Drag is bigger than just cisgender men

RuPaul’s statements about female queens co-opt a countercultural art into something exclusionary

Written by Winona Young, Peak Associate

In an interview with The Guardian, drag queen RuPaul commented that he would “probably not” allow trans* women as contestants on his show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Following a swift and resounding backlash from not only fans but former contestants of his show, RuPaul issued an apology.

RuPaul’s arguments in his Guardian interview contain heavy notes of exclusivity towards trans* women and cis women within the drag community. This brings up the question of whether or not the drag community ought to be accepting of self-identified female drag queens. Not only should cis and trans* female drag queens be granted legitimacy to their drag, that courtesy should also extend to (cis and/or) drag kings and to non-binary drag performers, too.

To further understand drag, as well as to argue for acceptance of self-identified female drag queens, we have to examine the art of drag’s history. In an interview with TIME, Joe E. Jeffreys, drag historian of Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, described drag as a “theatrical form . . . [of] putting on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to [the performer],” and is done with an “ironic distance.” Jeffreys notes that drag has played into historic settings like Shakespearean plays and vaudeville shows, and that while drag in its purest incarnation is performed within gay bars, it is “everybody’s art form.”

RuPaul claims that drag loses its sense of “danger” once cisgendered men no longer perform it, because the art of drag proves cis men’s rejection of conventional masculinity. Two things are wrong with that statement.

First, as transfeminine drag queen Charlene Incarnate points out, to imply that a sense of “danger” is lost when trans* women are performing proves to be ignorant. Given that in the social climate we have lived in and continue to live in queer and trans women are raped and murdered in record numbers with every passing year,” the sense of danger and risk is very much present, if in a different form.

Furthermore, RuPaul’s stance proves myopic, in that it only focuses on one group/identity of drag performers in an otherwise very colourful and very intersectional community — a community that reveres this art form in its diversity. While drag performance is heavily rooted in gay culture, some of the most famous drag queens were certainly not cisgendered gay men.

One notable example would be Marsha P. Johnson, renowned trans* rights activist, who was also long rumoured to have been one of the first individuals to throw a brick during the Stonewall Riots. Johnson, a drag queen who was even photographed by Andy Warhol himself, also referred to herself with ‘she/her’ pronouns. Examples like Johnson stand as an example of drag’s historical intersection across the spectrum of gender identities, especially those of trans* women.

When RuPaul refuses to allow trans* women onto his show, and continues to accept cis gay men, he implicitly reinforces the notion that drag queens can only be made up by such a population. What RuPaul fails to consider, with his narrow perspective on who is allowed to do drag, is that he contradicts himself. He places gendered limits on an art that is historically renowned to be a ‘fuck you’ to gender norms and conventions in the first place.

One must question: why is it that only cis gay men are allowed to champion the title of drag queens? As a staff writer at Vulture, E. Alex Jung questions that if gender is all but irrelevant to drag as drag is to gender, “. . . why does it matter whether someone is a cisgender male or a transgender woman? Why can’t trans women subvert gender too?”

The drag community has been historically renowned to be vibrant and made up of wildly eclectic performers. In the exceedingly diverse landscape of drag today, Vancouver-based drag performer, Mx. Fortunate (pronounced ‘misfortunate’), considers drag as “gender art.” They affirm that, while drag is a fun means of expressing oneself, it is also “a political statement, especially for marginalized peoples to be in these spaces; like hyper queens, drag kings, and non-binary drag performers.”

Like their drag counterparts, Mx. Fortunate agrees that RuPaul’s definition of drag is exclusionary to trans* and non-binary people, and there is a stigma against certain types of drag. That said, Mx. Fortunate’s experience hasn’t been entirely negative; the local drag community here has been generally accepting.

With RuPaul’s Drag Race being unanimously the only high-profile, mainstream drag-centric TV show on air, RuPaul wields an enormous amount of power in helping control and deliver the narrative of drag performance to larger audiences as whole. This makes it that much more important that drag icons and ambassadors like RuPaul understand, recognize, and legitimize uncommon artistry like that of female cisgender, transgender, and non-binary drag performers alike.

Author’s note: Given the topics discussed in this article, it should be noted to readers that the author of this article is a cisgendered, heterosexual woman.