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Was Margaret Thatcher a Drag Queen?

14/04/2013 23:33 BST | Updated 14/06/2013 10:12 BST

Few public aspirations can have gone more conspicuously unfulfilled than Margaret Thatcher's pledge on entering 10 Downing St in 1979: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony." The divisiveness she provoked in life has continued unabated following her death, with barely a united front to be seen.

One might expect little support, for instance, among the LGBT community for a prime minister who introduced Section 28, banning the 'promotion' of homosexuality, and ridiculed the idea of 'an inalienable right to be gay'. I've been surprised, however, to see my Facebook and Twitter feeds teem with arguments in which LGBT people critical of Thatcher's record take arms against other LGBT people praising her to the skies.

She always enjoyed popularity among a certain sector of the gay population, who perhaps responded to her focus on self-sufficiency, her rejection of reactionary prejudice and her power dressing. That last element tends to be thrown in as a comic aside but I think there's something deeper going on here.

I think Margaret Thatcher was a drag queen.

Obviously, I don't mean she was a man in women's clothing. That's not really what drag is about: it's about drawing attention to the public performance of gender. And that is something that she evidently put a lot of thought and effort into. Like many drag acts, her performance slid between the glamorous, the parodic and the grotesque, but there's no question that it was sensationally successful. Thatcher's look and manner, unique for a woman in public life at the time, made her an instantly recognisable icon and helped cement her position as a global figure. (It goes without saying that they would have counted for zero without the extraordinary political dynamism beneath them.)

Yet, in terms of gender, hers wasn't a simple image. For a start, it was hugely and unapologetically self-conscious. Thatcher was mocked for her make-overs, for the detailed consideration that she devoted to how she looked and sounded, in ways that few male politicians would have dreamed of engaging in (at least until the Blair era). But it was largely a response on her part to the broadly sexist derision of her un-made-over appearance and demeanour. Thatcher once described feminism as 'poison' but how to account, if not from a feminist perspective, for the fact that she had to think about such things when her male counterparts didn't?

Her image was also unusual in that she combined male and female attributes in a way that perplexed standard ideas of gender. Her unprecedented status as Britain's first female party leader, and then Prime Minister, probably made it inevitable that she would develop a persona that at once acknowledged and subverted conventional ideas of 'womanliness', upsetting both left and right ("A woman? Not on my terms," as Glenda Jackson put it in the House of Commons).

The clue here is in Thatcher's use of the oxymoronic title of Iron Lady - an insult whose ambiguity and power she recognised and co-opted with gusto.

Thatcher exploited traditional ideas about what a 'lady' could say, do and expect. She evidently had a creepy, matronly sex appeal to boarding-school Conservatives, who delighted in airing their competitive crushes. And she deployed a kind of visual glamour unavailable to her male counterparts, growing increasingly regal the longer she remained in office. Yet she made it her business to show none of the gentler stereotypical traits of the 'weaker sex', either in her personal manner or in her breathtakingly callous politics. Indeed, with her outlandish charisma and agency, she was self-evidently the opposite of the compliant Tory wife.

Rather, Thatcher crafted a kind of masculinity that allowed her to compete with men on men's terms: the voice she specifically trained to be androgynously low, the American-football-style helmet-and-shoulder-pads silhouette, the handbag as sidearm. But the flipside of this machismo was that any show of emotion other than anger read as a failure of performance. There was a ghoulish 'gotcha' quality to the tears she couldn't hold back as she finally quit Downing Street.

It's surely the hyper-performed nature of her public persona, its evident constructedness, that made Thatcher such an easy mark for satirists and, yes, drag acts. (Is it coincidence that her best known impersonator was a man, Steve Nallon?) Surely no Prime Minister, except Churchill, has been portrayed so often on screen. Yet any attempt to imagine her away from the dispatch box or podium, as a mother or even an actual sexual partner, quickly collapses into caricature or blandness. Like Dame Edna or Lilly Savage, 'Margaret Thatcher' only made sense in front of an audience. But like experimental 'genderfuck' drag acts like Bloolips or the Cockettes, she was super-femme and ultra-butch all at once. In this, as in so much else, Thatcher was radical.

Even as a drag queen, she brought discord.