Interview: Diane Torr, performance artist

Diane Torr arrives in the coffee shop. She is wearing stout black brogues (definitely not the girled-down versions currently fashionable), pinstripe trousers, a shirt, tie, jacket, fringed scarf and a sheepskin item my father might have called a car coat.

Plus bright red lipstick. This is not her normal look; most days she wears jeans. But Torr, 62, a dancer and performance artist, pioneered female-to-male cross-dressing in New York in the 1990s. She was one of the original drag kings, poking a sharp feminist stick into issues of gender and identity, showing women that male superiority was as much of a construct as a fake willy.

As well as performing as various male characters, Torr teaches women how to "pass" as men. This is her point of difference from the many other facial hair-wearing dames who followed in her wake. Since she first strapped down her breasts with an elastic bandage and pinned a condom stuffed with cotton wool on to her Jockey shorts, drag kings have become an established element of the lesbian scene.

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"Today people's idea of drag kings is women putting on moustaches and prancing about but my idea was that women inveigled their way into public life as men and had a totally different experience," she says. "And that involved training. It wasn't just about sticking on a moustache and a beard, it was about a transformation.

"It became very much part of the lesbian culture and a lot of women got a kick out of dressing up as guys and a lot of other women were very attracted to them and the sexual frisson was there. Which is fine, but that's not my purpose necessarily. It needs to have a broader perspective."

So Torr has kept the suit but changed the vocabulary. Her drag king workshops are now called "Man for a Day". The title of her new book is Sex, Drag and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance. The king is, to some extent, dead.

It is something of a shock to discover that this New York counter-culture phenomenon and professional cross-dresser was brought up on an Aberdeen housing estate. Torr's father, a former petty officer in the Royal Navy, was a coin-jingling patriarch, ruling the family with liberal use of a cow-buckled belt. Diane was a roughty-toughty toddler, uninterested in dolls, pursuing her two brothers through the woods on her tricycle. One of them, Donald, was obsessed with Dusty Springfield and played dress-up with his mother's clothes.

When Torr was 15, the family moved to Kent. Her mother was ill, her brothers had left home and she was left to bear the brunt of the belt. Torr ran away, slept on the streets and was in a remand home when her mother died. A police officer escorted her to the funeral.

Back at the remand home, she passed her O levels and eventually moved in with a foster family. In 1969, released from the care system, she was ripe for revolution and discovered, in quick succession, Marxism, feminism and a revolutionary dance method, Release Technique. All of which pointed her towards New York. After spending the broiling summer of 1976 working as a gardener at a Devon stately home, she had saved up the airfare.

Torr found herself in a city that was febrile, open-minded, grungy and cheap. At one point she shared a loft in the Bowery with five other artists. The rent was $100 a month. "There wasn't an art establishment organising everything," she recalls. "All these artists doing were doing stuff, people opening up galleries in the East Village all the time, they were wonderful places, infused with all this energy and excitement." Her contemporaries were Keith Haring, Kathy Acker, Nan Goldin, Jean-Michel Basquiat. She worked as an artist's model and an office temp before discovering she could make $10 an hour, plus tips, as a go-go dancer.

It was in the fetid toilets of workingmen's bars in New Jersey that Torr's ideas crystalised. She would study Andrea Dworkin's controversial feminist tract Pornography: Men Possessing Women during her breaks. Dworkin heard there was a stripper reading her book and rang her up. The pair had a dingdong over the economics and politics of the sex industry. Torr recalls telling Dworkin: "I felt I was definitely following a feminist credo. I had tried working as a typist but that left me no time to create artwork. Whether in the role of buttoned-up secretary or go-go dancer, I was performing different kinds of feminine drag in exchange for money."

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Away from the dives of New Jersey, Torr's art space performances were exploring ideas of sex, gender, the contradictions of go-go work, the possibilities of creating a new, less stereotypical kind of eroticism. Despite making a good living shaking her booty as Tornado, she was a muscular, androdgynous-looking woman, ideally shaped to blur her own gender by creating male and ambiguous characters.

So when porn star turned sex activist Annie Sprinkle wanted photographs to accompany an interview with a transsexual man, for a men's erotic magazine, Torr volunteered for the job. She was suited, booted and stippled with stubble. The shoot dragged on. Suddenly it was time to leave, for an opening night bash at the Whitney Museum. There was no time for Torr to change. So she went along in her suit.

