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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.

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10 comments
AliGori
AliGori

"I understand the impulse to envelop transgender identity into the drag community,"


Don't get it twisted. Even the DEFINITION of "transgender" includes all nonbinary individuals and at the top of the list are drag queens. The new trans activists are the people who "stole" the existing language. 

truetea8
truetea8

RuPaul has also said that the only thing that offends him is extreme poverty and deliberate cruelty. Maybe everyone offended by a mini challenge on RuPaul's Drag Race should take a page from his book and also stop to think who they should really be offended by.

JacobBloomfield
JacobBloomfield

I generally agree with this article but, crucially, it misses the fact that there are and have been trans* drag queens. They are not always two mutually exclusive identities (although obviously saying they're "the same" is bad). For example, openly trans* drag artist Coccinelle was one of the most popular performers in France in the 1950s and '60s. One of her contemporaries, Bambi, was also openly trans*. They paved the way for many performers from all over the world who identify as both drag queens and trans*. To make an explicit distinction between the two identities, as this article does, is a false dichotomy. Trans* people can be trans* and drag queens and this has been the case for a long time. 

IanChambers
IanChambers

I have a hard time with the transphobia being considered accidental when Ru Paul has been told many times that his behavior was problematic and he still still refused to listen. His support of Sharon Needles after his continued use of the term "thing" to talk about transwomen.

JudyVirago
JudyVirago

I have spent the past two months lobbying the advertising department at NOW magazine to get their back page section changed from "Shemales" to Transsexual Escorts. They previously had sections for “Asian Escorts”, “Upscale Escorts”, “Fetish & Fantasy” and “Shemales”. Not even “Shemale Escorts”, just “Shemales”. Trans women weren’t even “a kind of escort”. “Shemale" was its own distinct category. 

The word has a longstanding history in the sex industry. First recorded as derogatory term for a masculine woman in the 19th century, “she male” wasn’t used in reference to transsexual women till the 1970s. It was first adopted by pornographers as a term for transwomen that could titillate heterosexual men without triggering internalized homophobia. It was then used by transphobic feminist Janice Raymond in her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. It’s even been used by academics in charge of psychiatric policy regarding trans people and their access to healthcare. But I’m done with it. 

Nearly a year ago I was on the cover of NOW magazine for the pride edition. The cover title read “The End of Gender As We Know It” and I gave an interview, along with nine other people, on my personal gender identity and experience. I argued that that gender would not disappear, but multiply.

So you can imagine my dismay when, a  week later I'm watching my favourite surreality TV show and RuPaul invites the contestants to play a game called “Female or Shemale”. I wasn’t just angry; I was disappointed. I’ve heard that words only have power if you give it to them, or if you let them them hurt you. Well RuPaul has a lot of power and I’ve never heard the word “faggot” on her show. 

“Female or Shemale” is not the first time “shemale” has been used on RPDR. Every episode begins with “She-mail” from Rupaul, like Tyra Mail on America’s Next top model. And I’ve let that slide because I like puns. Like eating a cake with raisins in it because I like cake but hate raisins so I just gag on them a little bit and swallow anyway. In the game, contestants had to guess whether zoomed in images of body parts belonged to a “biological woman” (female) or a “psychological woman” (she male). The game featured images of previous contestants on the show as well as cisgendered women.

This is where it gets fuzzy. Some drag queens are transsexual women, and some transsexual women are drag queens. There is a grey area (death to binaries!). And at least four Drag Race alumni have gone on to live their lives as full time women, not just characters for the stage and screen.  And guess what? No-one in the game passed all the time. Many of the parts belonging to cisgender women were labelled “she male”. The whole game was transphobic and grossly misogynistic, entering a realm of body policing that I’ve never seen (or let myself see) on the show before. Many women of trans* experience are faced with the often daunting task of passing, every day. Passing is not a goal for all of us, but the validity and reality of our bodies is put under constant scrutiny.  

I haven’t always felt like I’m hearing fingernails down a chalkboard when I hear this word; for several years I was identifying as androgynous, genderqueer, genderblender (basically anything but male or female). As I became more fixed in my identity as a kind of woman, not just a kind of mix-gender person, I felt less comfortable with the word  “shemale” being used in the context of transsexual women. I’m not speaking for all women of trans experience when I protest this term. As I said earlier, “shemale” has a long standing history in the sex industry and many women adopt this moniker for socioeconomic reasons, or maybe they just DGAF. I do not feel the same way. And I do not feel like a blend of male and female. I am a woman. I am a woman of trans* experience and I am happy with that. I’m not trying to be any more or less of a woman than any woman born with a vagina, or assigned female at birth. 

I went out to a gay “college-night” in the Church-Wellesley Village last week. I hadn’t been out to a “boy-bar” in a long time and it was… interesting. I felt like I was visiting family in rural New Zealand. I was greeted by the same brand of well-meaning-but-kind-of-offensive “compliments” I received when I came out to my family the first time. 

"Wow! Are you a real girl?"
     "Yes. I am real. Yes I am a girl"
"Oh but you know what I mean, I meant it as a compliment! You look fish, girl!"

Yes, thank you for validating my “realness”. Thank you for commenting on my passability. Thank you for describing my gender presentation as what you think a vagina smells like. I try to be patient. I try to accept this in the spirit it’s given, which I know is well meaning. I try to understand that these boys haven’t had the lifetime of gender education I’ve had. But it’s not just about benevolent transphobia. It’s about culture too. All these gay men watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. They all hear and see this language used. And they model it. Monkey see, monkey shante you and your catch phrases stay.  

I lobbied for change in a local magazine and I succeeded. Because advertisers might be arseholes, but they're not idiots. You won’t see “Shemales” as a heading in NOW magazine again. So I’m asking all of you, my chosen family, to join me in moving our community forward and ask RuPaul to pull the plug on her transphobia and Rupologize. Let’s make like Transsexual Escorts and put that word to bed. #byefelicia


http://www.change.org/en-CA/petitions/rupaul-and-rupaul-s-drag-race-please-apologize-for-your-transphobic-language

easybeef
easybeef

@truetea8  Is it not deliberately cruel to reduce transwomen to a derogatory term like "shemale"? And to reduce any woman's body to simply a picture of her crotch? Those were pictures of real women, dehumanized for the sake of a pointless, mocking game.

AliGori
AliGori

@easybeef BTW, the only crotch shot was Raven, a male drag queen. She'll be thrilled her tuck was unclockable by you. 

AliGori
AliGori

@easybeef LOL Detox the male drag queen is gonna be annoyed that you thought her mouth was her non-existent female crotch. As far as transwomen being degraded by identifying with the term shemale in the sex industry - take it up with THEM. They're the ones making money doing that crap. 

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