy of drag in Milwaukee

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Image of Milwaukee drag queen, Melee the Queen dressed up as a fairy.

From local bars to everyday media consumption, drag has redefined our language when it comes to gender expression, art and talent. But drag goes beyond competition and lip-sync; it’s a vibrant culture with deep roots and a rich history.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Shakespearean theater was tightly bound to the church, which meant only men were allowed on stage. On those rare occasions when a play featured a female role, male actors with elaborate costumes would transform into women, allowing the show to go on. This practice set the stage, quite literally, for the concept of drag.

The term "drag" wasn't coined until the 19th century. It referred to performing in clothes or a persona different from one's own gender, with a theatrical origin. The dresses men wore to play female characters would drag along the floor, giving rise to the term.

From the stage to true royalty

Drag is not just about dressing as the opposite sex, though. As RuPaul himself says, “I don't dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”

The first documented drag queen was William Dorsey Swann, a trailblazer born in Maryland in 1860. Swann endured slavery, the Civil War, racism, police surveillance, torture behind bars and countless other injustices. Yet, he rose to become the first American activist to lead a queer resistance group and the first known person to dub himself the “queen of drag.”

Swann hosted secret drag balls in Washington, D.C., which soon attracted the attention of the authorities. In 1896, after being convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of “keeping a disorderly house” (a euphemism for running a brothel), Swann demanded — and was denied — a pardon from President Grover Cleveland for holding a drag ball. This historic act made Swann the earliest recorded American to take legal and political steps to defend the queer community’s right to gather without the threat of criminalization, suppression, or police violence.

In the 1950s, drag performances found a home in more accepting spaces, such as the Black Cat in San Francisco. Over the next few decades, these spaces became sanctuaries for the gay community, with drag even expanding into film. John Waters’ 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos featured the iconic drag queen Divine, who inspired the character Ursula in Disney's The Little Mermaid.

The 1969 Stonewall Riots saw drag queens, most notably Marsha P. Johnson, take to the streets in protest against police raids on gay bars in New York City. Their bravery led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front, marking a turning point in LGBTQ+ rights.

In 2009, RuPaul's Drag Race aired its first season. The show — with its mix of challenges, costume creation, skits and impersonations — quickly became a TV sensation and brought drag into the mainstream.

Milwaukee's drag scene: a hidden gem

When it comes to Milwaukee's drag scene, Trixie Mattel immediately comes to mind. To truly understand the depth of Milwaukee drag, dive into A History of Milwaukee Drag by Michail Takach and BJ Daniels. This book explores the roots and evolution of drag in Milwaukee, noting that the city's first drag performers were Francis and Kelly in 1884.

Though Milwaukee might not be the first city you think of for drag, it has a rich history and has even dominated the competition show circuit at times. Wisconsin natives like Trixie Mattel, Jaida Essence Hall and Jaymes Mansfield have made significant names for themselves in the drag world.

One of those big names joined us for the June edition of our State of Sound all-local concert showcase as our very first guest host: Melee the Queen. Carolann Grzybowski, 88Nine afternoon host and content manager, interviewed Melee to learn about her artistry and experience as a drag performer.

Audio Storyteller / 88Nine On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee