Why Drag Shows Are Often A "Drag" for Transgender People
Of all the things that we as members of the transgender community can be divided over, there is nothing quite as divisive as the subject of drag. And it is for good reason. For those who are not in the know, many transgender women have a big problem with the subject. The reason is simple: It reinforces a stereotype that says a transgender woman is a “man in a dress”. Nothing can be further from the truth, but the stereotype exists because a large portion of society does not understand the difference. This lack of understanding is at the root of much of the abuse the transgender community receives, and is one of the driving factors in the high rate of transgender women who are murdered each year.
Another side of the drag equation exists however. Some transgender women were able to find themselves by participating in the drag scene. For some, it is the first place where they were able begin to express their femininity and it was a doorway in their journey to accepting themselves. People like Carmen Carrera, Candis Cayne, and many other transgender women came out the drag culture. Just a decade ago, in a world where there were few spaces for transgender people, the drag scene was a place of refuge for transgender women even if they weren’t fully understood or totally accepted within it.
Just last week, the issue of transgender people and drag took center stage after noted drag performer and star of television’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul, made some transphobic comments in an interview with the Guardian. When pressed on the subject of whether he would allow a transgender woman to compete on the show, RuPaul responded, “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.” RuPaul had also noted that Peppermint, a contestant on the show during its ninth season who had openly identified as transgender, was allowed to compete because she had not medically transitioned at the time.
The comments created an immediate backlash from members of the transgender community. RuPaul further fueled the fire and doubled down by comparing a transgender person doing drag to an athlete taking steroids on Twitter:
“You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.”
RuPaul would later issue an apology stating that he still has much to learn:
“Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.”
"The problem here is that RuPaul’s concept of drag is rooted in a binary view of gender and expression."
The problem here is that RuPaul’s concept of drag is rooted in a binary view of gender and expression. His brand is based on the concept of men dressing as women, and though he believes his work is meant to break the notions of hyper-masculinity in male circles, he is actually accomplishing the opposite. “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture,” RuPaul told the Guardian. What he doesn’t realize is that he is actually enforcing the “male-dominated culture” he is fighting against by only allowing men to compete on the show.
This is also not the first time he has offended the transgender community. He previously featured gags such as using the term “she-mail,” a play on a derogatory term used for transgender women used in the porn industry, as the title of his viewer mail segment. RuPaul has also been on record saying he wouldn’t allow cisgender women to compete on the show as drag kings, so he has essentially created a boys’ club in dresses.
"Too often I hear the phrase “well transgender wasn’t really a thing in my day” when speaking with older LGB people and even organizational leaders from their time."
There is also a generational element to this equation. Too often I hear the phrase “well transgender wasn’t really a thing in my day” when speaking with older LGB people and even organizational leaders from their time. The reality is that being transgender was always a thing, they just didn’t include us in their spaces. It was transgender women who started the Stonewall riots, but somewhere along the way we were forgotten about. Transgender women also played a big part in the creation of the ballroom drag scene of the 1980’s, with stars such as Venus Xtravaganza. RuPaul often draws from the terminologies and themes that were created by many of those women in his show.
Now I truly don’t believe that RuPaul’s statements are coming from a place of hate, but I do think that they came from a place of ignorance. His acknowledgement of that is a positive step. There is certainly a generational element to that lack of understanding, but there are many people from his generation that do get it. The world of drag is also evolving as it is beginning to look beyond the confines of the gender binary. Today there are plenty of drag shows that include all identities and all types of gender expression. They are truly amazing to see. It is my hope that RuPaul will evolve to embracing this concept in the future. Only then will he actually break the barriers created by a male dominated culture.