Life Can Be A Drag: Examining Privilege in the Drag Community
The ways in which people experience the world we live in relies on the overlapping effects of socially constructed categories. Women all across the US are identifying with #MeToo stories shared on social media, the same way that Black and Brown communities collectively mourn every time their lives are targeted by racist police officers. The ways in which people experience the same event can vary wildly depending on the sociocultural position they remain in. It has become important to examine society through an intersectional lens. This term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1991 to recognise that the ways in which race, gender and class interact and converge have large impacts on the way people experience their lives. However, Crenshaw did not mean for her definition of intersectionality to be extrapolated to the stacking of oppressions like Jenga blocks to compare who has the tallest tower. Intersectionality holds utmost importance today when considering the structural ways in which bodies have been classified historically (segregation, Nazi concentration camp badges, redlining…), and the ways in which these echoes of the past still remain very influential today.
Performance in drag has been used as an outlet for self-expression for people of all genders, races and sexualities since its inception. However, the freedoms, powers and privileges which drag performers experience varies greatly on these three variants: the gender they identify with (if they choose to identify with one at all), their race and their sexuality. It is not “merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either “homosexual” or heterosexual” emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively policing the imaginary boundary between “black” and “white” bodies.” Early historical discourse that surrounded a non-white “deviance” was not dissimilar to the non-heterosexual deviance. Both were seen as highly unnatural and therefore, perverse. People who exhibited these unusual behaviours or traits were prohibited from taking part in certain aspects of public life and were not afforded the same rights as those deemed to be morally superior — or in other words, white and heterosexual. Myths surrounding deviant behaviour were imagined and popularised, and unfortunately some of these falsehoods still remain heavily influential today. It is no coincidence that transgender people of colour suffer disproportionally high rates of violence (64% in the largest trans community in the Southeast) , as well as a vast range of sociological discriminations. Although often less violent, these same trends of unequal treatments apply to those in the drag community. Although already a marginalised group, there is much inequality to examine within the drag community. Certain drag performers are afforded many privileges based on their appearance, race, gender and sexuality. For those who do not fall into the categories associated with privilege, the road to success can be one paved with many obstacles. Transphobia and racism are two of the most prevalent prejudices seen within drag culture today, both of which have been woven into the rich tapestry of drag history since its beginnings. However, there are ways in which these prejudices are being reinforced and reproduced by popular television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which serves a large audience of queer and straight people. By considering the histories of these issues within the popular drag narrative, it can be argued that in order to become a beacon of inclusivity within the LGBTQ+ community, drag must become a place where all are considered equal and are allowed the same opportunities to do. However there are many racist and transphobic thought processes that needs to be dismantled before this is possible.
There has been much discussion considering the relationship between the transgender community and the drag community. To the uneducated, both could seem similar, as they both deal with issues of gender expression. Many people are not aware of the differences between these entirely difficult groups of people due to popular narratives associating identical labels (and insults) for both groups. Terms such as “gender-bender” and “she-male” are just some of the offensive terminology which is used interchangeably about drag queens and trans women. However, there is one fundamental difference between the two: drag queens perform as women, and transgender women ARE women. Performance and identity are two wildly different things — a drag queen is a character whilst a trans person is simply that – a person who associates with a gender different than the gender assigned to them at birth. Cultural narratives about gender and sexuality have blurred the lines between art and reality. Although a drag queen and a transgender woman are two separate and different identities, it is possible to be both. Some contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race have come out during the show as transgender women, whilst others have begun their transition following their appearances on the show. Despite the national visibility Drag Race has afforded these transgender narratives, some queens are reluctant to call the show fully inclusive of trans women who also do drag.
In a March 2018 interview with The Guardian, RuPaul Charles, America’s best-known (and most likely, most influential) drag queen was asked a question about whether or not he would allow biological queens or transgender queens compete on the VH1 television show. His comments sparked a fierce debate on not only what it means to be a drag queen but more cuttingly, what doesn’t make a drag queen, at least in the eyes of RuPaul. ““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.” Charles remarks. “So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.” These comments and the rest of the following interview reveals the depth of RuPaul’s exclusionary ideas about who and what constitutes real drag. The interview goes onto question the fact that transgender women have competed (and done so successfully) on the show before, most recently with Season 9 contestant Peppermint. Charles notes 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….You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. 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.” In these casual comments, RuPaul trivialises the entire transgender experience, condensing it to a simple surgical procedure. Many trans people choose not to define themselves and their bodies by surgeries, and others are bound by financial restriction which renders them unable to afford these surgeries. Top and bottom surgeries are a point of privilege in the trans communities, not the standard as RuPaul alludes to in his comments. In her book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes travelling to Florida for her husband Harry Dodge’s top surgery. Nelson particularly chooses to underline the significance of getting a “good surgeon.” Nelson and Dodge are obviously in positions of privilege to be able to fly cross-country to the surgeon of their choosing, and this luxury is unfortunately not afforded to all trans people seeking such surgeries.
