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The Trans Community Schools RuPaul on the Role of Trans Women in Drag History

 RuPaul's Drag Race artwork

Drag icon and media personality RuPaul has historically been problematic when it comes to the transgender community, with RuPaul’s Drag Race continually including transphobic slurs he, as a gay, cisgender man has no right to “reclaim.” Now, in a recent interview where RuPaul discusses transgender contestants, he continued to be problematic, and the trans community and its allies needed to come forward to set him straight. (Well, as straight as it’s possible for RuPaul to be.)

In a profile on RuPaul in The Guardian, writer Decca Aitkenhead reveals her blind spots with regard to drag history and the LGBTQIA community when she steers the conversation toward the trans community and their place in drag:

“What I can’t understand is how transgender women can enter a drag contest. 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”?”

Looking at it through a modern lens, I can understand how this might be confusing, especially if you are a cis person who recognizes that trans women are women. However, as is the case for the Stonewall Riots and the gay rights movement itself, trans women have been at the forefront of all of it, basically creating it.

As RuPaul himself says in this piece, drag isn’t about simple femininity, but about hyperfemininity. It’s making a statement about what femininity is and means in our culture from a community that is particularly demonized for expressing it. “Well, I don’t like to call drag ‘wearing women’s clothes,'” he says. “If you look around this room, 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.”

Which brings the conversation to the subject of “bio queens” (cis women who do drag) and whether trans women, since they are women, should be allowed to participate on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the most prominent example being Peppermint from Season Nine of the show.

Despite his emphasis on hyperfemininity being the point of drag (which should technically mean that anyone should be able to employ it as the femininity being played with isn’t real for anyone), RuPaul stipulates that drag is at its most powerful when men do it:

“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.”

I get that, and he’s not wrong. Not entirely. Being a man rejecting masculinity is absolutely an amazing statement. However, it’s pretty telling (and not just a little bit sexist) to think that the most “punk rock” way, the most badass and ultimately effective way, to reject masculinity is to be a man doing it. As if women playing with their own gender ironically could never be “punk rock.” As if women don’t and haven’t played with the idea of femininity ironically forever.

This is particularly true of trans women, as Transparent’s Alexandra Billings pointed out on Instagram after this piece on RuPaul came out:

Drag was started, in large part, by trans women. The visibility the trans community might have been different back then, and many trans women of years past might not have even identified as trans at the time, because they didn’t have the same language they have today, but make no mistake, they were there right at the beginning of drag.

Which makes what RuPaul said next about whether he would allow a trans woman who’s had gender confirmation surgery participate on the show all the more insulting:

“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.”

He later doubled-down on Twitter:

Drag queens of all types and stripes took to social media to put the kibosh on this nonsense:

It seems that the criticism has caused RuPaul to rethink the comments he gave to The Guardian, and he has since apologized:

This is progress, I suppose, and I’m glad that Ru apologized, but I’ll be even happier when the trans community isn’t such a continual blind spot for him.

Because to make a career in drag to the point where you’re the mainstream face of it and have your own TV show while continually marginalizing the very people responsible for starting drag, building an empire on the backs of people you should be thanking for their bravery is a pretty shitty thing to do.

(via Pajiba, image: Logo)

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