In March, RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition show in search of “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” featured a mini-game called “Female or She-male.” Contestants looked at pictures of bodies and tried to guess whether the person in the picture was a drag queen or a cisgender (not transgender) woman. This prompted a backlash from many transgender activists, who were upset by the nature of the segment and its use of the word “shemale,” which GLAAD explains is a term that “dehumanizes transgender people and should not be used.”
After an initially weak response to the outcry, Logo TV, the LGBT-focused network that airs Drag Race, announced it was pulling the episode and also cutting the “You’ve got She-mail!” segment that has been part of every episode of the show over its six seasons. Despite the resolution, the incident has continued to be a flashpoint about how the visibility of drag culture on Drag Race impacts public understanding of what it means to be transgender. Questions about the appropriate use of words like “shemale” and “tranny” speak to a larger conflict over media representation and the authenticity of identities.
RuPaul, the show’s host and executive producer, has been unrepentant, telling comedian Marc Maron recently, “I love the word ‘tranny,’” and that it’s only “fringe people” who are taking exception with such language. But among those “fringe people” expressing concern are former contestants from Drag Race, including Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly Hillz, both of whom now identify as trans women. According to Hillz, she is still fighting for respect from society, because “people don’t understand the daily struggle it is to be a transgender woman.”
Hillz’s point is at the center of the conflict, because Drag Race is a show that is not about being transgender but that clearly has implications for transgender people — a particularly vulnerable population. People who identify as transgender report incredibly high rates of discrimination across their lives, including in employment, housing, health care, education, and police interactions. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program’s recent study found that 72 percent of all violent crimes against LGBTQ people in 2013 targeted transgender women, who also made up 67 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims. One of the most alarming statistics, that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide — compared to just 1.6 percent of the general population — reflects the mental health consequences that result from this discrimination, harassment, and violence.
At the same time, the ongoing conversations about language sparked by Drag Race reflect what Time magazine recently called “the transgender tipping point.” With spokespeople like Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black) and Janet Mock speaking regularly to mainstream media outlets, visibility for transgender people — especially trans women of color — is on the rise. There have also been many victories for transgender equality, such as California’s new law and court rulings in Maine and in Colorado protecting transgender students. Maryland just became the 18th state to enact nondiscrimination protections based on gender identity, and exclusions for transgender health needs have been lifted for both Medicare and federal employees’ health insurance programs.
In many ways, the feud over Drag Race seems to stem from the visibility that the LGBT community has increasingly achieved, and an instinct to defend the authenticity of particular identities. For example, several drag performers responded aggressively against calls not to use words like “tranny,” suggesting it was word-policing and that reclaiming epithets is part of drag culture. Trans women have expressed their own concern that, if conflated with drag queens — i.e. “men in dresses” — the validity of their own identities will be questioned, further contributing to the oppression they experience.
In reality, as several Drag Race contestants outlined to ThinkProgress, this debate is circling some complicated conversations about identities that violate gender and traditional gender roles, but are not so neatly defined as “trans woman” or “cis man.”
“You can fully transform yourself. It’s as easy as deciding to transform yourself.”
Drag, in its most commonly understood form, might be defined as gay men portraying sensationalized women for entertainment purposes, but those who do drag describe it as something more significant than that. Each queen has their own personal reasons for doing drag and expectations for what they hope it can accomplish beyond making an audience laugh.
Benjamin Putnam, better known as RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6 contestant BenDeLaCreme, told ThinkProgress that for him, drag is about “dismantling that perception that we think we have about knowing what gender is.” Gender is a very “base thing,” Putnam explained, something we notice about a person even before their race, and drag creates an opportunity to question those expectations — ideally to improve the ways that we can be “kinder and treat each other better.”
Putnam suggests that drag has different purposes when it comes to subverting gender norms. As an “art form created by an oppressed community,” it creates an opportunity to “poke a little bit of fun at the people who are in positions of power because of their gender status.” At the same time, “It’s a way to experience that — to take that power on for a community that needed more of that.” Drag queens also serve as “jesters” so that “our community laughs more because it cries too much.”
Drag can also be a way of life. Manila Luzon’s given name is Karl Westerberg, but he told ThinkProgress that drag has become such a big part of his life since appearing on season 3 of Drag Race that his friends mostly call him Manila even when he’s not in drag. He thinks of drag as an “over-the-top parody of what gender is.” He explained that one of the reasons that he started doing drag was because he “kind of felt ugly,” envying how girls could cover up their pimples with makeup and “put on this extra bit of flair and costume and glamour.”
