In the last few weeks, the legendary drag performer RuPaul has been the subject of several tweets, posts, and think pieces after saying that he told writer Decca Aitkenhead in an interview with The Guardian that he would “probably not” allow a transgender woman compete on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” There was pushback, and many former contestants responded to say they disagree and show solidarity with transgender drag performers. RuPaul doubled down, and then as the pressure increased, he apologized.
That was about three weeks ago, which might as well be three millennia ago in Internet time. A lot has happened since then: RuPaul got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Trixie Mattel won the third season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” and the 10th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has kicked off. Many of the celebrities who tweeted about the controversy have moved on, though at least one former “Drag Race” contestant has continued to allude to it in performances.
But all of this has happened in rather limited spaces, as much of what’s been written about this has come from LGBTQ+ media outlets. And much of what has been written has been framed around RuPaul, his comments, his past tone-deafness, and how former “Drag Race” stars have reacted. And to a degree, this focus on RuPaul makes sense. Before RuPaul had an international hit in the 1990s with “Supermodel (You Better Work),” many people didn’t have a context for drag. Since then, RuPaul’s profile has only grown, as he’s continued to record movies and act in movies. In the last decade or so, the reality television show that bears his name helped bring the culture of drag to a global audience, including straight people who otherwise might not have known about RuPaul, drag queens, or drag kings.
And yet, just as RuPaul’s TV series has been a teaching moment, his transgender comments (and the subsequent controversy) could be as well. The discussion over whether or not transgender people can participate in drag has challenged what “drag” means, what “transgender” means, and what the difference is between the two. As I said above, there have been a few think pieces and hot takes already written about this, but because they frame things in terms of the recent interview, those might be a little too inside baseball for people who are unclear on terminology.
I’ll dig into some terms, but first, for context, let’s review the parts of that Guardian interview that got RuPaul in trouble:
Last year RuPaul’s Drag Race was widely acclaimed for featuring its first openly transgender contestant, called Peppermint – but if transgender women must be identified as female, how can they also be “men dressing up as women”?
“Well, I don’t like to call drag ‘wearing women’s clothes.’ If you look around this room,” and he gestures around the hotel lobby, “she’s wearing a shirt with jeans, that one’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, right? So women don’t really dress like us. We are wearing clothes that are hyperfeminine, that represent our culture’s synthetic idea of femininity.”
In the subculture of drag you do occasionally find what are known as “bio queens” – biological women who mimic the exaggerated femininity of drag. Would RuPaul allow a biological woman to compete on the show? He hesitates. “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. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”
So how can a transgender woman be a drag queen? “Mmmm. It’s an interesting area. Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.” Would he accept a contestant who had? He hesitates again. “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.”
So, as I mentioned earlier, this did not go well. It went over like a fart in church. In a piece for Out.com, Rose Dommu criticized RuPaul for framing “Drag Race” as a men-only affair:
These statements go to show how antiquated RuPaul’s conceptions of trans identity and the queering of gender really are. For someone who is deservedly lauded as an icon of genderfuckery, the fact that RuPaul still sees drag as a boys’ club is disappointing, not to mention the fact that he reduces trans identity to whether or not a person has had surgery. The notion that the only true power to be found in an art form that has expanded so much since RuPaul came up seems insulting in the face of the incredible female artists — both cisgender and trans — who are doing drag today, largely thanks to the influence of “Drag Race.”
There’s a lot to unpack in those passages, and to help illuminate some of the parts that hit a nerve, we’ll need a context for some of the terms used.
We will start with a term RuPaul didn’t use but that throws off many people’s understanding of gender issues: sex. When a baby is born, that infant’s birth certificate gets marked with a designation of male or female. That designation is determined when nurses or doctor’s look at the baby’s anatomy. But as the GLAAD Media Reference Guide states, “A person’s sex, however, is actually a combination of bodily characteristics including: chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.”
Then there’s gender and gender identity. The aforementioned GLAAD Media Reference Guide defines gender identity as a “person’s internal, deeply held sense of their gender.” That might not help some readers, so we can turn to a few other style guides. Reuters’s style guide has stated that “people generally have a clear sense of their own gender, sometimes called gender identity, which may conflict with their sex at birth.”
So, for most people, they are born, the doctors and nurses take a look at the baby’s external anatomy, and then put “male” or “female” on the birth certificate. And for most of those people, their sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. This is most of the world, and it has been treated as the “default.” This would be described as “cisgender.” Examples of cisgender individuals include Barack Obama, Donald Trump, John Oliver, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, Mike Pence, Hillary Clinton, Ted Nugent, Harvey Weinstein, Chris Rock, and Beyoncé, just to name a few. Though we could name millions, literally. As I said, the majority of people fit this category. They might not identify as such, but’s because up until now, this has been considered the default, much in the same way that straight was considered the default.