Although RuPaul’s comments about trans women are harmful, they go some way to emphasise the struggles that the transgender and the non-binary drag communities face. These comments are not the only problematic things that Drag Race has become associated with. A segment from Season 6 entitled “Female or Shemale?” asked contestants to identify the “biological woman” from the “psychological woman” by examining close-up photographs of body parts. Additionally, a recurring catchphrase called “You’ve Got She-Mail!” was dropped by the time season 7 aired in 2015, in attempt to put forward a new “trans-friendly” show, although if it were up to the show’s host? “I would not have changed it, but that’s their choice.” Although the show’s host may have a narrow-minded view on what drag constitutes, former contestants of the show have been outspoken in affirming their support for non-cisgender male drag performers. Carmen Carrera, a contestant on season 3 and transgender woman said “we live in a new world where understanding and acceptance are on the rise. Drag Race should be a little smarter about the terms they use and comprehend the fight for respect trans people are facing every minute of today. They should use their platform to educate their viewers truthfully on all facets of drag performance art. Carmen’s words, although affirming, become worthless if changes aren’t instituted to make Drag Race more inclusive for trans contestants. Drag Race is widely considered to be the only way to make a decent living out of drag today, and RuPaul, in turn, becomes the spokesperson for modern drag in America. His opinions not only exclude trans queens from competing in the show, but prevent them from having the same chances at fame and fortune as their cisgender counterparts.
Another important intersection which has received a spotlight in recent times concerns drag performers of color. In popular culture, there is an overarching trend to portray gay people as a predominantly white group. “LGBT film-makers, organizations and publications reinforce the idea that gayness equals whiteness.” LGBT people of color have been shunned out of the spotlight in favour of a whitewashed reality of what it means to be gay. Many gay people of color do not see themselves represented in any types of popular media. Unfortunately, gay people of color were thrust into the national media in 2016 following the Orlando mass shooting. The tragedy of this shooting was doubly so due to the fact that not only a gay safe space was targeted, but one which was hosting its weekly Latinx night when the shooting occurred. In the days following the tragedy, queer Latinx people expressed concerns that they did not have an opportunity to tell their stories to the media. “Even when it’s our community under attack, our community is not allowed to set the tone, and I hate to say it, white people just rush in,” says Paulina Helm-Hernadez, a co-director for Southerners on New Ground, a LGBT run out of Atlanta, Georgia. “I’ve watched it over and over again in recent years. The consolidation of gay white power, even in organisations that say they are committed to doing multiracial LGBT work.” The dominant narrative tends to be a white one in the world of drag too. Although previous seasons of Drag Race have been problematic towards queens of color, Season 10 has opened up conversations about the hardships that drag queens of color face when trying to break into the business. More specifically, it focused on the experiences of The Vixen, a black drag queen from Chicago, and delved deep into black queer trauma. During a recent episode, The Vixen tells her white counterparts about the pain associated with being told that “south-side trash ruined pride.” She also goes on to discuss being painted as the season’s villain, fuelled by the “angry black woman” stereotype. White experiences within the community will always be elevated above black and brown people and their voices and experiences. The intersection of these oppressions leads to double minority stress, especially in the LGBTQ community. While many white LGBTQ people might feel easily welcomed into among other queer people, queer people of color, especially black queer people, often encounter more deep-seated racism within the community at large. Queer spaces like bars, bathhouses or even LGBT centres may not be considered havens at all because of racism. More needs to be done to carve out safe spaces for queer people of color and make sure that their concerns are listened to. To paraphrase the Vixen, it’s hard being a black gay drag queen in America.
It is evident that within the world of drag, some performers automatically have more privilege than others. At its core, drag is meant to toy with notions of gender and has always been a welcoming community to those who struggled with heteronormative behaviours. However, the rise of popularity in RuPaul’s Drag Race has controlled the narrative on what it means to be a drag queen, and therefore has narrowed the definition of a successful queen to that of a white cisgender male one. The show places great emphasis on passing as female or being a “fishy” queen, but whilst in doing so, is careful to leave out those who are considered to be “cheating” by going through surgical procedures to transition as a woman. Although considered one of the most forward-thinking reality TV shows of our time, Drag Race only seeks to reward performances which are “merely a reassertion of stereotypical gender performance.” Similarly, the show’s arc tends to be more favourable to white queens and uses their experience as the baseline to speak for all drag queens. In reality, the ways in which drag queens of color experience the world are vastly different from those of their white counterparts. It is fair to say that the “the limiting scope of the show impedes progress for drag culture.” In order to move towards a more inclusive drag world, fans of the show ought to support their local queens (and kings!) and consider that there is no one right way to do drag.
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