A Brief History of Avian Drag

Birds have long inspired drag queens and played key roles in queer culture.

This winter, backyard birders in Pennsylvania obsessed over a Northern Cardinal exhibiting bilateral gynandromorphism, a rare phenomenon where individuals display both observable male and female characteristics evenly split down their body. Beige female coloring dominated the cardinal’s left side, while bright red male coloring overtook the right. Birds exhibiting the condition are more commonly known as chimeras, or “halfsiders.”

Coverage of the sighting quickly ignited conversations about another chimera cardinal—possibly the same bird— that was captured on camera two years ago in the same region during the winter of 2019. Queer Twitter took notice and quickly stanned the bird, deeming it a trans and non-binary icon. Pattie Gonia, an environmental drag activist, even created a look inspired by the cardinal shortly after it went viral: She highlighted half of her face in scarlet red while keeping her facial hair, and on the other side she painted her shaved face light brown, applied a dramatic eyelash, and finished with a bold lipstick and brow. 

“We see queerness and gender queerness demonstrated in birds like the [chimera] cardinal so vividly,” Gonia says. “Birds are drag queens in the sky. I say it in a funny way, but I mean it literally because [in most bird species] the males are more colorful and decorative than the females.”

Since debuting in 2018, Gonia has gathered a large online following as a leader in a growing eco-focused and social savvy drag movement that advocates for queer rights, equality, and responsible conservation. She believes that intersectional environmental activism that welcomes and elevates marginalized voices historically excluded from the outdoors is the key to building a new, robust generation of conservationists. In the past year, Gonia has dressed as a Blue Jay, a Red Avadavat, a Mandarin Duck, and a Western Meadowlark, the state bird of Nebraska, where she was born and raised and took a liking to birds. “Often when I birdwatch, especially in spring, birds are these pops of flying color, and I say ‘Hello, drag queen, I see you,’” she says, laughing. 

How Pattie Gonia shares her message and creations might be new, but her bird-inspired looks are part of a rich drag tradition. While men dressing as women in performance dates back at least as far as ancient Greece, the niche of drag that is avian influenced can trace its roots back to the 20th century alongside the evolution of the modern drag we know. Many of these bird homages remain some of the top moments in cult cinema and reality television.

Frank DeCaro, author of Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business, considers vaudeville performer Julien Eltinge to be one of the founding figures of the modern artform. Unlike many early male performers that impersonated women in comedic styles, Eltinge’s performances were so convincing that he would spook audiences at the end of his shows when he snatched his wig and revealed his male identity. Many of Eltinge’s early 1900s shows featured the actor, one of the highest paid at the time in Hollywood, donning ridiculous amounts of feathers—serving up more floof than an actual birb

Many modern day queens like Pattie Gonia now pursue the art form more ethically, a practice that queens of the early 1900s certainly didn’t abide by. Instead, they relied heavily on the use of real feathers, mimicking fashions worn by cisgender female performers in popular vaudeville shows.

Other drag artists of the 1920s included the American aerialist Vander Clyde, better known as Barbette, who adorned himself with 50-pound garments made of white Ostrich feathers that he shed in a seductive striptease before walking along a highwire in a scintillating spectacle. In 1923, French poet and novelist Jean Cocteau wrote to his close friends  about the aerialist: “The god of friendship has punished you for never being in Paris.... Your great loss for 1923 was Barbette—a terrific act at the Casino de Paris. . .Ten unforgettable minutes. A theatrical masterpiece. An angel, a flower, a bird.”

Other early American female impersonators took avian drag even more literally. Frederick Kovert (stage name Ko’vert) was well-known for his elaborate peacock dance that appeared in the 1921 movie The Queen of Sheba. “He had a huge peacock costume that he said had over a thousand feathers and weighed over 150 pounds,” says Lillian Faderman, co-author of Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. Faderman speculates that early drag performers festooned themselves in feathers not just because it mimicked women’s fashion, but because it allowed them freedom and self-expression at a time when they were shamed for being their true selves. For that reason, “drag has always been extreme,” Faderman says. 

