Once upon a time, the only way to see a drag performance was to go to a gay bar.
Aside from the occasional John Waters film featuring Divine, gown-clown court jesters were relegated to the stages of sacred queer establishments. Spotting a drag queen outside their natural habitat was like spotting an elephant traipsing down Fifth Avenue in New York City.
RuPaul’s Drag Race changed all that. Like a gag-worthy costume reveal, drag transformed from holy queer subculture into secular sensation over the past decade and is now watched on television screens around the world. The only downside to this widespread appeal is that new drag fans aren’t experiencing the art form the way it was intended to be seen — in person.
There is no substitute for the power of a live drag performance at a gay bar. It’s an immersive event that transcends anything viewers can experience while watching a gender-flipping battle royale from their living rooms. If you’ve never been, you’re missing out. But before you go, it’s important to know the rules. Like a religion, drag shows have a set of commandments devoutly followed by fans, and if you want to worship at the altar of a stage queen, you’ve got to do it properly.
Here are the 10 commandments of attending a live drag show.
1. Thou shalt tip the performers, and be considerate when tipping.
Tipping a drag artist during their performance is like tipping a waiter. It’s good manners, and the amount given should be commensurate with the service provided. According to the New York Times, gay bars in NYC pay artists around $50 to $250 per performance, but many queens work solely for tips — which is barely enough to cover drag’s hefty price tag.
On top of money for hair, makeup, and clothing, a drag queen spends countless hours rehearsing an act and getting into costume before audiences see the final product. If you like what you see, honor the performer with cash. It might be the only money they earn for their hard work.
Tipping a drag queen is an art in itself and deserves an equal amount of consideration. Here are some customary rules:
A reasonable tip is one to five dollars, but for performers who go above and beyond the call of duty, it never hurts to throw in some extra sugar.
As Macaulay Culkin once lip-synced, “Keep the change, ya filthy animal.” You probably don’t want hard coins flying at your head, and neither does a performer. Tipping with metal objects is a no-no.
To tip, extend your arm toward the performer while holding out money. Avoid handing over cash while the drag artist is busy. If they’re dancing the house down or lip-syncing to an epic Nicki Minaj verse, wait until they’ve taken a breath before handing over the green goods. Likewise, unless their entrance includes an awe-worthy costume reveal, let the queen take the stage and settle into their performance before offering your dough.
Do not ask for change. A drag queen is a performer, not a bank teller. If you want to give $5 but only have $20, try breaking your bills at the bar.
2. Thou shalt purchase something at the bar.
If you see a live performance at a watering hole, be sure to show the establishment some respect by buying something. The bar doesn’t operate for free, and your patronage ensures a home where drag queens can continue performing in the future.
3. Thou shalt not touch the queen.
Drag queens aren’t llamas at a petting zoo, but they’re liable to spit if you get handsy without consent. A tip is not a ticket to touch a performer, either. These artists spend countless hours getting into drag, and they don’t need strangers messing with their looks. If you’re desperate to squeeze a silicone breastplate or slap a well-padded derriere, buy your own. The queen’s are off-limits.
4. Thou shalt be an active audience member.
Drag is a symbiotic relationship. The artist feeds off the audience’s energy just as much as the audience feeds off the artist, so plan on being attentive. Do you love their outfit? Hoot and holler. Did they just serve an Earth-shattering shablam? Give them a resounding, “Yas, Gawd!” Are they digging into the emotional core of a song? Applaud as though Donald Trump just lost the 2020 election. If you give the performer positive energy, they’ll give you a better show. It’s the science of good drag.
5. Thou shalt remember who the performer is (hint: it isn’t you).
While it’s important to remain active in the audience, do not try and out-perform the drag queen. A drag show is not the time to scream your favorite karaoke song or share your Borscht Belt standup routine. If your energy is not helping the performer, it’s probably harming them, so save the funny business for home. And, whatever you do, don’t get on stage unless invited. If you don’t obey this rule, there’s no telling how a queen might respond. Some unlucky folks have been tossed into pools and thrown to the floor. Let their mistakes be a lesson for us all: The queen’s stage is like Buckingham Palace. No one gets access without an invitation.
6. Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously.
If you aren’t familiar with the term “throwing shade,” you need to watch Paris Is Burning. If you are, be prepared. Some drag queens throw enough shade in one performance to blot out the sun for an entire week. Don’t take it personally if you’re the butt of their joke. The queen isn’t throwing shade to offend you — they’re throwing shade for the crowd’s collective enjoyment. Even when done in poor taste, which happens often, a joke’s intent is to make everyone laugh at themselves, not just at you.
If you do get offended, remember that the person poking fun is probably a mammoth-sized man in Payless pumps whose free willy is stuck in purgatory somewhere around his perineum. They aren’t taking themselves too seriously. Drag celebrates difference and often does so through humor. If you can’t take a joke, don’t go to a drag show — or at least sit far from the stage, where a performer is less likely to signal you out.
7. Thou shalt support drag artists who aren’t on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The girls on Drag Race aren’t necessarily the best drag queens out there — they’re just the ones we see on television. “Drag” is an umbrella term that covers a diverse ecosystem, and RuPaul’s queen coven represents only a portion of the offerings. Whether it’s whacky cabaret artists like Dina Martina, avant-garde look queens like Cheddar Gorgeous, or drag-king comedians like Murray Hill, there’s an endless array of talented drag performers who never stepped foot on Ru’s runway. Give lesser-known performers a chance by going to their shows and supporting their work.
8. Thou shalt not be self-centered.
A drag queen owes you nothing. It doesn’t matter if you’re throwing a bachelorette party, tipping $100, or celebrating a birthday. Drag shows are egalitarian experiences that don’t promise anyone preferential treatment. If you want to feel special, pay a drag celebrity on Cameo to send you a personal message or hire a queen for a private event. Otherwise, enjoy the communal experience of watching the performance with those around you.
9. Thou shalt honor queer spaces as safe havens.
A drag show inherently queers the space in which it is performed. Whether it’s happening in a legitimate theater or a gay bar, the establishment becomes an outlet for members of the LGBTQ community, and everyone present should respect the diversity of the entertainers and audience members alike.
If you’re new to queer spaces, you will see people doing and wearing things you’ve never seen before. Don’t gawk — this isn’t the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You will also encounter people playing with definitions of gender or sexuality. Don’t assume — the people you meet don’t want strangers guessing whether they identify as cisgender, transgender, non-binary, gay, straight, bisexual, unicorn, etc. Drag tears gender and sexuality labels to shreds — it doesn’t turn them into name tags. If you want to engage with people at a drag show, do it from a place of love and celebration. Leave negativity and judgment at the door — they don’t belong in these spaces.
10. Thou shalt have fun.
Although following these commandments is critical, it’s most important to seek the joy of your own drag show experience. This isn’t just a court — it’s a royal court. Show up in a ridiculously colorful outfit. Down a couple of drinks. Get a little rowdy. Laugh until your belly hurts. As Lady Gaga taught us all nearly 10 years ago, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.” Preach.