But that is not everyone’s experience. That brings us to transgender, which Reuters explained as…
…an umbrella adjective to describe people whose gender identity or expression differs from the sex assigned at birth. A transgender man is somebody who was assigned female at birth and lives as a male. A transgender woman was assigned male at birth and lives as a female.
The entry in the style guide goes on to say that transgender used as an adjective, rather than a noun. So one would say “Caitlyn Jenner is transgender,” but not “Caitlyn Jenner is a transgender.” Similarly, “Caitlyn Jenner is transgender,” not “Caitlyn Jenner is transgendered.”
Just as there is no one way to be gay, there is no one way to be transgender, as it is often used as an umbrella term to refer to anyone whose current gender identity differs from the sex at birth. Some people who identify as transgender use “he”/”him” pronouns. Some people who identify as transgender use “she”/”her” pronouns. Some people who identify as transgender use “they”/”them” pronouns. There is no hard-and-fast rule as to who uses what, nor is there one definitive way to know someone’s pronouns, except by asking what pronouns they use.
The term transition can mean any number of things to a transgender person. For some, transitioning will mean changing the way they dress. For some, it will mean hormone treatments. For others, it will mean surgeries. Some people will do all of these, and some will do none. For some, the cost is prohibitive, and for others, they choose on their own not to take those steps. But those are all personal choices, and each of those transgender people fit under the transgender umbrella.
Because of that, a transgender person’s transition cannot and should not be framed in terms of surgeries and hormones, because for many, the transition will come without those things. And even for the people who do elect to have surgery and hormone treatment, that is considered a personal, private choice. It is part of transition for those people, but they will not think of those medical procedures as the central part of their transition.
In a 2014 interview with Katie Couric, actress Laverne Cox discussed what she thought was a preoccupation with transgender people’s body parts:
I do feel there is a preoccupation with that. The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.
While we are on the topic of “transgender” and “transition,” there are a few other terms with “trans” that we can clarify. The word “transsexual” was formerly used by some as a synonym for transgender. Some people might still use it to refer themselves, though many people consider it an outdated term. And then there’s the term “transvestite,” which is also now considered outdated. Replaced by “cross-dresser,” transvestite referred to people who wore clothing associated with a different gender. But it was not interchangeable with “transgender,” because cisgender men could (and do) wear clothes traditionally associated with women, and cisgender women wear clothes associated with men. What people wear doesn’t dictate how they identify, and vice versa.
And this brings us to drag. The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, also known as the NLGJA, defines drag as “dressing or acting in a style typically associated with another gender, typically through costume and/or performance.” But the description says “typically,” rather than “definitively,” and the organization’s stylebook goes on to say that “drag is more strongly determined by the nature of the costume and performance than the performer’s gender identity or assigned sex at birth. Some drag performers are transgender.”
In that definition, the words “costume” and “performance” are what’s key to understanding drag. It “typically” involves people performing as other genders, but gender identity is not the determining factor in drag. Drag can and should be about eschewing hard-and-fast rules rather than subscribing to them. After all, RuPaul and the performers on his show have shown that there are a variety of ways to exist in drag culture. RuPaul performs as RuPaul, but others will use stage names. Some drag performers model their looks after specific people. Some are clean-shaven, and some have big beards. Some wear wigs, and some go bald. Some use minimal make-up, and some lay it on thick.
When discussing drag (and RuPaul specifically), many invoke the term “genderfucking.” It’s one of those “know it when you see it” kind of terms, but it’s essentially the idea of challenging traditional gender roles. To give it a little context, here’s how E. Alex Jung used the term while discussing RuPaul in a recent piece for Vulture:
RuPaul has always seen drag — and by this, specifically, the culture of cisgender men dressing up as women — as genderfucking. He sees it as a transcendent act, a way to peel back the curtain of gender and sexuality that blinds people. These are shackles that plebes don’t recognize, but drag queens do: It’s all a joke; it’s all the matrix. This philosophy is consistent with RuPaul’s own background in drag, which came out of doing punk music and hanging out at clubs in New York City. Gender was an idea he could play with and something he could choose to put on or take off at will.
Traditionally, people who perform as women — like RuPaul and many on the show — are referred to as “drag queens.” The term “drag king” has been used to refer to drag portrayals of men, often by cisgender women. But the unifying thread of is not the gender identity of the performer or the character being portrayed. Each of these performers, in their costumes, is challenging the stereotypes and conventions of gender. Each one is portraying a character of sorts. One person on Twitter framed it by saying a transgender woman can play a drag character who is a woman in the same way that an actress can play a role.
And really, that’s a helpful way to think of drag. It’s subversive and challenging, but it’s fundamentally acting and performing. The one-name drag character “RuPaul” is the creation of RuPaul Andre Charles. The drag is a performance, with RuPaul wearing heels, dresses, and wigs. Outside of costume and the character, RuPaul Andre Charles is his own person. RuPaul the drag character is often referred to with “she”/”her” pronouns, whereas RuPaul Andre Charles uses “he”/”him.” This is true of many of the performers who have performed on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
A drag character is just that: a character. It can be put on and taken off. It’s a performance, but not a person’s identity. There’s a difference between RuPaul Andre Charles, the bald man who wears glasses, and RuPaul, the badass diva in heels and a wig. The diva exists onstage, but that diva is separate from the RuPaul Andre Charles who wakes up in the morning, has lunch with friends, and goes about his life.
