The name RuPaul has become synonymous with Drag since he stepped out of the New York City clubkid scene and onto world stage in the 90's. He’s done it all, from having his own talk show on VH1, a successful music career, roles in pop culture and cult films like “The Brady Bunch,” and “Starrbooty.” He’s had his own perfume line, dolls, even candy bars. To say the man is a branding genius is a gross understatement. Suffice it to say, his most successful venture to date is unquestionably RuPaul’s Drag Race. It began as a little show with a low budget on a niche network you couldn’t even get in the midwest. Over 10 seasons, it grew into a monster hit, a cultural phenom that catapulted Drag into the Mainstream. The trajectory of Drag itself which had, until now, thrived mainly in gay bars around the world, found itself in the laps of 14 year old fangirls and teenage boys putting on mascara for the first time. It’s impact didn’t just shape gay culture, but it reached places that the light of progress had not seen in decades. Suddenly, there were Drag Queen viewing parties in Topeka, Kansas every Thursday. Kids were lining up by the thousands to attend meet-and-greets with Drag Queens that had become bonafide celebrities as soon as they left RuPaul’s stage.
There is no question that Rupaul is a businessman. To date, he is credited with sending over 100 Drag Queens into the stratosphere of stardom. Rupaul’s Drag Race, which has tendriled out into global arena tours, corporate partnerships, sold-out conventions, films and music has given young gay men the idols they needed but were never allowed to have. It’s given all audiences a valuable lesson on acceptance…
…Unless that person is Transgender. Rupaul has been notorious in his mistreatment and exclusion of the Transgender community- and all women in general. Whether it be reckless public statements or the increasingly evident exclusion of Transwomen and Femme queens from his show (Unless they come out during or after- we’ll discuss that later.)
Recently, when asked if he was receptive to the possibility of accepting Transgender women on his show, he told The Guardian, “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body,” RuPaul said. “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’s right. Most Cisgender men who have appeared on Rupaul’s Drag Race have modified their bodies. Be it cheekbone implants, chin implants, butt and lip fillers or nose jobs, plastic surgery has become just as popular as among Drag Queens as Transwomen. Drag Race Contestants who have admittedly undergone the knife include Chad Michaels, Miss Fame, Trinity Taylor, Aja, Charlie Hides, Detox, Raven and Venus D. Lite among others. Both Violet Chachki and Pearl dramatically reduced their waist by corset training. It has become typical for potential CISgender contestants to surgically feminize themselves on behalf of their career. To state, as RuPaul has, that “…it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.” seems patently false, given it’s never changed the concept before. Despite this trend, RuPaul claims that Transwomen who have surgery to affirm their gender have no business competing on his show. Let’s call it what it is- A double standard. One designed to alienate Trans Drag performers and Femme Queens.
“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.”
How does one claim to reject masculinity by celebrating CISgender men in Drag while simultaneously rejecting Transgender individuals AND Femme Queens altogether? Sorry, Ru. Thriving with a target on your back, and persisting against all odds in a volatile society where we’re being murdered in record numbers for who we are and still refusing to go silent- That’s punk rock. For a man of his intellect, he doesn’t comprehend that his exclusion of Trans people and Femme Queens reduces Drag to mockery.
Drag- in a public medium- began in the theater, due the oppression of women in performance by placing men in their roles. It was later reborn in the shadows of society where Transwomen and Men, along with Cisgender gays could be imprisoned for living their truth. They collected in bars and created pocket communities where Transwomen could dress appropriate to their identified gender without fear. It was in these queer spaces that Transwomen would often pay homage to their celebrity idols and perform (Lipsync) to their music and give comedic respite to an audience threatened by the hostility of the worldviews beyond it’s threshold.
They existed despite the rules- and the laws at the time. It was not a Cisgender male sport until much later, when an industry was created out of the act of female impersonation- mostly to serve as a gag.
The big “F-You” to the male dominated culture Rupaul references is existing proudly despite being told you cannot. Even in this era, when laws are being created to further displace Trans people and women by legislating the removal of simple human rights, it appears that celebrating femininity in all of it’s forms is where RuPaul draws the line.
The only irony here is that a Cisgender man is appropriating a culture he has no exclusive right too, nor does he understand or respect the history of. All he has achieved is, sadly, standing with the masses who oppose the normalizing of Trans people in CISgender society; gay society- while pushing women to the back in a concerted effort to assert that, to him, Drag is a Male only sport.
Perhaps this is why so many drag queens transitioned AFTER appearing on his show.
