Rupaul is not the embodiment of drag culture
RuPaul’s Drag Race has been an effective platform for both educating people about what drag is as well as transgender issues. While not perfect, it has allowed the sub-culture of drag to become mainstream and acknowledged for the first time.
LGBTQ+ and drag culture can viewed and understood on a level that it never could before – it finally has a mainstream platform. One of the most touching things about Season 9, was seeing Peppermint – a drag queen who had come out as a trans earlier in the season – competing for the crown in the final. Here was a trans woman and secondly a drag queen embracing her identity proudly on global stage. The show was the first to have contestants that identified as transgender on network television and in its run, transgender women such as Carmen Carrera, Jiggly Caliente, Gia Gunn and Monica Beverly Hillz have all competed to varying degrees of success.
RuPaul, one of the most influential and well-known LGBTQ+ figures in modern pop culture, has really stuck his foot in it. During an interview with The Guardian, RuPaul talked about how ‘Drag is a big f-you to male-dominated culture’ and how it challenges the rigid rules of masculinity that society asks men to abide by – all good so far. However, in incredibly hypocritical fashion, he insists that ‘drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it’. RuPaul by insisting that ‘is at its best when it’s a men-only sport’ contradicts and nullifies his assertion that it challenges male gender roles.
RuPaul suggests that drag is open to all because it makes one ‘a shapeshifter’ and allows us to as he puts it ‘fly around and use all the colours, and not brand myself with just one colour’. He’s right, drag can be a form of expression, a bit of self-reflection or purely a profession – it is individualistic and knows no confines. Nevertheless in the same interview, Decca Aitkenhead wonders ‘how transgender women can enter a drag contest’ and argues ‘if transgender women must be identified as female, how can they also be “men dressing up as women”?’. She completely misses the point of drag. It is a method of allowing oneself to embrace who you truly are, and you certainly do not need to be male to do it. Drag as an art form uses the body as a canvas to express oneself, whether you’re cis-, trans-, straight or gay.
Some transgender people view drag as a mockery of their identities and it is easy to understand why this is the case. You have figures like Milo Yiannoupolis who will often equate being transgender with dressing up in drag. The latter is an identity and the former is a profession and a lifestyle. It’s understandable why one might not realise they are very different things as most people, *surprise, surprise* are not familiar with LGBTQ+ issues. As Hillz said in response to the controversy, ‘I’ve always been a woman, so what I've done to my body or that I hadn't started hormones while on the show doesn't take away my identity’ and she’s right. Her transgender identity has nothing to do with her ability to perform as a drag artist. Drag is not for cisgender gay and bisexual men either – heterosexual men Steven Colbert and Andrew Brady have both performed in drag as “Raven” and “Betty Swollocks” respectively. The same goes for any cisgender women who seek to use drag to parody their own feminine identity – Marlene Dietrich being an iconic example.
Shangela in her interview for BOYBLUE Magazine has in her time as a drag artist ‘worked closely with and […] been inspired by members of the transgender community’ and that ‘it’s incredibly important for drag queens to be allies for the trans community’. And she’s right, the people who led the Stonewall riots and started the movement for LGBT+ rights were trans women of colour – Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The article opens discussing the apparent contradiction ‘between [RuPaul’s] playfully elastic sensibility and the militant earnestness of the transgender movement’ and with ‘the dichotomy of the trans movement versus the drag movement’, RuPaul is suggesting these two movements are antithetical to each other. For all her talk of young queens needing to learn history to Aja two episodes back in All Stars 3, one might need to remind Ru that both Rivera and Johnson happened to perform as drag artists too. Gia Gunn in light of RuPaul’s comments states that ‘trans women were the first entertainers I ever saw in drag & have always been a big part of the industry.’ Paris Lees, one of the biggest LGBT+ figures in the UK, argues that drag as an expressive art form allows for many transgender people to explore their true identity ‘as that's their way of expressing their feminine side’.
Drag culture has been integral to helping people understand that there are identities that exist outside of the traditional binary male-female. As a community we need to become more understanding of each other’s differences because at the end of the day ‘we’re all born naked and the rest is drag’ – we all have different ways of expressing ourselves whatever our sexuality or gender. As Bob The Drag Queen puts it simply ‘'everything isn't black and white’.
Identity is often confusing and gaining an understanding of drag has certainly helped me work out how I view myself. In the aftermath of the comments that RuPaul made, we need to look at the positive. As RuPaul’s apology shows, we must try to correct where we’ve gone wrong. It is a shame that these comments have come from such an iconic LGBTQ+ figure but we can only try to correct the mistake. When people talk about political correctness, they are talking about a world where respect and tolerance of other people’s differences are becoming more prominent - rightfully so. As Shangela says in her interview, being in the spotlight helps ‘you come to understand that words have power and they hurt’. Therefore, we need to look at how our community has come together the last few days because it’s only when we do that, will we progress forward as a society – in or out of drag.
Author: ed bARNES