But a transgender person’s identity is not a character. Caitlyn Jenner is Caitlyn Jenner when she goes to bed at night, when she wakes up in the morning, when she appears in interviews, when she’s in private with her family, and well, every second of the day.
Of course, a transgender person could also perform in drag. As mentioned in the Guardian interview, a contestant named Peppermint came out as transgender while a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” In August 2017, Peppermint talked with NYLON about being a transgender woman and a drag performer:
In the beginning, my relationship to drag was primarily a way of being able to express myself as a woman. That was the main reason I did it. That might have been the only reason I did it: So I could feel like a woman and look like a woman. Over the years, I danced around that in many ways. I remember, in the beginning, I would have never destroyed the sanctity of my expression of a woman, meaning I would have never worn blue hair or done anything campy. I always wanted it to be real. It wasn’t until much later, when I became a lot more comfortable with myself as a trans woman and was able to express myself in other ways outside of drag, that I realized I can have fun with my appearance in drag as well. My performance has been, and still is, always fun; once I get on stage, I have a good time. But, in terms of the campiness of my appearance, only when I realized my womanhood didn’t depend on what I looked like in drag or my appearance in general, did I start to go over the top…
…I really separated my coming out as a trans woman from my drag persona and drag career in the beginning. I wanted the two things to be separate because I needed the time and space to sort through it; my trans-ness needed its own identity and room to grow. I really wanted to protect my drag career because I was afraid people would see me just as a woman and, for some reason, those two things — drag and being trans — aren’t congruent. I transitioned under my drag. I would go out every night under my drag, act the same, and have the same story. People didn’t know I was transitioning physically and medically under my drag. They never saw it. Before I started my transition, I didn’t feel comfortable presenting as male or being perceived as male. People never knew what I looked like outside of drag, which served as a great advantage to me as I was transitioning. The first time I came out to the world was on an episode of “The Daily Show” alongside another trans activist, speaking on the bathroom bill that was becoming a point of contention, right after North Carolina. I had the opportunity to express myself as a trans person who worked in the context of drag.
Now, in the context of Peppermint’s description of her navigation of being transgender and a drag performer, let’s review what RuPaul said in that Guardian interview. Decca Aitkenhead had asked RuPaul about Peppermint and the concept of women — trans or otherwise — doing drag. In addition to offending people with his comments about Peppermint’s transition, RuPaul framed drag in a way that many found too narrow:
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. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.
The week that RuPaul’s interview was published in The Guardian, Peppermint wrote a response on Billboard.com:
I’m so thankful for the opportunities that I have had throughout my life and career, particularly in the past year. Doing “Drag Race” was one of the best moments of my life. RuPaul kicked open so many doors for queer and gender non-conforming folks and is an absolute trailblazer in the world of drag. But recently, Ru made statements I disagree with.
When I started my transition back in 2012, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that absolutely no one has the ability or the right to define your womanhood, manhood or transness, but you. I also learned women should not be defined by what surgeries they have or haven’t had.
The most important takeaway is that one’s transition, the beginning, the middle, and end, is entirely personal and cannot be categorized or measured in the context of being blessed by someone else’s validation or approval. RuPaul issued an apology, which I think is an important step in this ongoing conversation. It shows all of us, there is room for growth, education, and I’m hoping a bit of evolution.
For context (and fairness), here’s RuPaul’s apology:
Peppermint was not the only one hoping for an evolution. In The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber said that transgender contestants could help reinvent “Drag Race” and make it more interesting:
Some change might be good, though. Over a decade, “Drag Race” has gone from scrappy insurgent to a flagship queer institution, open to accusations of shark-jumping and out-of-touchness… Incorporating performers who go beyond simply flipping the gender binary wouldn’t only be nice and inclusive. It wouldn’t only encourage more breaks from the standard “Drag Race” female parody that is arguably often sexist and less arguably becoming a bit samey.
What this controversy will mean for RuPaul or “Drag Race” in the long run remains to be seen. RuPaul and the series have been criticized for tone deafness in the past, though these incidences don’t always result in apologies.
Whether this is a turning point for RuPaul or not, it would be a shame to let this moment go to waste. RuPaul is likely the most famous drag performer in the world, such that he is probably recognizable even to people who have never seen any drag performance, let alone the drama on “Drag Race.” I mean, there aren’t any other drag queens who have a star on the Walk of Fame. And that is why we can — and should — take advantage of that recognizability. This moment should not just be about RuPaul, but about educating people. There’s an argument to be made that RuPaul should have known better, but for people who might not even know what they don’t know and are likely only hearing about this now, it helps for them to have a basic understanding.
And now, hopefully they do.
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