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Gay Is the Thing with Feathers:

Becoming Bird in Drag and Camp


Excerpt of the article published in Orion, Winter 2023, pp. 16–25, and online at https://orionmagazine.org/article/feather-boa-history-drag-burlesque/


Their faces glow in the Manhattan sunlight, all the glorious queens, whether their wigs are hot pink or neon yellow, their eye shadow emerald or sapphire, their chins smooth or bearded. But refocus: Observe that boa they’re holding, all 1.2 miles of it, doubled back on itself again and again in a loose skein. Its dyed vivid hues clash, scream; the photos documenting its presentation on June 20, 2019, are a riot of color, texture, and form, like explosions in a craft shop. The men, women, and wonderful others brandishing this extravagant thing look triumphant, and so they should be – not because they have achieved a Guinness World Record for the longest-ever boa, but because they made it to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Queens like these were once forced to perform the best versions of themselves in the dark and danger of night. Now they can stand here, rainbow feathers in hand, proud and preening in broad daylight.


Vocalist, dancer, and actor Rudy Jeevanjee

(Photograph by Stefano Della Salda)



I sympathize with the powerful associations birds can hold for those born into male bodies who don’t subscribe to what’s typically expected of boys and men. I can imagine their yearning for the freedom and weightlessness that flight represents, and the sensual (feminine?) pleasure that being covered in feathers might yield. Regardless of gender and sexuality, don’t most of us long to spread our own true wings, freeing ourselves from the confines of social constructs? Don’t we all crave sensuous pleasure, unfettered from shame and fear?


Trash Valentine would agree. “Every human is jealous of birds,” the burlesque performer says. “And most people are jealous of performers for being able to put themselves out there and live that life. Embodying that onstage with feathers brings those two worlds together, and everyone enjoys it.”


Burlesque and drag, Trash explains, are about playfulness, fantasy, and refusing to be ignored, but also about validating a side of oneself that is not supposed to be expressed in polite society. Why do feathers fit so well into that? “It has something to do with the opulence of it all,” Trash thinks aloud following his shortlisting of gay culture referents: Marie Antoinette, Victorian fashion, and above all Kylie Minogue and her Showgirl tour, dripping shamelessly in royal blue ostrich plumes. “But I’m not sure why gay men connect with it.”


“It’s interesting,” I offer, “that one of the first things you mentioned was male peacocks using their feathers to attract potential mates.” From peacocks to cardinals to birds of paradise, we so often imagine species in terms of their colorful, showy males, not the so-called drab females composing the audience. “Why is it now seen as feminine for people to wear feathers?”


“Male birds are always better looking,” Trash replies, as my heart silently breaks for the hens. “Yet we associate feathers with femininity. I don’t know why.”


Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 2014

(Photograph by Helen Maybanks)

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