On conflating drag, (and femininity), with sexuality

This week in Texas, America’s Most Normal State(™) one brave lawmaker has sprung into action to protect children. Don’t worry though, he didn’t decide that he was gonna, you know, do anything about the epidemic of violent white supremacy and the violence that easy access to guns for radicalised people can unleash on classrooms full of innocent school children. Oh no. The brave Bryan Slaton has elected, instead, to introduce a ban on allowing children to attend drag shows. Here is the brave brave little guy’s announcement:

This fucking guy…

This incredibly stupid move has come after cute lil’ pictures of kids having a nice time at a drag show at an ice cream parlor have emerged. Confronted with images of people having fun, Bryan here thought “Oh no, people are having a nice time! We cannot allow this.” He then decided to act because, according to his above statement, the issue is that drag shows, in general, are a run by “perverted adults” who are “sexualizing young children”.

As many people have pointed out, this is absolutely bonkers, but today I thought I would write a bit about the historical precedent that this kneejerk and absolutely hypocritical view blooms from.

The art of drag, as I am sure all of my worldly, artsy, and generally cosmopolitan readers will know, centres on dressing up, usually as a member of the opposite gender, in a highly stylised way. The term itself derives from the nineteenth-century British theatre scene where men employed as “pantomime dames” would do over the top camp performances of women. In fact, they still do, and the panto dame and pantomime in general remains a cornerstone of the British Christmas experience. This gave rise to the drag Queen, men who dressed as women to perform femininity in the ballroom scene, at specialised shows, pageants, at brunch, down the library. You know, wherever. There are, of course, also drag Kings, who also absolutely kill it, which are people who identify as women dress up to do over the top performances of masculinity as well. But that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t come up in pearl clutching Texan visions about the perversion of drag.

St Marina, not necessarily a drag king, but serving monk realness, kneeling in front of a bunch of monks. Morgan Library MS M. 627-5 III, F. 279 v. 

There is a reason for that, and it is, of course, homophobia, but also its good old fashioned friend misogyny. See for weirdos like Bryan, femineity is expressly linked to sexuality, so if a man wants to appear feminine then he is absolutely being a pervert because to be a woman is, ipso facto to be sexual.

To understand why we have to go right back to the basics. The basics here, of course, being classical and medieval philosophers. In the ancient world, it was generally agreed by cool dudes like Plato (c. 428 – c. 384 BCE) and Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) that the default human beings were dudes, who rocked. Women, then were defined as not dudes whose very existence had to be accounted for. In order to do this Plato, made his own creation myth to explain them. He put forward a story where all the first humans were men, and they were on the earth to achieve a state of spiritual perfection. If they didn’t manage that, they would be reincarnated as women and have to try again. Once the not-good men came back as women, the gods then made sexual desire, or eros. So the fact that sexiness existed at all was specifically linked to the fact that women a) sucked, and b) had suddenly showed up. Femininity was therefore weak and sexual by default.

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By the time you hit the Church fathers and then, later, the medieval period, everyone agreed that Plato was a super cool guy with good ideas, but they had come up with the Garden of Eden creation myth that we all know and tolerate. This doesn’t actually deviate much from Plato in that the dudes got created first and women were an afterthought. Moreover, even in this construction sexiness is also directly linked to women. It is just that within this construction sexiness comes about as a result of Eve’s willingness to eat the fruit of knowledge. According to St Augustine after eating the apple and realizing they were naked, the first thing Adam and Eve did was get horny about it, or as he puts it “[t]hey turned their eyes on their own genitals, and lusted after them with that stirring movement they had not previously known”.[1] Basically then, it was Eve’s fault that sexiness even existed at all. So sexiness is specifically linked to feminine frailty, and of course the fact that women are insatiable sex monsters, as previously discussed. Being feminine is, therefore, is to be sexual to these dudes, and also to much stupider modern guys like your man Bryan there. As a result, a willingness to perform femininity like drag artists who are MEN and should KNOW BETTER than to ACT LIKE A WOMAN is a perversion because women are explicitly tied to sex.

Eve, about to invent the concept of horniness, with the serpent, who is of course also a woman because women are bad. München, BSB, Cgm 8010a, fol. 10r.

Of course who is doing the drag here is also at play –  the who usually being gay men.  Now as I have mentioned repeatedly, in the medieval world there isn’t really a concept of being gay because there was no idea about sexuality as an inherent part of one’s identity. Instead, people were defined by what they do, and the doing in this case was sodomy. All of you already know that sodomy is any type of sex that cannot lead to procreation, but that what we would call cis gay people were going to be automatically engaging in it if they did have a chance to get down together.

