When RuPaul’s Drag Race hit TV in 2009, it was a groundbreaking celebration of all things queer. Now, in 2018, its legendary gender-fucking namesake has stumbled into a controversy that suggests he’s more behind the times than some might have expected.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, writer Decca Aitkenhead asked RuPaul about “the contradiction between his playfully elastic sensibility and the militant earnestness of the transgender movement” (which, already, yikes).
Though Aitkenhead notes that RuPaul picked his next words “carefully,” his answer wound its way to saying that he “probably” wouldn’t have admitted a transgender woman like Peppermint — an iconic New York City performer who made the finals in season nine after coming out as trans on the show — if she had already started gender-affirming surgery.
“You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body,” he said. “It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.”
This response immediately sparked a wave of disappointed anger within several overlapping communities: Drag Race fans, the show’s former contestants (trans and otherwise), and trans performers. Peppermint — who spoke after her season about being worried that she wouldn’t “belong” on Drag Race after coming out and was relieved when it seemed to be “a non-issue” — issued a vague but pointed tweet expressing her reaction:
!— Peppermint (@Peppermint247) March 4, 2018
In response to the growing backlash, RuPaul doubled down with an ill-advised tweet. (Note to all those embroiled in controversy: Doubling down with a tweet is practically always ill-advised.) “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete,” RuPaul wrote, “just not in the Olympics.”
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
To no one’s surprise, this rather jaw-dropping comparison didn’t do much to help the situation. Many pointed out that plenty of Drag Race contestants have had plastic surgery — some more and more openly than others — and so suggesting that it’s a deal breaker is disingenuous at best.
At this point, season four’s Willam Belli — who was infamously kicked off the show for seeing his husband during production and is outspoken about having a sometimes-contentious relationship with RuPaul — issued a series of furious Instagram posts urging other Drag Race alums to speak out against RuPaul’s words. “We work with trans women every night side by side,” Willam wrote, “and for them to be denied the opportunities because of someone’s narrow-minded view on what they call ‘drag’ is fucked.”
Less than seven hours after his controversial tweet, RuPaul reeled his words all the way back. “I understand and regret the hurt I have caused,” he wrote. “The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.” (In her response, Peppermint called the apology “an important step,” emphasizing that “women should not be defined by what surgeries they have or haven’t had” and that “gay men do not own the idea of gender performance.”)
The RuPaul’s Drag Race fan community is no stranger to drama; in fact, we thrive on it. But the latest bout isn’t born of the kind of deliciously melodramatic banter that has kept the show running for almost 10 seasons now. Instead, it’s coming straight from the top — and striking at the bleeding heart of the drag community itself.
RuPaul’s relationship to the trans community has been ... contentious
It should be noted that RuPaul having to learn this particular lesson wasn’t much of a surprise.
In 2012, after Lance Bass issued an apology for using the word “tranny” and cited its use on RuPaul’s Drag Race as part of why he thought it might be okay, RuPaul was openly annoyed that Bass should have to walk that back. “I love the word ‘tranny,’” he insisted. “And no one has ever said the word ‘tranny’ in a derogatory sense.” (Fact-check: wrong, so wrong.)
Two years later, one of the show’s first real tests came as it finally acknowledged that transgender people — including former Drag Race contestants — were uncomfortable with the fact that RuPaul would beam in announcements to the show’s workroom with a cackling, “You’ve got she-mail!” a play on a particularly vicious derogatory term for transgender women. Logo, the show’s home network, officially ditched it for the seventh season, but RuPaul was, again, openly annoyed about it.
“You’d have to ask [the network] why they did it,” he told Vulture in 2016, “but I had nothing to do with that.” He added that “we do take feelings seriously and intention seriously,” but that “if you are trigger-happy and you’re looking for a reason to reinforce your own victimhood, your own perception of yourself as a victim, you’ll look for anything that will reinforce that.”
This frustration at not being able to keep using a term many people consider a slur in the name of fun is a weirdly conservative statement from someone who purports to be a leader in the LGBTQ community. Though reclaiming derogatory language is and always has been a part of the LGBTQ experience, RuPaul trying to do so with a term that isn’t his to reclaim isn’t revolutionary. His discomfort with being called out, therefore, looks an awful lot like railing against “political correctness,” wrapped in the guise of a right to unlimited self-expression.
To understand why RuPaul has always been resistant to let go of what he finds to be harmless jokes, you have to understand that he built his career on the principle that no one should take themselves or gender particularly seriously. In fact, as he told Vulture, his vision of drag is that it’s meant to “remind culture to not take itself seriously.” When he gets asked about the trans community’s relation to drag, he said, he just gets bored because “we mock identity. They take identity very seriously.”
So when RuPaul talked to the Guardian, he was at first trying to parse his feelings about drag acting as “a big f-you to male-dominated culture” and a “real rejection of masculinity.” But he did so by framing it within his opinion that “drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it,” and ended up dismissing all that trans women, trans men, cis women, and nonbinary people have contributed to the complex, beautifully weird world of drag.
Not all transgender people are drag performers. But for those who are, drag can be an essential form of self-expression.
There are plenty of cisgender men and women who do drag and are careful to emphasize that dressing up as exaggerated versions of the opposite gender does not mean they identify as such; it’s also true that most transgender people don’t consider themselves to be drag performers.
But for those trans people who do find a way to express themselves and their gender through performance, drag can be a lifeline, a space to be a version of themselves they can’t be anywhere else. In fact, the very concept of drag has long been thought to be born of trans experiences; as trans actress Alexandra Billings put it in a blunt note to RuPaul, “you did not invent drag; we did.”
For Jinkx Monsoon, who came out as nonbinary shortly after winning Drag Race’s fifth season, “drag is the way that I express myself in a safe way, and drag is also the way that I’m able to express myself day to day.” Trans queen Daphne Always described a similar feeling to Mic, saying that developing her drag persona was a way for her to “look closer to what I’ve always looked like in my head.” Peppermint, meanwhile, has found that her “everyday approach to drag versus trans is probably similar to the approach of a cis woman who is a showgirl.”
And as trans drag king K. James puts it, adopting an onstage persona is a way to express a part of himself that he can’t quite otherwise, given many people’s hostility toward the trans community:
The major point of performing as a trans person for me is taking control of how people see me. Because trans people are objectified: We face violence and street harassment, or just being generally stared at, being objectified and pathologized by doctors in the medical community as a whole.
But when you’re a trans person and you get to put yourself onstage, you’re basically inviting people to objectify you in a way, but you are taking back the control of that objectification.
For trans performers, drag can represent a kind of freedom that’s otherwise out of reach — a freedom they work hard to find and cultivate in their work.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is, as the title implies, RuPaul’s show to do with as he sees fit. So if he wants to curate the series to be about the experience of being a cis man subverting his gender, that’s his prerogative. But hopefully he doubles down on his renewed promise to only screen contestants for their “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent,” because dismissing trans performers would mean dismissing a world of talent.
Updated to include Peppermint’s response to RuPaul’s apology.