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Kings Of Drag: The Gender Studs Challenge And Entertain Audiences

The Gender Studs aren't necessarily pretending to be men, but they do play with gender expectations in drag performances in Bloomington, Indiana.

  • Drag Kings In Studio

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    Photo: WFIU/Annie Corrigan

    (left to right) Josie Leimbach, Katie Schweighofer, and Jenna Basiliere

  • Jameson Photo

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    Photo: WFIU/Annie Corrigan

    Jenna Basiliere as 'Jameson' walks the stage at Uncle Elizabeth's Nightclub in Bloomington, Indiana.

  • Richie Photo

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    Photo: WFIU/Annie Corrigan

    'Richie' (a.k.a. Katie Schweighofer) sings "Margaritaville" in a recent Gender Studs performance.

  • BJ Brinker Photo

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    Photo: WFIU/Annie Corrigan

    Josie Leimbach performs as 'BJ Brinker' in a recent Gender Studs performance.

Bloomington, Indiana’s drag king troupe The Gender Studs recently celebrated their one-year anniversary. The seven performers met through their involvement with the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University. On normal days, three of the women are known as Josie Leimbach, Katie Schweighofer, and Jenna Basiliere, but on certain evenings, they’re better known as BJ Brinker,  Richie and Jameson.

Schweighofer and Basiliere had both performed drag before coming to Bloomington, but that wasn’t the case with Leimbach. The Gender Studs is her first drag performance troupe. “Previously, I had gone out to bars dressed masculinely, with facial hair and played with gender in that way, but this is the first time I’ve turned it into a spectacle performance.”

Behind The Scenes

When she prepares for a performance, Leimbach explains, she always starts with the song. Once she’s chosen what she’ll sing, she determines her outfit, her character’s demeanor on stage, and her appearance. Sometimes the song can even influence facial hair designs.

“It can be something akin to a narrative, taking the audience on a journey. Or it can be something that seems simple – just standing up there and singing a song – but in many ways is quite complicated. It’s difficult to draw the audience in when you are just relying on your own charisma.”

Performing In Another Voice

In a drag performance, “singing” generally means lip-synching. Yet the fact that they aren’t using their own voices, Schweighofer says, belies the amount of time and energy The Gender Studs put into preparing for their performances. From clothing to body language to facial expressions, “it all has to have meaning behind it, in the context of the song, in the context of the club.” The question is, “What does that complete package signify, and what is that suggesting to our audience?”

Basiliere adds that compared to drag queens, the work drag kings put into their performances might be underestimated. “We don’t have the sequins and the wigs as the eye make-up and all those really clear markers of costume all of the time.”

A New Way To Interact

Basiliere goes on to describe why she thinks drag is such a provocative style of performance – it elicits reactions that range from cheers to laughter to fear and even hatred. “I think that as a society, we still rely very much on these two very defined genders as a way to read people and as a way to know how to interact with the people around us.” Drag challenges those expectations.

Still, it’s just a performance. They’re not up trying to trick anyone into believing they’re men, Schweighofer adds. “What we’re counting on is that the audience is reading the different overlays of gender happening in the performance and that’s entertaining, whether it’s funny or sad or romantic or sexy.”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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