When the lights dim and a drag queen takes the stage, she is, for that moment, utterly free — to be herself, free of societal pressure to conform to the gender binary’s norms. Drag shows are over-the-top, characterized by dynamic drag personas in big hair and loud makeup, lip-synching to poppy club hits and death-dropping — a physical feat in itself. These queens and kings are made up of not only cisgender individuals, but also gender fluid, gender non-binary and transgender people who challenge the boundaries of social order and creativity.

Drag has a rich cultural history, encompassing cross-dressing performances from Ancient Greek tragedies to Shakespearian comedies and, more currently, as deliberate parodies of norms prescribed to gender and sexuality. The term “drag queen” has etymological ties to the Polari vernacular — a type of British slang popularized by gay men and the theater community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Drag, while maintaining a turbulent presence in popular culture, is developing agency within the art world as well.

The Durham drag community is a colorful and vibrant group of performers, including self-proclaimed “Drag Diva” Vivica C. Coxx and local drag king Spray Jay, who retain a delicate balance between evocative and provocative. The queens and kings frequent local venues including The Pinhook and The Bar for nighttime performances. The community, notably “The House of Coxx,” fosters a sense of compassion and inclusivity and provides mentorship for amateurs.

Duke, having a prominent presence in the Durham community, inevitably intersects with the Durham drag scene. Senior and longtime Gilbert-Addoms resident assistant Cole Wicker is a visible member of both the drag and LGBTQ+ communities with his vivacious drag persona, Madame Margaret Snatcher.

“Margaret Snatcher is a big girl — I always like to joke that she has a big personality to match her big hips. She has this big and flamboyant personality, much like myself, but at the same time she’s also kind,” Wicker said. “I want to be a person that’s kind both in and out of drag — so she’s there, she’s ready for the party but she’s also there to get along with people and have fun.” 

For many, coming to terms with their sexuality can be a time of confusion or anxiety. Although there are many on-campus resources to soothe this time, including the Women’s Center or the Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity, Wicker found solace in friends who were accepting and supportive of his fascination with drag. The Durham drag community, particularly local queen Naomi Dix, was especially integral to facilitating the transition into his drag persona.

“I came out my sophomore year and in the past, before coming out, I had done gender bender days and drag pageants in high school — they were meant as jokes, but I always kind of liked it,” Wicker said. “When I came out, I felt that the whole concept of gender, gender flexibility — just doing whatever you want and being who you want was really cool. So, I went out and bought some makeup and kind of hoped everything would fall into place. I found a drag mother, Naomi Dix, and she took me under her wing and we built this relationship where she helped me quickly improve.” 

Wicker noted some famous personalities that proved particularly influential, including ’70s drag icon Divine (see: John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”) and notorious RuPaul queens Alaska, Katya and Trixie Mattel. In wake of popular television shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and increased visibility of trans celebrities including Laverne Cox and, perhaps more contentiously, Caitlyn Jenner, this decade of drag and an increasingly sturdy LGBTQ+ media presence seems to be simultaneously ushering in a pop culture renaissance and an epoch of mainstream relevance.

Drag history and culture are the focal points of various museum exhibitions and showcases, including “Coming Out,” an art display in Birmingham, U.K. — which marks 50 years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act — and the 2015 “What a Drag!” exhibit that highlighted some of Key West’s most dazzling leading drag queens.

Despite growing media popularity, there remains a segment of American society that will not tolerate the notion of men in drag. Others find that drag caricatures women, “appropriating” their form or even reinforcing gendered stereotypes. For Wicker, however, drag is a means of artistic self-expression that operates to poke fun at, rather than reinforce, the often extreme expectations society has on women.

“When people talk about drag I want to be as respectful of individuals in the community as possible. I think, traditionally, drag has been called female impersonation and that raises the issue of if the actions of drag queens are exploitative in terms of mocking women, and I don’t think so,” Wicker said. “The way I do drag, I wear really big hair and eye makeup because it’s about being extreme all around. It’s about exaggerating parts of myself that I already have as well. Instead of trying to fit the mold of an ideal woman, drag queens are taking society’s expectations and blowing them to extreme and sometimes ridiculous proportions.”

It would be ludicrous to assume that life as a drag queen is always glitz and glamour. For Wicker, managing a balance with school and involvement in the Durham drag community can be a difficult task that often means budgeting hours to prepare Margaret for public appearances. Beyond physical difficulties, some family and community members are still skeptical of Cole’s — who is a North Carolina native — passion for drag. Given North Carolina’s rocky past with trans rights, most prominently former governor Pat McCrory’s controversial House Bill 2, discomfort or apprehension about openly identifying with the Durham drag or LGBTQ+ communities is justifiable.

“Being a student and being a drag queen is hard and putting effort into what I want to wear can be costly and time-consuming. Even more difficult, though, is that there are still community members and family members who still don’t like or accept drag — they find something inherently wrong with a male identifying individual dressed as a woman or vice versa,” Wicker commented. “Margaret is always a part of myself, not just when I’m in drag — and I want to be able to embrace that. But it’s hard — especially in North Carolina, it’s not always easy to be yourself.” 

For now, while the fight to diminish prejudice and the demand for equality persists, drag will continue to exist on the edge of the norm, offering a safe space for those who feel marginalized by society and pushing the boundaries of self-expression and identity. For those who are interested in delving into the world of drag or are questioning their sexuality, Wicker offers some words of advice:

“Find a friend whom you can trust and grow together because, as with being new to any community, it can be hard starting from scratch. For some it may not be their time or may not be safe to embrace who they want to be, and I encourage those to hold on to what they love and to know one day it will be their time and it will be safe. Your first time can be scary, but just know that for Duke and Durham, there are always people here that will be excited and ready to support you.”