After yearning to do drag for nearly two decades in hiding, I had my makeup done for the first time at a MAC counter on Fifth Avenue in 2012. I had religiously watched Seasons 1–4 of RuPaul's Drag Race in secret from inside the closet, and from listening to the queens bicker while they drank cocktails, I learned that a queen just starting out sought out a mother to teach her her skills. So, newly out and proud, I found myself in the chair of a makeup artist to whom a friend had referred me: a giant, shit-talking, off-duty blonde drag queen named Sweetie.
Sweetie had pounds of mascara and permanently limp wrists, and was exactly the kind of gay who'd make my mom grasp my hand and pick up our pace when I was younger, were we to cross paths at the mall. As she painted huge shimmery eyelids on me, she gabbed about her life in New York, about RuPaul “before she was rich,” and the parties of the ’90s. She refused to teach me to glue down my eyebrows like I'd seen the girls on Drag Race do. By the time she got to my lips, I realized I was in the presence of New York drag royalty.
Before she finished, Sweetie leaned close to tell me that she knew about private clubs where girls like us could meet gentlemen who love us. Startled, I told her that I just wanted to do drag, not BE a woman.
"Honey, all of us want to BE women," she said, looking me squarely in the eye and waving a powder brush at me like a magic wand, "or none of us would do this shit."
That day, getting my makeup done by the late legend, I took my first glimpse into the world of drag as it exists outside of the Drag Race studio: one that predates Drag Race and the mainstream visibility of the art form by generations.
Those of us who work in drag were not surprised to hear RuPaul’s recent comments about trans inclusion (or in this case, exclusion) on Drag Race. In an interview with the Guardian this past weekend, she said that Peppermint, a trans woman and fan favorite who competed in (and nearly won) Season 9, had been allowed on Drag Race because she “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.” To imply that a trans woman isn’t really a woman until she has breast implants is to invoke the same mindset of ignorant conservatives who marginalize and demonize queer people every day.
As RuPaul’s Drag Race was renewed season after season and its popularity heightened, the girls in New York began to notice that out trans women weren’t making it onto Drag Race — or if they did, it was only by sneaking by casting undetected. Rumors trickled down into the local scenes that being on hormone replacement therapy or having breast implants could disqualify you from getting your golden ticket to Drag Race fame. By the time the show made the jump to VH1 last year, exponentially increasing its audience, it was clear to us that Drag Race was choosing a specific and incomplete image of the art form to uphold. The drag queens favored most on the show weren't only glamorous like RuPaul, witty like RuPaul, and meticulous like RuPaul — they were cis like RuPaul.
RuPaul is no stranger to backlash from the trans community. The show’s sixth season featured a mini challenge called “Shemale or Female,” in which RuPaul instructed the contestants to guess by looking at images of body parts whether those parts belonged to “a biological woman, or a psychological woman.” However, it wasn’t until RuPaul’s comments to the Guardian — which she later doubled down on in a tweet: “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics” — that she proved herself an outright transphobe. The ensuing backlash, which prompted responses from Peppermint and other Drag Race alums, led Ru to post a series of half-assed apologies.
As an art form, drag is a notoriously futile venture, but it also leads a lot of girls like me to discover our identities.
The problems with RuPaul’s comments are obvious and conspicuous. She told the Guardian that “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.” Implying that men are capable of rejecting masculinity in a way that women are not is nearsighted to say the least, and her mention of “danger” is especially repulsive at a time when queer and trans women are raped and murdered in record numbers with every passing year. In what ways are drag queens who transform temporarily into women giving more of an “f-you to male-dominated culture” than trans women when they can at any time return to their place of privilege and power as men living in a patriarchal world?
If RuPaul sees her show as the Olympics of drag, she is thereby dangling her renown and prize money just out of reach of those she deems unworthy. Appearing on Drag Race has in fact become the only way to make a viable living off of drag. As an art form, drag is a notoriously futile venture, but it also leads a lot of girls like me to discover our identities. That’s what makes it especially frustrating that American trans women have been more or less disqualified from appearing at the Olympics — considering most of us who work in drag are about $100,000 away from feeling at home in our bodies.
RuPaul rose to prominence in drag at a time when there was less of a clear distinction between what constitutes a drag queen and a trans woman. Before the show made drag go mainstream, many drag queens' lives involved a lot of staying home, their heads wrapped, gigantic sunglasses shrouding their bare faces, biding their time until their next chance to put on 30 pounds of hair and 50 pounds of jewels and own the fucking universe. It didn’t really matter how drag queens presented otherwise, or who their partners were, or even their birth names.