That evening was a revelation. "People were creating space for me as I moved; even in that wall of bodies, I was accommodated. As a woman I had never experienced such treatment." A woman tried to chat her up. When Torr blanked her, she tried harder. In the end, sweating and losing her moustache, Torr hid in the men's toilet, her mind racing with the possibilities she had discovered. "If women could actually go out and pass as men, they might learn a lot about themselves as women in the process. Perhaps we could begin to intercept our so-called normal behaviour and learn other responses." The idea for the drag king workshops were born.

Torr and different groups of women, often including the mammothly well-endowed Sprinkle, would man up and hit the streets of New York. Often they would hit Billy's Topless, a go-go bar where Torr had performed in her Tornado days, and where she still knew some dancers. The drag kings were heavy tippers and became known to the dancers as the Bearded Ladies Club.

She created male characters of her own: Jack Spratt, a DM-wearing punk-mod hybrid; Danny King, a blue collar National Rifle Association member; Charles Beresford, a gay scenester. She appeared on Good Morning America, The Montel Williams Show and Jerry Springer. At the time sexual ambiguity was everywhere: Judith Butler had written an influential book, Gender Trouble, in 1990. Transsexual man Brandon Teena was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993 and, in the same year, lesbian singer KD Lang appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair dressed as a man, being shaved by a swimsuit-wearing Cindy Crawford.

"The 1990s were all about gender; I hit the zeitgeist at the middle of it all. I had lots of commissions, I was back and forwards from New York to Europe, seven, eight times a year. That was also to do with being a pioneer: every place I went to, it was the first time they'd seen women cross-dressing and going out publicly in drag."

Then the novelty wore off. Gluing on mutton chop whiskers has never been a mainstream way of getting ready for a big night out but it became an established part of gay culture. Today there are T-shirts with the word DRAG sporting a jaunty crown over the D. A Google images search for drag king offers more than five million results. Torr first appears on page four.

When her workshops dropped the drag king and became "man for a day", something else changed. "Gay men started contacting me. They wanted to know how to be men, how to be straight because no one was taking them seriously as gay men. One guy wanted to go to Harvard Business School. It is a very hetero institution, very straight and he was too wild for them, fluttering his eyelids."

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Did it work? "Hell yeah." He got in and regularly emails Torr about his sexual conquests. "You're such a man," they tell him. "You're so manly." Little do they know it's learned behaviour, taught to him by a woman old enough to be his mother, if not his granny.

Torr left New York for Glasgow in 2003. A job at Glasgow School of Art ended after a year but she stayed anyway. "You try living in New York for 25 years. It's a very stressful place. To live there full time is tough. It's expensive. And it's got bed bugs."

She has had relationships with men and women throughout her life and describes herself as "an inbetween". Her daughter Martina, 27, lives in Brooklyn and works as a teacher. Torr has sent her a copy of Sex, Drag and Male Roles, which was co-written with drama professor Stephen Bottoms and combines her biographical details with his scholarly analysis. She is still waiting for Martina's response. Not that her mother seems anxious.

"Martina has grown up with me doing this work. When she was about 13, a journalist asked her, 'Don't you think it's weird that your mother dresses as man?' And she said, 'No, I think there are weirder things than that. Like male gynaecologists'." Torr glows with maternal pride. "At 13, she was thinking about that stuff. I've done a good job."

Torr is not, in any sense of the word, retiring. Despite having a bus pass, she has a to-do list that would intimidate a teenager. "I run every day. I do aikido." (At triple black belt level.) She is working on a new performance, Turning Sexty, "about being a dancer and performer at that age. We can't all look like Raquel Welch and Jane Fonda in our 70s. If that's what's held up to younger people as what old age is, they're going to be very disappointed."

She still performs Donald Does Dusty, a show celebrating her Springfield- obsessed brother, who died of Aids. One day, eventually, German film-maker Katarina Peters' Man for a Day, which follows 12 women from different countries, will, she hopes, be finished.

Torr never set out to become the woman who taught other women to be men. "I just stumbled upon this thing that became a zeitgeist. You have an idea and it catches fire and it's your responsibility to continue with it.

"I'm happy the idea is out there in because that suggests that men can be parodied, and parodied very well, by women. It calls the bluff on male superiority. And that was my intention."

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And she puts on her car coat and leaves the cafe, leaving only a red lipstick stain on her coffee cup behind. n

Sex, Drag and Male Roles, published by University of Michigan Press. The UK launch is at Aye Aye Books, part of the CCA, Glasgow, Thursday, 6pm

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 14 November, 2010