That’s why he loves drag and the impact that it’s having on culture as it’s becoming more mainstream: “You can wear whatever you want to make you feel pretty or fabulous,” he said. According to Westerberg, there’s no formula for who can do drag or how. “You can have a beard and do drag; you can be a woman and do drag. I’ve met faux queens. I’ve met kings. Anything that you want can be considered drag in the context.” He even suggested that female artists like Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry are also performing drag in the way that they exaggerate gender.
Drag can be pure entertainment too, but even entertainment can have a significant impact on an audience. For Michael Steck (Season 2’s Pandora Boxx), drag is a form of entertainment that inspires awe. “There’a a level of amazement in the transformation — how somebody can change their whole look and gender with makeup and wigs and costumes.” He’s noticed over his many years of performing that the straight people who come to his shows are the most amazed because “it was different to them and they were blown away by the transformation.”
But Steck also thinks that drag is “a big ‘fuck you’ to the gender stereotypes and gender rules.” Not unlike Westerberg’s jealousy that girls could wear makeup, Steck observes that “it’s really ridiculous for people to think that women wear makeup, women wear dresses. You’re not born like that; it’s just that society has dictated that women are supposed to wear makeup and that’s crazy.”
Though its goals may be smiles (and tips), drag is also a part of a revolution about identity. Jerick Hoffer won Season 5 of Drag Race as Jinkx Monsoon. He believes drag, particularly with the increasing mainstream visibility it now has thanks to the show, is really “giving people more freedom to redefine their own gender.”
“No matter who you are in your day-to-day life, and no matter what you look like, and whatever insecurities you’re dealing with,” he told ThinkProgress, “you can fully transform yourself. It’s as easy as deciding to transform yourself.” He’s heard many drag queens say that doing drag helps them become stronger and more self-assured in their non-drag life.
This transformation, Hoffer offers, is giving the world the sense of “owning your own destiny, your own fantasy, and becoming who you want to become. There’s nothing stopping you.” It’s “breaking down the idea that men act like men, women act like women, and that’s it. We need to tear down this idea that because you’re born with certain genitalia, you have to be a certain gender, because it’s been detrimental to our society for long enough. It’s oppressed women, it’s oppressed men, it’s just fucked up our society for so long.” The more we break it down, “the more free and the more accepting we become and the more our society becomes a safe place for everyone.”
“Umbrellas don’t work well when one group holds them up.”
The conflict between trans women and drag queens is one of representation and visibility. Viewers of Drag Race who don’t know the difference between the two groups might not appreciate the authenticity of identifying as a woman as a distinct experience from dressing and acting like one. Sorting these identities out raises two questions: “Are drag queens transgender?” and “Are transgender women drag queens?” The latter question is easier to answer; unless a trans woman actually does drag, she is in no way a drag queen. But the question of whether drag queens are transgender is a bit more complicated. Depending on who is considering the question and how, the answers “Yes,” “No,” and “Sometimes” could all be accurate. That’s because the word “transgender” can mean different things in different contexts.
For the most part, “transgender” has commonly come to mean individuals who were assigned one gender at birth — not “born a gender” — but who consistently identify as another gender throughout their lives. Transgender people generally opt to express themselves accordingly, and may pursue physical transitions to align their bodies with their gender identity. There are trans women like Laverne Cox and trans men like Chaz Bono, who recently appeared on Drag Race himself.
But transgender also has a definition less specific than that. As an umbrella term, the “T” in “LGBT” has also been long-used to encompass all gender identities that are nonconforming to society’s gender norms. After all, the simple word “trans-,” as it’s defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, can mean “on or to the other side of,” “through,” or “such as to change or transfer.” These various interpretations accommodate gender identities and expressions that are not easily measured by a man-woman binary.
Activist Riki Wilchins wrote about the competition between these definitions back in the 2002 anthology Gender Queer. “Transgender was intended as an umbrella term, then a name of inclusion. But umbrellas don’t work well when one group holds them up,” Wilchins observed. “Today, trans activism is often focused on the problems (bathroom access, name change, workplace transition, and hate crimes) faced by those who have been most active in its success: postoperative male-to-female transexuals (any similarity to the author is purely coincidental).
“Yet there is little being done today to address the needs of drag people, butches, cross-dressers, transexuals who do not seek surgery, or (besides the Intersex Society of North America) intersexuals. Cross-dressers especially have suffered from lack of representation, although they number in the millions and experience severe problems associated with child custody, job discrimination, hate crimes, and punitive divorce precedents.”
