Rupaul might be responsible for bringing drag into the spotlight, but he’s also got a lot to answer for. If drag is ‘a big f*ck you to male-dominated culture,’ then why does Rupaul seem so set on excluding trans women from it?
Earlier in the month, RuPaul of the immensely popular ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ gave a highly controversial interview in The Guardian. For those that missed it, Ru argued in the interview that drag should be reserved for cis men only, and that trans women who had received transitional surgery wouldn’t be accepted onto the show. His problematic comments in the article didn’t go unnoticed. Whilst as a general rule Ru abstains from apologising for controversial remarks, the scale of the public backlash provoked a series of tweets from the Emmy-winnning TV host, one of which reads as follows: ‘In the 10 years we’ve been casting Drag Race, the only thing we've ever screened for is charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent.’ Well, clearly not.
Rupaul’s attempts to backtrack are transparent and desperate. A brief once-over of his past interviews, in which his stance on the place of trans performers in drag is questioned, unsurfaced a whole ocean of defensive and white-washed evasions, with broad statements about the ‘irreverence’ of drag. It seems Ru has a long and complicated history with the trans community. This is also far from the first time his transphobia has been called out. The now infamous ‘You’ve Got She-Mail’ segment of the show was axed in the sixth season, following a ‘female or shemale’ gag which sent viewers into melt down. Yet here we are again. If you hoped Ru might have learned from his mistakes, it seems you were sadly mistaken.
Ru’s insistence on excluding trans performers who have surgically or medically transitioned from taking part in the show is hypocritical. He says drag is for everyone - that it’s a ‘big f- you to male-dominated culture,’ but allow a female contestant on the show? Never! God forbid the irreverence and sarcasm of drag, used to subvert social and gender boundaries, especially those of femininity, should be employed by a woman herself; we all know it’s only gay, cis-men who can pull off humour of that calibre anyway! By drawing a distinction between trans women who have medically transitioned and those who haven’t, Ru additionally assumes two things. Firstly, – that all trans women actually want to medically transition, and secondly, he reduces gender to the level of the body – in terms of the ability to pass as male or female. By doing so he reinforces the very gender binary that drag, for so many, seeks to subvert.
But, it gets worse. In another follow-up tweet to the article – that attempts to justify his trans-exclusionary policy – Ru made the remark, ‘You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.’ Ru, oh Ru, you disregard the very real struggle in the trans community with this parallel. Life-saving medical treatment, used by those with gender dysphoria, does not equate to an aesthetic performance enhancer. The irony runs deeper, as these enhancers include lip-fillers or Botox, which many of the contestants on ‘Drag Race’ have. You also simultaneously compare your show to the Olympics: the pinnacle of competitive success, and may I add, a historically male-dominated one. Right.
What is most dangerous about The Guardian’s article, is that the interviewer – Decca Aitkenhead – doesn’t even come close to calling out any of his past comments, nor the ones he makes during the interview. She instead provides him with a platform through which, due to his vast celebrity, people (and especially people who are still learning about drag and trans issues) will interpret drag. It becomes “Ru’s drag,” a homogenous entity which excludes the voices and performances which, by drag’s very nature, are necessarily heterogeneous. By excluding bio-queens (biological women who perform as drag queens) and drag kings from the performance of drag, Ru is excluding a vast and rapidly increasing part of the community. Drag is an art form. It is a way of expressing and examining social boundaries through gender, identity and sexuality. For so many of the contestants on the show, it is also a way of dealing with past trauma and self-expression. Ru’s comments are frankly antithetical to the plethora of voices by which drag is characterised, and with his stubborn refusal to acknowledge that his attitudes are problematic, he risks becoming the Germaine Greer of the drag community: radically outdated.
Image : To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)