I guess I’m an unusual breed, but certainly not alone. I’m a Drag performer and a Transwoman- and believe it or not, many people still don’t understand the difference between the two. The misconception is that they are, by definition, one in the same. The reality is that Drag performers are typically CISgender Men, and Drag is their performance art, not altogether unlike a Mime on a street corner or a Clown in a circus.
On the rare occasion, there are performers like myself: Women.
Some younger women, some older women, some transwomen, but women, nonetheless. Sure, there are elitists who believe the act of Drag Performance should be exclusive to men, as it’s embedded in gay culture.
Despite this, I want to make this clear. Drag originated with women: Specifically, Transwomen. In the era where being an identifiable member of the LGBT community could result in arrest, prosecution and even prison, the only safe space for Transwomen to dress appropriate to their gender were these back alley bars. It was illegal for a Male to dress in any visible female clothing until 1973 in the state of Chicago, for example, and 40 other states had laws prohibiting cross dressing.
Transwomen took refuge in these dive bars with gay men and lesbians who were equally vulnerable. The art of Drag was born from this oppressive state, where those thrust into the shadows had to make their own communities, build their own families, art and culture. Transwomen often became performers, singing songs of famous icons. It wasn’t female impersonation, but rather idolization. They celebrated womanhood and rejoiced in their own femininity without fear of public shame or personal loss. Odd how circumstances have reversed, given back then it was rare to see a CISgender man perform in Drag. They simply didn’t care to dress as women and they certainly didn’t identify as women. Today, the Drag industry is dominated by gay men, and we’re in the minority.
As a Drag Queen, I can get on a microphone, poke fun at pop culture, satirize public figures, make political statements through my performance art. Alternatively, as a Transgender woman, if I attempt to make a statement regarding issues that directly effect or offend me, I’m quickly silenced. I’m called overly sensitive, accused of not having a sense of humor, mocked and belittled for defending myself against unprovoked attacks or having the audacity to speak on my own behalf and represent my own opinions.
Let me give you an example of this happening on a greater scale; On Celebrity Big Brother, India Willoughby, a Transwoman entered the house with Drag Performer Courtney Act, who identifies as a CISgender, bisexual male. Courtney was celebrated for her beauty, makeup skills and incredibly intelligent manner of communicating. In contrast, India was immediately misgendered, isolated, and when she attempted to correct the guilty parties, she was called “Rude” and “Disrespectful.”
From the onset, she was passively insulted and quietly differentiated from a “real” woman. She made the mistake of asking Genuwine, a rapper with nine children, if he would ever date a Transwoman, and he recoiled insisting, red-faced with embarrassment that he would never do such a thing. “But I am a Woman,” she said, attempting to justify her gender. She was then accused of being insensitive to a man who said he didn’t see her- or Transwomen in general- as a real, and told she was just “angry” that he wouldn’t sleep with her.
She wasn’t interested in him, clearly, but it was the CISgender deflection that was disturbing to watch; Their way of accepting a blatant act of denying a Transwoman the right to be viewed as a woman. He didn’t say he wouldn’t date a woman with blond hair, or a woman of a certain ethnicity, or one with a bigger body mass index, but specifically, not Transwomen. To him, they are men, and his CIS supporters wrote off India as sexually soliciting him rather than her simply making an effort to illustrate the challenges her community faces with being, not just acknowledged as women, but respected or even openly desired by men. To make themselves comfortable, they reduced her to a bitter man in a dress who was angry that her prey wasn’t gay.
This behavior demonstrated by CISgender people isn’t even typically a conscious act of prejudice, but a stringent social norm they’re accustomed to. Anyone who challenges that is vilified. Surely, India became the villain, but she was positioned in a house full of people who had put her on the defense from the start. She found herself repeating “I am a woman” over and over- even when it wasn't necessary, because they’d made it immediately clear to her that they didn’t accept her as female, but merely tolerated her existing in their space, in a a female facade.