Wilchins’ grouping of “postoperative male-to-female transexuals” is probably too narrow. A 2011 study found that only about a quarter of people who identify as trans actually had any kind of transition surgery. Issues like bathroom access, name change, workplace transition, and hate crimes apply more broadly to all of the people who identify as trans and live full time as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth, regardless of how much they may have physically transitioned. The policing of bodies is at the center of the fight over whether transgender people deserve protections from discrimination in society. As Janet Mock explained in a recent interview, “The most harmful is the myth that trans women are not ‘real’ women or trans people are inauthentic and therefore our identities, experiences, and bodies must be investigated and interrogated.”
Transgender activist Julia Serano has written thoughtfully about these umbrella disputes. Taking a “pro-umbrella” position, Serano implores those having the conversation over what is and what is not “transgender” not to use language that might paint any group with too broad a brush. “We can disagree with one another without resorting to good-versus-bad, righteous-versus-oppressive, subversive-versus-conservative hierarchies,” she writes.
“If you want to be a girl, you’re a girl.”
All four of the drag performers who agreed to speak with ThinkProgress referenced the tension between these different definitions as it relates to their own understanding of the word “transgender.”
Benjamin Putnam (BenDeLaCreme) has “heard people use it as an umbrella term for folks who include transsexual, or genderqueer, or gender nonconformist.” He personally does not use the word “transgender” to describe himself, but he does consider himself “queer,” which he says describes his gender as much as anything else. It’s a word he believes “embodies this inability to nail something down,” saying something “broader than gay or straight or male or female.”
The politicized definition of “transgender,” referring more narrowly to trans men and trans women, rings true for Karl Westerberg (Manila Luzon). “If you live your everyday life as a girl — I don’t care how passable you are — if you want to be a girl, you’re a girl.” Still, he says, “it’s a blurry line” because of the ways people experiment with gender, and he knows many queens “who have realized through their drag that they really feel like a woman.” He leaves room for the idea that drag maybe is transgender, but that it might be more like there is a continuum for gender identity, similar to the Kinsey Scale for sexual orientation.
“Sometimes I feel like there’s a little bit of woman deep down inside of me, that when I put on the drag, she’s able to come out,” Westerberg admits. Nevertheless, he identifies as male and, he adds, “I don’t expect anyone to believe that I’m female when I’m in drag.”
When he was younger, Michael Steck (Pandora Boxx) did wonder if he might be transgender. He identified more with women, but eventually realized it was just femininity within his identity as a man.
“I never really felt like there was a woman trapped inside of me. I’ve only ever wanted boobs for drag; I didn’t want to take them home. I didn’t want to keep them. I’m happy with my genitalia and would not be happy with a vagina.” Like the others, he does not identify as “transgender,” referring to the more specific definition, but also adds, “I don’t know if I identify with any particular gender.”
Jerick Hoffer (Jinkx Monsoon) sees gender and trans issues in a bit more complicated way. Back in March, Hoffer shared some thoughts about a joke Ellen DeGeneres made at the Academy Awards about Liza Minnelli, which some believed to be transphobic. Hoffer didn’t, and when he said so, a few trans activists said that he didn’t have a place to discuss such issues as a “cisgendered male.”
“That really upset me,” he says, because, “I in no way consider myself as a cisgendered male. I think the closest thing I would refer to myself as is transgendered or nongendered.” Even out of drag, he explains, “I really don’t consider myself a man or a woman. I just kind of float in between and that’s how I’ve always felt.”
When Hoffer grew up, he heard the word “transgender” as an umbrella term for “anyone who transcends out of their assigned gender,” even if they haven’t taken any physical steps to change their sex. This included those who identified as nongendered — as neither a man nor a woman. Thus, he believes that drag queens are inherently transgender in some sense — they “have a foot in this realm.” “If you are a drag queen and you live your life dressing up as the opposite sex for however much time you do it, then I think you are inherently some classification of transgendered.” Still, he stresses that it’s about the individual identifying that way, so if a drag queen doesn’t identify as transgender, then “we should not be putting anything on anyone else. We should not be assuming anything for anyone else’s gender, because gender is defined by the individual.”
“I found drag because I was already playing with gender.”
Hoffer’s story speaks to the complicated barrier people face when discussing identities that don’t match society’s expectations. These in-between identities don’t fit into the boxes of “man” and “woman,” or even the boxes of “transgender” or “cisgender.”
Hoffer started doing drag as a teenager with the SMYRC queer youth center in Portland, Oregon, where he learned from his many trans friends that his gender “wasn’t strictly male.” Before he even understood what it meant to be gay, he “felt more like a little girl than a little boy.” He would dress up as a girl at home and had only female friends, with no interest in any of the things boys were supposed to be interested in. As he grew older, he realized that he didn’t so much feel “like a girl trapped on a boy’s body”; he simply didn’t want to be “what everyone told me I had to be.”
