Views expressed are that of the writer. Lead illustration by Tessie Orange-Turner.
In the early hours of one September morning in 1880, gatecrashers were about to bring a raucous Mancunian party to an abrupt finish – and the fallout would make headlines across the Atlantic.
The Temperance Hall in Hulme, inner city Manchester, had ostensibly been hired by the mundanely named Association of Pawnbrokers’ Assistants. Yet the windows were surreptitiously covered with crepe paper to prevent onlookers.
Lying in wait was Detective Sergeant Jerome Caminada, who had received a tip-off that the room had been hired under false pretence. After surveilling the hall for hours, Caminada and his officers gained entry. There they found 47 men, 22 of whom were dressed as women, “engaged chiefly in grotesque dances”.
Following a scuffle, all 47 partygoers were handcuffed and arrested. The musician hired for the ball, a blind harmonium player who was apparently oblivious to its true nature, was not detained.
The salacious story made international headlines, while the defendants’ names and home addresses were published in the ensuing media maelstrom – exposing them to enormous shame and ridicule in a fiercely moralistic society.
However, amid intense public scrutiny and curiosity, the criminal case dramatically collapsed. “The basic problem is they haven't committed an offence – gross indecency doesn't exist at this point in 1880,” says Dr Stephen Hornby, a playwright and academic. “So then the whole quality of the evidence is called into question.”
The only option available to prosecutors was to charge the defendants with buggery or attempted buggery, based on flimsy evidence presented by the police. Instead, the defendants were bound over to keep the peace, each receiving a £25 fine.
“£25 is a lot of money, so what happens is basically it ends up as a class punishment,” explains Dr Hornby. “The middle-class people and above can raise their £25 to get out, but those who can't end up in prison for three months… No offence was proved, but half of them ended up in prison.”
This relatively overlooked chapter of Manchester’s queer history is today characterised as one of the first documented drag balls in the world. Using modern terminology to describe the ball is of course anachronistic – the events took place six years before the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing laid out the terms ‘homo-’ and ‘heterosexual’ in his book Psychopathia Sexualis. Similarly, there was no clear distinction between sexual and gender identity – to reify the people who attended this ball simply as gay, trans, or drag queens would be reductive.
“In the absence of identity, you have fluidity,” says Dr Hornby, adding that for at least some of the attendees, it was “not about an exaggerated female performance” we nowadays associate with drag, but rather about passing. “There are people who live on the boundaries of gender, presenting sometimes as male, and other times as female and want to pass.”
Dr Hornby, who chronicled the events of the Temperance Hall in the play A Very Victorian Scandal, points out the irony that in cracking down on vice, the incendiary news reports ensured Manchester became synonymous with it: “It's a double-edged sword, because by showing that you don't tolerate it, you're acknowledging its existence. So you could never really prohibit without acknowledging existence.”
If sensationalist headlines about drag queens and gender nonconforming people sound familiar to modern audiences, that’s because they are. In the United States, at least 32 bills have been filed this year targeting drag performances, while in the UK, fringe far-right groups have targeted family drag events.
Over the past decade or so, drag has been mainstreamed like never before thanks to shows like RuPaul's Drag Race, but so too have protests from right-wing groups attacking the artform.
Jonathan Hamilt, Executive Director of Drag Story Hour, a non-profit organisation in the U.S. celebrating reading through inclusive family programming, points to the polarity of American politics: “I think between the insurrection and Roe vs. Wade being overturned in the US, it took a nosedive from peaceful protests to organised hate groups coming out against us to instil violence, fear and intimidation, and directly spread homophobia and transphobia to our events.”
While there are clear nuances, it’s important to situate the ongoing pushback against drag as part of a wider moral panic against trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people. These alarming trends are running in parallel, with hateful rhetoric often being spread by the same groups. “It's all cyclical,” Hamilt notes, pointing to the rhetoric used by Anita Bryant, the singer turned anti-gay rights activist, in the 1970s.
“Drag is the scapegoat for what's really happening, which is trans misogyny, hating women, hating queer people, wanting to legislate us out of existence and really silence us,” says Hamilt. “People say ‘be gay, just don't put it in our face and be behind closed doors’ or whatever. But just like Club Q, we were in a queer sanctuary. We were in a gay club and we still got shot up and killed, so it's not about us just staying in our gay spaces. It's about eradicating queer people and trans people overall.”
Jay Swinnerton, a non-binary person of colour working as dancer and drag performer in Manchester, has witnessed the diversification of drag beyond nightlife entertainment. They believe heightened visibility has led to greater understanding and interest from the public, and characterise the vocal complaints of a small minority as “an indication of progress”.
For UK audiences, the fringe response to family drag events might seem peculiar given the longstanding cultural heritage of pantomime as a children’s entertainment form. “People have no problem with tradition because it's always been there. With pantomimes for example, they understand what they're viewing,” Jay points out. “But in order to reach that point, you have to continue to do something, you have to normalise it.”
However, against the backdrop of a greater understanding of drag, Jay sees growing hostility to trans and non-binary people, believing increased visibility of queer people in general has left others feeling threatened: “I think to see trans people and to see non-binary people just living authentically nowadays, challenges their points of view. It challenges the fact that they haven't allowed themselves to think in that way before.”
We touch upon the rhetoric used by some ‘gender critical’ activists, who described a performance by Ant & Dec in drag last year as ‘womanfacing’, comparative to racist blackface caricature – the practice of wearing make-up to imitate the appearance of a Black person. “Pre-existing terminology is very easy to reappropriate and it's very convenient for them to voice their opinions,” Jay says. “It's their way of saying, ‘I'm going to play you at your own game’.
“It's not analogous, it's a completely different thing that we're talking about… When people reappropriate terms, they need to assess the exchange between minorities and majorities, and the people who are actually having negative experiences as a result of oppression.”
The discourse surrounding Ant & Dec’s performance points to a wider, wilful misconstruction of queer history and culture by the ‘gender critical’ anti-trans movement. For some, seeing any visible deviation from gender norms is enough to provoke outrage now, just as it was in 1880.
“Using drag as a scapegoat for other issues at play is seemingly low-hanging fruit for these people,” says Jonathan. “But what they fail to realise is – think of Shakespeare – drag has been around for a long time. Trans people have been around since the dawn of time. This is nothing new, this is just more light being shed on a really vulnerable marginalised group of people that want the same rights and respect as everybody else.”