Dorian Corey, of posthumous Paris is Burning fame, was a Goddess in the ballroom, her gowns festooned with feathers and 10-foot trains. Without an adoring crowd hanging on her every move, she was somewhat of a hermit, her only daylight coming from the bulbs of her vanity mirror, and with only cats or visitors (or eventually filmmakers) to keep her company. In the decades preceding Drag Race, queens like Corey were only renowned for their feminine presentations, and to most people they would never be known as anything other than “she.”
Before the internet, you wouldn’t be able to see a queen out of drag unless you knew her intimately; as a fan, all you’d know about her would be confined to what she presented at gigs. If you were to ask a performer about her gender identity, you wouldn’t investigate any further than simply asking, "are you full-time?" Hell, Ru herself wasn't seen out of drag onscreen until a decade after she’d achieved mainstream fame and commercial success, in 1999’s But I'm a Cheerleader.
This is what we mean when we say that trans women were the pioneers of drag. Before the advent of Drag Race, participating in drag required you to sacrifice your manhood entirely, whereas nowadays we have a rich vocabulary when it comes to queer and trans identities and their associated expressions. The categories of what we now call “drag queens” or “trans women” weren’t so clearly divided, because the spotlight of the stage bore witness to all. For instance, drag legend Lady Bunny would respond with a high-pitched giggle if you called her transgender, but you will never, ever see her out of drag. Legendary women like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, pioneers of the LGBT rights movement, would likely identify as trans women today, but identified fiercely as drag queens in the ’60s and ’70s. At a time when LGBT people were fighting just to exist, it made no sense to split wig hairs.
Here's the gag: Most straight people still can't see the difference between a drag queen and a trans woman. They see effeminate gay men, drag queens, and trans women — all “faggots.” In a straight man’s world, there’s no need to tell us apart.
At a time when LGBT people were fighting just to exist, it made no sense to split wig hairs.
Because drag used to be totally inaccessible to the outside world, and is therefore missing from historical narratives of pop culture, RuPaul now represents our entire diverse community to the straight people willing to listen. Those with an open mind, who don’t think we’re all condemned to hell, will therefore see the entire spectrum of femme presentation through the lens of his show. By virtue of her decades of celebrity, RuPaul holds an immense amount of power. She’s not only exposing us to the public who had no prior access or insight into our world; she is literally writing LGBT history.
.RuPaul's Drag Race’s rising popularity over the past 10 years has coincided with the evolution of social media and the rise of online queer discourse. For the first time, we see the 360 degree view of a drag queen's life: every detail of their mundane off-duty lives. As marginalized queer people found each other on the internet, so arose the language to categorize our identities — who is a woman, who is a man, who’s in between, and who’s outside. We began to talk about a drag queen "as a boy" once we saw them in the workroom, or saw selfies of them out of drag on our feeds.
Drag queens used to have to exchange their sexuality for relative celebrity. At the clubs where they worked, they belonged onstage, not commingling or cruising amongst the commoners. But in large part thanks to Drag Race, queens can now be considered gay men with viable capital in the sexual marketplace. When preparing to compete, they don’t only plan glam looks for the runway, but also pack cute outfits for their male presentations during the interview and workroom scenes that comprise most of the show. Drag queens aren’t quite queens anymore — they’ve stepped down from the throne to become common gay men who have the impulse and the skills to transform their bodies temporarily into women. The notion that a drag queen is actually a man is one that RuPaul created and established in the zeitgeist with her career, and later with her show.
Now, by drawing a distinction between queens based only on whether the silicone bags hanging from their chests are on the outside or inside of their bodies — and by withholding her spotlight from people who literally aren't man enough — RuPaul is not only erasing present-day trans queens from the history of drag, but also abandoning the decades-long deification of drag queens into honorary womanhood regardless of their everyday presentation.
It's not just that the the fame and success that comes to a queen after appearing on Drag Race is being withheld from trans women who want their slice of the pie. It's that trans women baked the pie, and RuPaul sold it to straight people.
Ru would probably be the first to agree that the primary tenet of drag is turning gender into a fart joke. Her most famous aphorism, after all, is that “we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” And yet somehow she can't see that the diversity among drag performers — our different bodies, different lifestyles, different spirits — is what gives depth and breadth to our creed. To quote the reigning queen of Season 9, Sasha Velour: "That's the real world of drag, like it or not." The gender binary exists to enforce patriarchy and shackle queer people. By abiding by that binary so strictly in casting for the majority-boys’ club that is Drag Race, RuPaul purposefully erases the world she came from: a world that doesn’t categorize queens based on their body parts, and one where fierce trans women have always existed. ●