Season 3 contestant, Carmen Carrera, has become one of the biggest success stories post show, having modeled for Victoria’s Secret and gone on to fame in a different realm of entertainment: As herself- an identity she could not embody on his show. While other past contestants have gone on to worldwide fame, Carrera had to do it on her own terms and outside the ‘RuSphere’ that typically propels post show careers. Since then, she has vocally opposed the dismissive and insensitive culture RuPaul has created towards Transgender women via his titular show. In particular, Carrera opposed the use of the words “She-Male” and “Tranny” in key parts of the series segments, stating that they were slurs which compromised the dignity of the Transgender community and were counter-intuitive to progress, even damaging to developing minds that consumed the content of the show, receiving it as a sort of gay gospel. She was right.
In the aftermath of her speaking out against the show that was becoming a mainstream behemoth, she received immediate backlash from the gay, straight and Cisgender community. She was called a traitor, ungrateful, attacked viciously on social media by people hurling transphobic abuse at her. The ire of the Rupaul fandom had been stoked against her. The company that produces the show, World of Wonder, allegedly claimed they were distancing themselves from the language deemed appropriate by Rupaul. However, the language changed in future seasons as a direct result of Carrera’s actively refusing to sit in complicity to the degradation of Trans people- who are just as valid and important as gay and lesbian viewers. Consequentially, Carrera was excommunicated from RuPaul’s star-making machine as he fired back:
Monica Beverly Hillz appeared as a male on the fifth season of Rupaul’s show, despite already knowing her Trans status. She kept her true gender identity a secret- what we in the Trans community call “Stealthing” -so she could compete. However, she famously came out on the show to much praise from her colleagues and the LGBT community. RuPaul gave an inspiring, validating speech to the weeping Beverly Hillz, thereby redeeming his image and positioning himself as a perceived Trans ally to the masses. It was also ratings gold.
After the season ended, RuPaul addressed the moment Beverly Hillz came out as Transgender on their cast reunion show. Here’s the clip:
“Drag is what I do. Trans is who I am.” Beverly Hillz said.
RuPaul appeared supportive, going as far to say “The only thing we screen for is Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.” As a businessman with a demographic that includes Transgender women, it was the right thing to say. Now, of course, we realize it was untrue as his recent statements wholly contradict his televised one back in 2014.
Would Monica Beverly Hillz had been cast if she hadn’t applied for Drag Race presenting as a male? Certainly not.
Like Carmen Carrera, Beverly Hillz spoke out in support of Transgender Drag Performers during the slur controversy. Also, like Carrera, she admitted that she received violent backlash for defending the integrity of Trans viewers. In an interview with Into Magazine just today, she remembers the hate and abuse as “Astounding.”
What is also astounding is how post-show Transwomen who now comfortably inhabit their skin are subjected to vast amounts of threats and anti-trans insults if they object to transphobic rhetoric- and that abuse comes directly from fans of a gay oriented show. It demonstrates that tolerance for Transgender Drag Queens is extremely limited in the more broad LGB CIS community, and being an ally stops cold the moment one of them advocates for compassion or respect as a Transperson rather than a Drag character. It would appear that many gay and CIS fans of Drag Race- of which I am admittedly a fan myself- have a fickle, complicated relationship with the Trans and femme Drag community. We are not allowed to be critical or exhibit an interest in matters that concern us if it does not shine the series or it’s host in positive light. Aren’t these people supposed to be our allies? Yet, instead, we become the enemy when we raise our voice in self defense. The turnabout is frightening.
Past contestant Jiggly Caliente came out quietly as Trans in 2016. In a recent interview with Billboard magazine to promote her new album, she was asked if she thought the stigma of Transgender women performing as Drag Queens was starting to break down. She answered;
“The thing for me is that there have been, and there are, plenty of trans women that have careers in drag. This is has been going on for years, way, way before Drag Race. So it’s just now becoming a little more mainstream because there’s a trans movement going on. I’m glad and I’m super proud that there is a movement that is showcasing trans women where … we’re not seen as sex workers, you know? Because it was so taboo or whatever, and I’m glad that we’re being showcased in all forms of art — may it be theater, may it be movies, books, television, and music! I’m know I’m not the first trans hip-hop artist out there, and people have to research! There’s trans women out there doing it.”
Except on Drag Race, which is by far the biggest platform for the gay community — possibly for Transwomen like Jiggly as long as they stealth through long enough before coming out. She gave a very pageant answer to the question without addressing the elephant in the room. Coming out and standing against transphobia when it is the very hand that’s feeding you, well, that would be career suicide. I get it.
Rupaul himself seems to feel that his status as an older, edgy gay man entitles him to live in a state of perpetual resistance to anyone or anything but himself and people like him. The rest of us have no place at his table. It’s a crude parallel, but not altogether dissimilar from modern conservative evangelicals in power who send thoughts and prayers but want walls built to keep out the undesirables.
