Del LaGrace Volcano and “The Drag King Book”

“Masculinity is a relational construct occupying a place in gender relations, there multiple masculinities, there is a hierarchy of masculinities and masculinity is a precarious, life-long ongoing performance” (Swain 2000, p.26)

Del LaGrace Volcano is a successful and revolutionary figure within the drag king scene. Before, I discovered Del I didn’t fully understand the difference between being transgender and being a drag king. Whilst drag kings I feel are apart of the transgender spectrum not everyone who does drag is transgendered or wants to be. This is made clear within everyday visual media. Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell have all posed as drag kings (Pirelli Calendar 1994) and none of them as far as I know have transgendered identities. Drag performers do not want to change their biological sex they are simple expressing characteristics and acts that usually belong to the opposite sex. For many, the drag king persona goes beyond a stage act, it is a way of life. Such is the case for Del LaGrace Volcano and for many of the drag kings featured in her and Judith “Jack” Halberstam’s book, “The Drag King Book” (1999). Born intersex with both male and female characteristics but raised as a female from birth, Del lived the first 37 years of his life as a woman, but since then has been living as both male and female and recognises himself in both sexes.

Images of masculine females have become more mainstream within mainstream culture, where seeing a woman in a suit or cropped hairstyle is deemed “normal” and sometimes even “beautiful”. Angelina Jolie, who has been titled the world’s most beautiful woman, has long expressed masculine styles and characteristics. More recently, at the BAFTA’s on the 14th February 2014 Angelina Jolie looked every inch the male impersonator, sporting a constructed suit alongside partner Brad Pitt. 

And so women expressing masculine traits are now sufficiently apart of mainstream visual media, I feel people aren’t pushing the boundaries as far anymore. However, the photographs taken by Del LaGrace Volcano in “The Drag King Book” are truly ground breaking. Volcano’s work undercuts assumptions about the legibility of gender and challenges the gender binary. I feel that we all know and have become more accustomed to the appearances of drag queens, that our exposure to drag kings has taken a step back and we are lacking knowledge and acceptance of such identities. Reality shows (Ladyboys, RuPaul’s Drag Race) and drag queen celebrities are becoming more and more regular I feel we need an upheaval of drag kings in the spotlight too.

Del has embarked on numerous photographic projects on trans identities, breaking new grounds and testing the limits of stable identifications. The images within “The Drag King Book” are mesmerizing forcing you to question what is masculine and what is feminine. It’s sometimes easy to forget that these are images of women, especially images of Johnny. The presence of slight feminine traits makes these images all the more alluring and confusing, a truly intriguing art form. The book also includes interviews with the drag kings featured, all of who vary on how they identify themselves and who they are. Del himself changes identities. This isn’t to say that his identity is constantly shifting, it means that he acts upon identities, his own and others, and alters them whilst capturing them all on film. Halberstam states, “He wants the viewer to desire and admire the model; he wants the model to seduce the viewer as he has been seduced. He wants the camera to invest the image with lust as well as beauty, and he wants the model to treat the camera as a mirror. The pictures that you will see in this book are not simply portraits or action shots, posed scenes or impromptu snaps. They are tributes to masculinity that Del loves and that he wants to seduce the viewer into loving too” (The Drag King Book, p.3-7).

I feel that Del definitely captures the essence of each subject and the final images are that of collaboration between him and the model. All of the drag kings act up to the camera in some way, which pays testament to Del’s wish for them to treat the camera like a mirror. This is how these individuals want to be seen and Del has done a brilliant job at doing just that. The images are thought provoking and true whilst evidencing that “normal” and “beautiful” gender identities have evolved.

“As a gender variant visual artist I access ‘technologies of gender’ in order to amplify rather than erase the hermaphroditic traces of my body. I name myself. A gender abolitionist. A part time gender terrorist. An intentional mutation and intersex by design, (as opposed to diagnosis), in order to distinguish my journey from the thousands of intersex individuals who have had their ‘ambiguous’ bodies mutilated and disfigured in a misguided attempt at ‘normalization’. I believe in crossing the line as many times as it takes to build a bridge we can all walk across.”-Del LaGrace Volcano, September 2005

References:

Volcano, D and Halberstam, J (1999) The Drag King Book. London: Serpent’s Tail.

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