As vaudeville faded, so, too, did white female impersonators in mainstream arts. Throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, police harassed and arrested many LGBTQIA++ Americans for “crossdressing.” But drag didn’t disappear—it thrived in the underground ballroom scene, which was created by queer Black people in the late 1860s and still continues today. Avian-inspired garb could also be found at these events. George Chauncy, historian and author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, notes how an attendee of a 1930s ball described some of the drag artists: “Some [performers] in a trailing cloud of feathers rival birds of paradise or peacocks.” The spectator also mentioned seeing “great plumed head-dresses [that] nod and undulate” as hundreds of performers strutted about the stage in a cash-prize costume contest.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a drag queen took the lead role of another film: John Waters’ 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos. The film starred the late drag queen Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) as Babs Johnson, a criminal on a mission to be the filthiest person alive. Divine’s subversive persona and stage-stealing presence later served as one of the main inspirations for Ursula in The Little Mermaid. “Pink Flamingos was a symbol for taste that upper-middle-class people looked down on,” Waters says. “The title was also a way to completely downplay the hideousness and ludicrousness of the movie.”

While Divine never specifically dressed as a bird in the film, her angular makeup and bright ruby tulle dress suggest a tall, tropical bird. Fan art has even made her into a siren, part-woman, part-flamingo, symbolizing the high camp of the film and the flamboyance of the kitschy plastic lawn ornaments that stand outside of her trailer in the opening credits. The movie also contained numerous bird-themed songs, including The Trashmen’s “Surfing Bird.” In the script for the film’s proposed sequel, Flamingos Forever, Divine literally takes flight.

Nearly two decades later, more films with drag artist protagonists reached theaters. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), featured Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving), Bernadette Bassenger (Terrence Stamp), and Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce) on a roadtrip across the Australian Outback to perform a drag show at a casino in Alice Springs. In the culminating lip sync of the film, the trio perform CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” with elaborate costume changes, including an astounding Emu tribute where the performers don towering black headpieces accentuated with sky blue gloves and lips. Director and writer Stephan Elliot began writing the film after witnessing a plume of feathers break from a drag queen’s headdress at the Sydney Mardi Gras parade, which he’s claimed bounced down the pavement like a tumbleweed in a Sergio Leone western. The independent film became a cult classic and won an Academy Award in 1995 for best costume design. And while no bird drag is present in The Birdcage (1996) starring the late Robin Williams, the movie’s title (and the name of the drag club in the film) implies all who visit and perform in the venue are either caged or spectators.

Over the next two decades, drag continued to evolve. RuPaul Charles, actor, singer, and host of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” helped bring the art to a wider audience with the popular reality television competition show after a storied career as a drag performer. Since airing in 2009, RPDR and its international spinoffs have elevated hundreds of drag queens and brought diverse, queer representation to television. The show has also prominently featured avian drag, even dedicating one entire runway in season 10 to the theme “Birds of a Feather.” Contestants dressed as doves, crows, ravens, and, of course, peacocks.

Throughout the show's 13 seasons and spinoffs, other avians have sashayed down the runway. Highlights include: Courtney Act as a gull that revealed a 10-foot wingspan, Kim Chi as a Scarlet Macaw, Denali as a Resplendent Quetzal, Ellie Diamond as a gull dressed in a bikini, and Crystal Methyd as a (not positively identified) bird that lip-synced Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” during the season 12 finale. Other queens like Manilla Luzon and Asia O’Hara have put their own creative spins on children’s characters like Big Bird and Tweety Bird, respectively. 

Considering the role birds have played in modern drag, its worth wondering why them and not some other animal. What is it about avians? “Maybe it all has to do with homophobia,” Waters muses. “Light in the feet . . . flitting? These are all words that are kind of about flying, aren’t they?” Other dated phrases like “he’s a rare bird” suggest that queer and femme men are unusual or unwell animals, stripping them of their humanity. Perhaps by literally reappropriating a harmful perception of queerness and turning it into performance at its most extreme and layered, these drag artists, like birds, were finally able to be fabulous and free.