Now, at age 26, he describes how he simultaneously lives “in between genders” and “outside my assigned gender.”
“While I’m out of drag, I’m still extremely effeminate. I don’t dress as a guy; I dress kind of nongender-specific,” Hoffer explains. “My fake nails — my big drag queen claws — are permanent. I paint on my eyebrows; I wear full-face makeup in my day-to-day activity. So I feel like, for me, drag is my profession, but it’s also an extension of the fact that I am liberal with my gender expression. I found drag because I was already playing with gender. I was already living outside my assigned gender, and drag just became a way to step into the other sex completely.”
He describes Jinkx as a character and an alter ego, but also an extension of himself, “the fully embodied realization of my gender expression — my avatar.”
These outside-the-binary identities are not limited to the drag community; many others are uncomfortable conforming to the gender expectations that the more narrow definition of “transgender” adheres to.
Mark Daniel Snyder is one such individual who identifies as genderqueer, preferring to be referred to by the gender-ambiguous — and admittedly grammatically quirky — “they” as a singular pronoun. Snyder is the Communications Manager for the Transgender Law Center, an organization that works to protect all people from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression.
Like the drag queens interviewed for this story, Snyder wrestles with the conflicting definitions of “transgender,” acknowledging that it’s an umbrella under which they falls even though they doesn’t proactively identify with it. “I just feel supercomfortable identifying as genderqueer. I would not be offended if someone called me transgender, but it’s not the label I assume for myself, because people would assume I’m transitioning in some way. It makes more sense for me to identify as genderqueer.” Likewise, Snyder does not identify as cisgender: “I’ve been assumed and called cisgender and it hurts because it erases. It assumes I want to identify with manhood, which I don’t.”
Throughout their early life, Snyder wrestled with making sense of their identity. They “privately identified as a girl until about first grade,” when things became so gendered that they conformed and began to think that they were simply gay, but gay, they says, “never really captured who I was.” Still, Snyder rejected the stereotypical toys and activities, and when people would ask if they was a boy or a girl, “I always had a different answer. Sometimes I’d say ‘girl’ and pass, sometimes I’d say ‘boy,’ sometimes I’d say ‘neither’ and confuse them.”
Snyder began identifying as genderqueer when they first learned the word as a 17-year-old freshman in college. The word brought relief and “gave me the freedom to be myself.” Snyder says it refers not only to their gender, but also describes them politically and sexually as well: “I don’t identify as a man, I don’t identify as a woman. I’m not attempting to transition to be either a man or a woman. I draw my strength from my femininity. I break a lot of society’s rigid gender norms.”
CREDIT: Mark Daniel Snyder
“I enjoy fucking with gender norms. I enjoy the wide range of gender diversity and expression. I feel like as a genderqueer person,” Snyder says, “I’m able to see the world of gender in more color almost. I view gender as a galaxy and all the stars, and it’s so expansive and diverse, and I’m just one little star in there.”
Snyder recently posed along with other individuals who don’t identify with the gender binary for a portrait project called “Agender” by photographer Chloe Aftel, commissioned to raise awareness about this growing population of young people. Earlier this month, in a similar effort, another genderqueer individual named Jacob Tobia made a public splash of his own, writing about the unique professional challenges he faces trying to dress in an authentic — and “appropriate” — way in the workplace. Stories like Tobia’s and Snyder’s reflect the growing visibility for these identities that violate many of society’s gender norms and expectations.
Likewise, there is recognition within the political trans movement that genderqueer identities need more visibility. Harper Jean Tobin, Director of Policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, recently addressed this point in her keynote speech at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, the nation’s largest transgender conference — illustrating the complex overlap of “transgender” identities.
“We need to ensure that our movement, and the progress we’re making, really reflects and includes all of us. That means, among other things, that those of us whose identities do not fit in a gender binary are not ignored or pushed to the sidelines by those of us who do. Much as the LGBT movement has often limited transgender folks to the margins of the conversation, it has been too easy for trans advocacy to center the experience of binary-identified men and women with a “traditional” transition experience (and I count myself in that category), to the exclusion of folks who are genderqueer, gender-fluid, or otherwise don’t fit in the binary…
“There is also a fear, I think, on the part of some trans men and women that even acknowledging the existence of non-binary identities will threaten our right to be recognized as the men and women we are. We must resist the fear that there is not enough dignity and justice to go around. Our movement must recognize and elevate the voices and the rights and the leadership of trans folks who are not men or women.”