Sodomy, according to the big brains of the Middle Ages –  who defo didn’t just spend a bunch of time thinking about sexy sex because it was sexy, no sir –  was a problem because it was not linked to the sort of sex that might have been achieved before the fall of man.

Gratian declared that acts of sodomy constituted “extraordinary sensual pleasures” and called them “whoreish embraces”.[2] For Aquinas, to engage in a sort of sex which had no way of resulting in procreation was illogical. You knew you weren’t supposed to have sex for fun, and that you were going to be damned if you did enjoy yourself. So like, why take that risk? The thirteenth century Johannes Teutonicus (d. 1245) said that sodomy was bad because it was just “unnatural”.[3] What was natural was that which was divine, and that meant engaging in the least sexy sex possible, getting pregnant and moving on.

Sodomites, doing their thing. (Bodleian MS Bodley 270b.)

And the reason that people even thought to do stuff like have non-procreative sex in the first place was because Eve got everyone kicked out of the Garden, and now everyone was horny. But, of course, women who had been seduced into eating the fruit in the first place were the horniest of all. As Isidore of Seville (560-663) put it, “The word femina comes from the Greek derived from the force of fire because her concupiscence is very passionate: women are more libidinous than men.”[4] Even in the Eden, when she couldn’t be turned on, Eve’s willingness to suggestion and openness to temptation was proof that women in general were susceptible to non-divine lust.

So enjoying sex and having it just for fun? That was a thing women did. Therefore, two guys who can’t possibly get pregnant having sex was gross because they were behaving like women because women like sex. Not men. The twelfth-century polemicist Alan of Lille (c. 1128 – 1202) described the sort of guy who engaged in sodomy with other men, as a process by which a ‘man, his sex changed by a ruleless Venus, in defiance of due order, by this arrangement … falls into the defect of inverted order.’[5] Inversion here is a reference to the disruption of the natural order of things where men are men who aren’t interested in sex, and especially not with each other. It is also a reference to femininity in general, because as we all know, according to the Aristotelian model women are inside out dudes. So acting like one is being inverted like women generally.

Now at times there were even medicalisations about sodomy, specifically linked to what we would call bottoming, or who was penetrating and who was being penetrated. Here, there was an explicit link with those who might be penetrated (specifically while having same-sex anal sex) with women. After all, the only acceptable sex for men and women was penis in vagina, where women were penetrated. Therefore, if a man were to be penetrated by another man he would be adopting effeminacy. Ibn Sina, or Avicenna (d. 1037), whomst this blog ordinarily stans, wrote about men who liked to be penetrated by other men in his Canon of Medicine as individuals who were experiencing a medical issue. Being attracted to men and interested in getting boned down by them could be seen as a medical issue. A dude who was ‘accustomed to have men lie on top of him … has much desire, and in him much unmoved sperm, and his heart is weak. And his erection is weak in the root, or it has become weak now that he is habituated to copulation.’ So being a bottom was a disease, but also it had no cure, as the doctor noted that ‘men who wish to cure [bottoms] are stupid.’ This really made a bunch of Christians mad, and the Latin translations of Ibn Sina’s thoughts on bottoming called his explanations “wicked science”.[6] But that didn’t mean that medieval Christians didn’t conceive of “effeminate” sodomy as an illness. At times they very much did, wringing their hands about the fact that sexy womanly sex was “a contagious disease”, at least according to Albert the Great.[7]*

Alexander the Great’s lover Bagoas, a male eunic, presented instead as a woman and called Bagoe pleading with Alexander tto pardon Nabarzanes, a Persian who had plotted against the Persian king, Darius III. Getty MS Ludwig XIV 8, fol. 133v. (Read more about this here!)

All of which brings us back to Texas, where in the year of our Lord 20-fucking-22 we are still dealing with literal ancient and medieval ideas about the scourge of what can happen if men behave like women. These people have never taken two minutes out of their life to consider the fact that they intrinsically connect the idea of womanhood with sexuality and that maybe, just maybe, they are the problem here. Moreover, they continue to think that femininity and its attendant disordered sex is actually catching, ignoring the fact that sex is not, in fact, an object with properties no matter what medieval people and a bunch of incels might have to say about it.

