In a recent interview with the Guardian, RuPaul addresses the role of trans women in the drag world, and firmly stated that he would not allow transitioning women to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race, doubling down on this assertion in a tweet:
You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics. pic.twitter.com/HkJjzXzUGm
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 5, 2018
RuPaul considers his reality TV show to be the “Olympics of Drag,” and insinuates that transitioning gives transgender queens an unfair “advantage” over cisgender queens such as himself.
No stranger to reproach from the trans community, Ru’s comments came as no surprise after the show came under fire following the season 6 mini-challenge entitled: “Shemale or Female,” a guessing game in which contestants attempted to differentiate between “a biological woman, or a psychological woman” based on close up pictures of body parts, and the recurrent “You’ve got Shemale” segment, a play on America’s Next Top Model’s “Tyra Mail.”
Ru has since issued an apology for his comments, but the sentiment behind them has sparked a broader discussion of drag as an art form and a conversation regarding who exactly gets to participate in this expression of gender subversion.
In the interview, Ru claims that “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,” but this is a reductive and misinformed view of drag that ignores its entirety as an art form and glosses over the long history of trans women in the drag community.
It is ahistorical and misogynistic to say that the performative social critique of patriarchy and gender expression is only meaningful when enacted by cisgender men. Central figures in the origins of the gay liberation movement, such as Marsha P. Johnson, were not only drag queens, but also transgender women, and the act of dismissing their art, their performance, their gender, and their “sense of irony” is dismissive of the foundational roots of the LGBT community.
As Transparent’s Alexandra Billings wrote in her open Instagram letter, “Dear RuPaul, you did not invent drag. We did.” Commenting on the “sense of danger” that accompanies cisgender men performing drag also reflects Ru’s own ignorance regarding the very real dangers trans women face as they are raped and murdered in record numbers every year.
The exclusion of trans individuals from drag is counterproductive and demonstrates nearsightedness in the idea that women are unable to reject masculinity in the same way as men. This also discredits a huge wealth of talent within the community, as Willam Belli, a former Drag Race competitor and a critic of RuPaul’s, wrote on Instagram: “We work with trans women every night side by side, and for them to be denied the opportunities because of someone’s narrow-minded view on what they call ‘drag’ is fucked.”
The interview did not sit well with many Drag Race alums, many of whom identify as transgender.
Peppermint, pictured above, competed on RuPaul’s Drag Race in season 9 as the first queen to begin transitioning prior to filming.
When asked about Peppermint, the first queen to audition as an openly transgender woman, Ru argued that “Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.” By implying that a trans woman isn’t really a woman until they undergo surgery and reducing gender to and defining it by body parts, RuPaul reinforces antiquated, transphobic, and harmful gender scripts.
In responding to the interview, Peppermint expressed that “gay men do not own the idea of gender performance… people of all gender expressions and bodies can contribute to challenging [male-dominated] culture.” She shares the lesson she learned at the start of her transition, saying that “absolutely no one has the ability or the right to define your womanhood, manhood, or transness, but you… women should not be defined by what surgeries they have or haven’t had.”
RuPaul needs to be cautious in his attempts to gatekeep the drag community because of the large influence he wields over the public perception of the drag world. His show gives heightened visibility to the artform, and in doing so systemizes the image of what drag performances should look like. He not only exposes drag to a public with no prior insight into the community, but rewrites LGBT history. By actively excluding trans performers, RuPaul not only sets precedents but also contributes to the systematic oppression of trans women by reinforcing trans exclusive rhetoric and by denying trans women as a whole one of the few viable ways a queen can achieve success in the drag community. Withholding exposure from performers solely based on their gender identity is emblematic of textbook sexism and transphobia, and public figures like Ru must be especially cautious with their representative decisions.
As Peppermint says, Ru’s apology is an “important step in this ongoing conversations” and shows us all that there is “room for growth, education, and I’m hoping a bit of evolution.” It is crucial to view media with a critical lens, and while we must recognize and appreciate the pivotal role RuPaul’s Drag Race has played in the visibility of drag we must also hold our influential figures accountable and learn from their missteps.