Not the same situation for Courtney Act. The famous Drag Queen is hot listed as the winner of the series just 12 days in. India was the first evicted, mostly for being combative. Throughout her stay, questions about the state of being Transgender were asked and vital information offered up on a platter beautifully, not by India, but by Courtney. No one would speak to India about her experience as a Transwoman, but they would, bizarrely, ask Courtney about India’s experiences as a transwoman. Courtney is a fantastic ally for the Trans community, without question, but we need to be allowed our voices without being challenged or drowned out by CISgender folks more comfortable talking to a Drag Queen than a Transwoman. We shouldn’t require a CIS translator to communicate on our behalf, but this is where we are.
Now, to compound this, we’ve had a relationship develop between a straight CIS heterosexual male and the famous Drag Queen, which is being largely applauded. An evolved male seeing past body parts and enjoying a feminine counterpart. They’ve hung all over each other for 5 days; Meanwhile, India was attacked for simply asking the general question “Would you date someone like me?” They very thought offended, not just the sensibilities of her housemates, but those on social media who sexualized and sensationalized her intention, which, again, was not about sex at all. Now, those same people are championing the relationship between a commercial drag queen and a straight CIS man, because gay is okay, Transgender women are evidently not.
I am allowed to communicate effectively and be heard as a Drag Queen. As a transwoman, I am a token, at best, an effigy of a woman. Between ourselves and the CISgender mainstream are the gay allies who find themselves often having to explain how we happened. Maybe because CIShetero men are scared of us, and truthfully, many of them have indeed triggered the very defenses that became India’s downfall while the world watched.
I have to ask myself; Could I have done a better job than India did? I don’t think so, honestly. I wouldn’t have been allowed. I would have found myself equally incensed and defensive, leaving the more accepted Drag Queen to become my spokesperson also. CISgender resistance to Trans existence, whether conscious or subconscious, spoken or unspoken, becomes evident to us quickly. We have had to condition ourselves, for the sake of our own safety, to make snap judgements about simple things like where we can be, where we can go, who we can speak to and pay keen attention to who averts their eyes or goes silent in our presence when we integrate into any social situation. In this circumstance, India had nowhere to go. Her response to their visible discomfort and casual misgenderings created a scenario wherein she found herself dubbed “100% a victim.”
There lies the chasm between us, the Transwomen and CISgender populous. If we speak about being Trans, or illustrate their inappropriateness or challenge their resistance, we’re accused of self victimizing. They believe that our responses to their actions or behaviors are self manifested, unnecessary or even theatrical. It’s such a reductive and insulting way to render a valid statement or opinion as obsolete. It the exact same scenario for the women who find themselves under the thumb of a predator, as we’ve seen in recent months with the #MeToo movement. The ones who attempted to speak were called liars, attention whores bidding for fame. Others stayed quiet in order to keep their jobs and their dignity in tact. Until many voices were raised in chorus, no one was asking why or how this could happen to millions of women. No one was willing to put forward any accusations or questions because of the discomfort it caused others so no one was talking. There was no conversation. There was no resolution. And these women relied on Ronan Farrow, a Male journalist to provide them the platform to speak from- and in some cases, he became their spokesperson. Even still, most of the women are accused of self victimizing, over-reacting or being hypersensitive to acts of Male sexual predation.
Victim blaming. It’s replaced the term “Snowflake” as the trendy new insult insinuating another person is powerless or weak thus responsible for whatever misfortune has befallen them. It gives others an excuse to tune them out and ignore the problem. It’s easy to do when it’s not yours. Certainly, Courtney isn’t experiencing any resistance because she’s traversing genders seamlessly and not restrained by any political or social boundaries. She doesn’t have to defend herself. She puts on a dress by choice, not because she is a woman.
The performance art is accepted and validated now, the reality that a Transwomen exist with opinions, ideas, and human stories to share? Not so much. So, we find ourselves yelling into a vacuum, perceived as defensive and combative if we have enough self respect and courage to defend ourselves and educate others. Gay people used to march in unison chanting “We’re here, We’re queer, get over it!” to a pearl clutching, conservative society of onlookers. Transwomen today have been shown repeatedly that the only way to achieve the progress gay men have is to demand respect, equality and integration by staying loud, not falling into silence.