How’s that for irony?
Let’s talk about Peppermint. She’s the season 9 Drag Queen who is an out Transwoman. Her status was known within the NYC community prior to her appearance on Drag Race last year. I don’t know Peppermint personally, but knew of her as a staple in the Drag nightlife. She’s a staunch professional with an excellent reputation. When I heard she had been cast on Rupaul’s Drag Race and knowing the climate is so unfavorable to Trans Drag performers, I wondered if things were changing. Had RuPaul evolved his views? As a sidebar, I also wondered how she would change clothes in room full of men, but I digress.
Much to my surprise, Peppermint popped up as a boy.
I blinked twice and rattled my head back and forth like a Looney Tunes character that had been slapped upside the head with a canoe paddle. In a later episode, she came out in the same fashion Beverly Hillz had years prior, as a Transgender woman. I thought to myself, “Did she really go back into the closet just to come out again on television?”
It’s hard not to speculate on how this happened. Did she audition as a boy to gain a platform as many had before? Was the ‘coming out’ episode produced for a storyline? Did they ask her to present as male throughout non-drag segments in which contestants speak in confessionals as their male person?
RuPaul elucidated on the presence of Peppermint in his interview, and it’s just as bad as you expect at this point:
“It’s an interesting area. Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.”
So, friends, here is the Ru-Logic:
Identifying as a transwoman is acceptable as long as you don’t modify your body. CISgender men may get injections, fillers, facelifts, implants and it’s fine as long as you don’t call yourself “Transgender.”
I don’t either. Because it’s a twisted, distorted view that, like it or not, translates as thinly veiled Trans-hate. It’s not as much Transphobia- RuPaul isn’t afraid of Transgender people, he simply doesn’t like them in the context of his show. And, well, it is his show.
And there are certainly a great many Transgender and Cisgender women who could care less about Drag Queens or RuPaul, and that’s valid. The reality is, there are Transwomen who resent that, in the greater mainstream, there is problematic confusion wherein Transwomen are ignorantly perceived as Drag Queens themselves. This is due to lack of education and visibility from the Trans community to mainstream audiences. There are very few bridges built for accurate information to cross into the homes of the average television viewer. Let’s not forget, it took Drag Queen Courtney Act, via the platform of Celebrity Big Brother, to explain to her fellow housemates what the difference between a Transwoman and a Drag Queen is, despite one houseguest, India Willoughby, being Transgender.
This is because the information regarding Trans identity is more comfortably received coming from a Cisgender person than an actual Transwoman- who, if she says the same thing, is accused of being an aggressor or self victimizing. It should make sense to everyone why a Transwoman would find being compared to a Drag Queen incredibly offensive, but regardless of this, there are Transwomen who are, in fact, Drag Queens as well. People like me. We are as diverse within our community as within any other. Not all Transpeople are the same. But, that’s a different story for another day.
Drag is an art form. Drag is not a simulation of real life or real people. There is no real Trixie Mattel or Bianca Del Rio. It is intentionally surreal or caricature. Participants should not be defined or limited by their sexuality, skin color, age or their gender. When we segregate people based on these attributes, we perpetuate ignorance rather than reduce it.
So, how do we reconcile those who stand alongside the trans community in solidarity, yet support a show that could benefit the us via demonstrable acceptance and visibility, but refuses to? How do we internally negotiate the brilliance of a gay icon the magnitude of RuPaul, a black, gay man who is the self proclaimed “Mother” of the LGBT community, yet repeatedly excises Trans identifying individuals from his efforts. It would be negligent for us not to acknowledge the influence RuPaul has developed. He has a reach well beyond that of most gay celebrities and his visibility has proven to be an asset- and an inspiration, as he routinely dispenses wisdom and preaches self love and empowerment of gay men like the Tony Robbins of the Gay world.
And with all that, for him to stand passively against the inclusion of a displaced community, it speaks just as loud as his podcast proverbs like “If you can’t love yourself how the hell you gonna love somebody else.”
This stands as a strong testament of another old adage.
“Actions speak louder than words.”
To contrast these antiquated ideas of Drag, I’ll leave you, dear reader, with the words of another famous drag queen; One who glams up, manifests into an alien, wears masks, dresses in meat, arrives via egg, dances and sings…
“ Don’t be a drag, just be a queen
Whether you’re broke or evergreen
You’re black, white, beige, chola descent
You’re Lebanese, you’re Orient
Whether life’s disabilities
Left you outcast, bullied, or teased
Rejoice and love yourself today
’Cause baby you were born this way”