The Accidental Transphobia of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Last year, RuPaul’s Drag Race experienced a series first: one of the contestants revealed that she is a trans woman. It happened during elimination and, in the aftermath, everyone from RuPaul to the judging panel to her fellow contestants showed their love and support. Other queens have come out following their stints on Drag Race, but Monica Beverly Hillz was the first to do so while on the show. In the process, she directly thrust the relationship between trans women and drag queens into the limelight for the first time.

Yet, in the most recent episode of Drag Race, RuPaul proffered a borderline transphobic mini-challenge called “Female or Shemale.” The queens were shown zoomed-in body parts and asked to judge whether those parts belonged to a “biological woman” or a “psychological woman.”

As Jonathan Doucette of The Daily Dot argues, this mini-challenge was not empowering. It was not about reclaiming the word “shemale.” Instead, it was a challenge that encouraged cis-men to use the word as an insult, specifically aimed at cis-females who don’t pass the appropriate markers of femininity. But this challenge also illuminates a broader, unspoken issue with the show: why the subtle tension between drag queens and transgender identity?

I have no doubt that everyone on Drag Race would be accepting and supportive if any of the queens came out during this season, but there is a difference between accepting individual trans people and accepting trans identities as viable and distinct. RuPaul has been a household name since the ’90s, largely credited with popularizing drag culture in the United States. But as fabulous as he may be, RuPaul’s relationship with the trans community has been marked by many missteps. Other celebrities have apologized for using the word “tranny,” he has openly promoted it. He once made a joke that the difference between a drag queen and a trans person is “about $25,000 and a good surgeon.” Even amidst the backlash, RuPaul hasn’t backed down. While he’s obviously a progressive figure in mainstream culture, his refusal to respect the wishes of the trans community hints at a pricklier resistance to transgender identity itself.

Ru has touted drag as a way of deconstructing identity (“you are not who you think are; you’re born naked, and the rest is drag”), which I wholeheartedly agree with. Drag pokes holes in the idea of gender as a inherent quality. By being such a performance, it automatically becomes a subversive one. But being a drag queen is still a theatrical act. After every challenge, the contestants “untuck,” removing their wigs, breast plates, dresses, makeup. Cis-people can go home without worrying about the sex that’s been assigned to them on their passport or driver’s license, because the character they portray in drag is just that — a character. It is a theatrical performance, rather than a gender identity. As Monica Beverly Hillz told Entertainment Weekly last year, “Drag is what I do; trans is who I am.”

Drags queens are often incorrectly conflated with trans women because it is easier to stake a claim to a gender identity that is easily readable as either masculine or feminine and hard for people to divorce on-stage performance from the everyday. Pushing anything into the mainstream involves some bargaining of philosophy, glossing over issues and nuances in pursuit of well-intentioned — albeit, overly simplified — acceptance. And while many people “get” variances in sexual orientation, it can be harder to explain why a cisgender man would participate in drag culture if he’s not trans.

I understand the impulse to envelop transgender identity into the drag community, but it’s no excuse for blurring the two, especially when it involves appropriating offensive words that have been lobbed at members of the trans community. (Besides the aforementioned game, RuPaul likes to invent new words that play on “tranny” all the time.) Telling people to check their privilege is exhausting and can easily devolve into the Oppression Olympics, but it’s relevant here. Even though drag queens inarguably experience some of the backlash from people who aren’t accepting of anything outside very rigid gender stereotypes, blurring those lines only empowers cis-men who sometimes dress as women. This would be fine, if it didn’t happen at the expense of silencing the voices of actual trans women.