The Glittery History of Drag in New York City

“Reading is what?” RuPaul, the iconic drag queen and host of RuPaul’s Drag Race, often quips. “Fundamental!” These words ring especially true in regard to Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City (2023), a book by New York-based writer and photographer Elyssa Maxx Goodman. A lover of all things drag, Goodman brings the history and cultural contributions of the subculture to life against the backdrop of New York City. LGBTQIA+ stories are often lost to time without someone to remember them or the means to share them — as artist and my former mentor Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt once told me with a wink, “Queer history has always been oral.” This written account is a vital antidote to the tragedy of queer erasure, serving as a memory, benchmark, and guide to current and future drag lovers.

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Cover of Elyssa Maxx Goodman, Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City (2024) (image courtesy Hanover Square Press)

Glitter and Concrete is organized by decade, starting as early as 1865 and progressing chronologically to the modern day. Punctuated with primary source documents and in-person interviews — Bert Savoy and Macy Rodman being some of the highlights — characters old and new begin to feel like old friends thanks to Goodman’s curiosity and vibrant writing. The legacy of gender illusionists, impersonators, and drag queens, kings, artists, performers, and creatures thrive in this book, despite the discrimination so often thrust upon them by societal norms across time.

Throughout defining moments in New York City history — ranging from prohibition in the 1920s, the Stonewall riots in 1969, the AIDS crisis beginning in the ‘80s, and 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic in our century — drag artists have found innovative ways of self-expression. Florence Hines, for instance, “was not just among the first famous Black male impersonators,” Goodman writes. “She was among the first successful Black women onstage at all in the US.” Finding freedom in the art form, queers from Mario Montez to Charlene Incarnate have left their glittery mark on everything from Broadway, opera, dance, fine art, television, movies, politics, and more. Against the cultural tendency to dismiss drag as frivolous at best or obscene at worst, this book demands we take it seriously as a cultural art form that responds to, critiques, and is a crucial part of American history. 

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Brendan Germain, Jupiter, Xana Whoria, and Elyssa Maxx Goodman at “the Glitter and Concrete Show: A Night of Drag History and Performance” on January 11, 2024 (photo by Zac Thompson/Hyperallergic)

In early January of this year, I was thrilled to learn that Goodman would be hosting a book talk and performance at the Center for Brooklyn History. Built around 1880 — the same timespan as the earliest chapters of her book — the hallowed interior of this building as setting for learning about drag history and watching live performances was a pleasant reminder of how far the queer art form has come in both its artistry and acceptance. 

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Brendan Germain at “the Glitter and Concrete Show: A Night of Drag History and Performance” on January 11, 2024 (photo by Zac Thompson/Hyperallergic)

The book talk took the form of Goodman reading sections of Glitter and Concrete, alternating with drag performances interpreting or relating to the type of drag discussed in that particular part. The first performer to grace the stage was Brendan Germain in queer-coded dandy suit attire, their hair slicked back and paired with gold earrings. Germain helped illustrate the Pansy Craze of the 1920s, which “beguil[ed] audiences with what was then a taboo effeminacy through wit and song.” Similarly, to the delight of the audience, Germain lip-synced to the classic Disney song from Hercules (1997), “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love).” Instead of embodying the main character of Meg, who sings the song in the film, Germain lip-synced to the background singers’ audio only, flipping the script on typical such performances. 

Xana Whoria performed next in response to the Club Kids of the 1990s. At the time, in Goodman’s words, “some considered their appearance drag, others did not, but their collective presentation embraced gender ambiguity.” Eventually, Club Kids would gain wider exposure through print publication and television appearances in the 90s such as the Geraldo Rivera Show. Indeed, their legacy is still apparent in the drag scenes of today, particularly in New York. In Club Kid-inspired, immaculately painted clown makeup and Shakespearean garb, complete with crown, Xana Whoria took the stage. Their performance — in which they lip synced to When The Party’s Over (2018) by Billie Eilish — was a heart-felt look at the club kid aesthetic of drag as a means of genderless artistic expression.

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Jupiter at “the Glitter and Concrete Show: A Night of Drag History and Performance” on January 11, 2024 (photo by Zac Thompson/Hyperallergic)

Closing out the night was Jupiter, with their homage to the glam rock punk queers of the late 60s and early 70s. “With teased hair, wildly overwrought makeup, and platform boots,” Goodman writes, “the New York Dolls became — if only in appearance — prominently gender-nonconforming members of the punk scene, a look that would later influence all manner of glam rock and hair metal performers.” Jupiter embodied this glam rock aesthetic with painted face, gothy vampire teeth, and chain-adorned plaid outfit as they lip-synced to a medley of pop-punk songs. Running through the audience, Jupiter showcased both the rebellious spirit of drag and a punk attitude toward gender conformity while effortlessly looking fabulous. 

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Untitled Queen doing her makeup (photo by and courtesy Elyssa Maxx Goodman)

Thanks to Glitter and Concrete, the legacy of NYC drag is accessible to a wider audience, something I wish I had as a queer kid growing up in the South. Goodman simultaneously rescues queer stories from generations past and contextualizes contemporary drag within this lineage. Glitter and Concrete reminds me of why I came to the big city in the first place, when I was lured by the creativity of Brooklyn drag I saw taking shape in the 2010s. “For generations,” Goodman writes, “performers have harnessed the power of drag to tell their own stories, stories that should not be lost, stories that, even in a city laden with concrete, continue to glitter.” I found my own queer family and community in the Brooklyn drag scene. To see their sparkling light captured through this book is a much-needed glimmer of hope.

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Panzi on the red carpet at the annual Invasion of the Pines on Fire Island (photo by and courtesy Elyssa Maxx Goodman)
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A spread from Elyssa Maxx Goodman, Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City (2023) (photo by Zac Thompson/Hyperallergic)

Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City (2023) by Elyssa Maxx Goodman is published by Hanover Square Press and available online and in bookstores.

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