Now I have just written, and you have just read 1700 some written words about the historical roots of being squicked out by ladies and the gay men who dress like them as though I need to prove to anyone that this is a weirdo outmoded idea that we can discard at any moment. But if Bryan was really honest with himself for even a moment in his life, he would have to admit that he knows that drag isn’t inherently sexual and that you cannot, in fact, catch gay. He knows that.

What he is actually attempting to protect children from is not a sexualised environment, but an environment in which children are presented with the idea that there are a range of ways to present oneself, and to love other people, and that is not only just OK but can be joyful. He wants to make sure that no kids grow up to think that they can be a part of a loving and supportive community even if they do happen to be LGBTQ+. That is the real fear – ceding the idea that we will inevitably destroy these outmoded historical beliefs and create a better future. And Bryan is terrified of it.

Even if Bryan is being a hateful facetious little worm, there is value to you and I taking a good hard look at the philosophical history of homophobia and misogyny. When we look at all the convoluted justifications for hatred it can show conclusively that they are a social construct. Sure, callow spineless hatemongers like Bryan are able to harm others by leaning into those social constructs in a real and conclusive way, but constructs can be deconstructed. The more light we shed on the “reasoning” behind hateful beliefs, the more readily we can show that said reasoning is ridiculous, flawed, and outmoded. We can and will build a better world, and Bryan can die scared and mad about it.

[1] Augustine, On Genesis, Book XI, 41.

[2] Quoted in James A. Brundage, “Let me count the ways: canonists and theologians contemplate coitus positions”, Journal of Medieval History, 10 (1984) p. 84.

[3] Ibid., p. 86.

[4] Isidore of Seville, Etimologías, Vol. I, (Madrid, Editorial Católica, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos 1982), Xi, 24, 43. Quoted in Joyce E. Salisbury, “Gendered Sexuality”, in, The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed.Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1996), p. 90.

[5] Alan of Lille, Plaint of Nature, trans. James J. Sheridan, (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1980), 134, 155-156.

[6] Avicenna Canon Medicinae, 3.20.40-43, quoted in Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 119-121.

[7] Ibid., pp. 125-135.

  • This of course also implies that cis guys who are doing the penetrating (aka tops) are somehow less disordered than are men who enjoy being penetrated, because they are retaining the active status that is appropriate to men. No one is saying that it is totally fine to be out there topping, but there was a distinction made in regards to those who were willingly becoming effeminate during sexual liaisons. Being more like a woman was worse, and more sexual.

For more on gender and sexuality in the middle ages, see:
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On women and semen
On sex, logic, and being the subject
On “alpha men”, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

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Want more audio medieval history? Check out my podcast, We’re Not So Different.

My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now.

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

9 thoughts on “On conflating drag, (and femininity), with sexuality”

  1. By way of showing my appreciation for “[h]ateful facetious litttle worm” and “callow spineless hatemonger” let me earnestly recommend a movie called “Privates on Parade,” and yes, nudge nudge. It can be described as a Brechtian anti-imperialist queer-positive musical comedy, set in the early-50s Malayan “emergency” where Britain put down an anti-colonial rebellion. John Cleese is in the cast but is NOT its funniest member; the cast are mostly members of a British Army entertainment group called SADUSEA (sounds exactly like Sadducee): “Song and Dance Unit–South East Asia.” The unit storekeeper issues the crew with “One pair tap shoes, type Astaire, Fred” asnd “Bra, size medium (other ranks.)” It’s on DVD and you really will enjoy it, I think.


      1. A copy of the DVD–the seller claims it’s playable in all regions–is on its way you-ward.


  2. Jesus, Texas takes the cake for growing morally vacuous, supremely cowardly, proudly bigoted, and almost unbelievably stupid people. And then, to top it off, Texans elect the worst of the worst to rule them. Can’t say too much, since we do the same in South Carolina. We haven’t swim quite as deep in the cesspool as Texas, but by God we’re certaunly trying.


  3. This goes right along with the dudes that blame women for their bones. As in, how dare she go around existing with those boobs in public like that! And it’s like fam, are you ok?


  4. Ok, except for the sexist bits I think we’d all be better off if people believed in the Myth of Er instead of whatever get out of jail free washed in the blood afterlife they believe in now.


  5. Actually, there are two creations stories in Genesis, and only one of them considers the woman created after the man.
    It’s a fact that both these stories were kept in the Bible even in medieval times, but I have no idea about the historicity of how one of this story (the one you refer to) came to dominate popular culture.


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