“I have a huge vocabulary, I don’t need to use them.”
The conversation between the trans and drag communities over the use of words like “tranny” and “shemale” is at the center of this conflict, because it epitomizes the way that the flashy visibility of drag queens impacts the fight for transgender equality. If a mainstream audience hears drag queens casually using such language, it could legitimize a belief that trans women are not real women at all, but “men in dresses.” Opponents of transgender equality capitalize on this conflation, suggesting that men might pretend to be women to abuse nondiscrimination protections in some predatory way.
A 2012 ad campaign to oppose nondiscrimination protections in Anchorage, Alaska implied that “transvestites” — an antiquated term for people who wear clothing of a different gender (like drag queens) — and “anyone who claims a female identity” will target women and children:
Similarly, back in December, The Daily Caller used a picture of drag queens in a story about a New Jersey bill that would have made it easier for transgender people to adjust their birth certificates to match their gender, which Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) ultimately vetoed. These are just two of countless examples of cross-dressing men being used to attack transgender protections.
For these reasons, some trans women and their allies have called for the word “tranny” to no longer be used at all — certainly not by anybody who doesn’t identify as the more narrow definition of transgender. For example, Cyd Zeigler, cofounder of LGBT sports site Outsports.com, recently wrote, “I don’t want to see or hear that word ever again because now, after falling in love with so many of my wonderful trans friends, that word hurts me too.” Malaysia-based trans activist Yuki Vivienne Choe has gone so far as to compare drag to slant-eye play and blackface because it turns transgender women’s lives into “only gimmicks.” She produced a “transgender role model” meme rebuking drag queens for misrepresenting trans women.
Other trans women have actually been interested in defending the word “tranny.” Author Kate Bornstein defines the term as “ANYONE who messes around with gender with little or no care as to how that might affect their standing in mainstream culture,” calling it a “valid, vibrant, and vital identity.” Transgender actress Candis Cayne doesn’t believe there’s anything “wrong” with “tranny,” dismissing concerns about Drag Race because “it’s not a serious show; it’s a fun, whimsical competition.” And Julia Serano suggests, “Rather than calling out the mere utterance of ‘tranny,’ let’s call out instances in which the word is used to exploit, erase, or denigrate trans people.” It’s the negative meaning behind the word that invalidates trans people, she argues, “not the word itself.”
The four drag queens who spoke with ThinkProgress all agreed that, though they have used them in the past, there was nothing gained by continuing to use words like “tranny” that are offensive and potentially harmful to other communities. As Putnam (BenDeLaCreme) joked, “I have a huge vocabulary, I don’t need to use them.” In fact, he doesn’t use terms like “bitch” either, for the similar reason that they are offensive to women.
But they also all had a sense that the word “tranny,” for example, has been used as a term of affection and that some trans people may identify with it. For Steck (Pandora Boxx), though he acknowledges it can be used as a derogatory term, he has also heard it to more generally mean transgender, transsexual, or transvestite. Though he doesn’t use it, Hoffer (Jinkx Monsoon) has heard the T-word used as a term of empowerment — “Yes, Tranny!” — to describe a drag queen who looks “so real, so gorgeous, and so far in the realm of the opposite sex, like she had transitioned overnight.” Recognizing that it has implications for many trans people, Westerberg (Manila Luzon) has committed to only using it privately “so it’s not heard out of context.”
Indeed, the context of Drag Race‘s accessibility has contributed to how heated this very conflict about trans representation has become. “When we put those words on a TV show that’s accessible to everyone,” Hoffer explained, “and when it becomes popular enough, then you get straight people — non-queer people — learning our words and using them with no history and no context, and using them possibly in a derogatory way, because they don’t know the proper way to use these words or the proper meaning or the true history behind these words.”
“I hope that we can continue to seek common ground.”
It seems unlikely that conversations about language and identity are going away; individuals will continue to disagree over what terms mean and the impact of media representations. But anecdotal conversations with drag queens suggest there is ample room for bridge-building. Though they may not identify as transgender themselves, they all see themselves as part of a community with people who do. In fact, they actually hope that by doing drag and challenging gender expectations, they are helping make society safer for all people.
That’s because safety is important for them too. All five individuals who spoke to ThinkProgress discussed various forms of harassment or oppression they have experienced because of their identities. Hoffer experienced bullying in high school not just because he was gay, but also because he was “extremely effeminate and didn’t hide it.” Snyder proudly wears a tattoo of the word “sissy” on their arm to take ownership of an epithet that they has encountered throughout their life. Putnam says he was “seen as so incredibly abnormal that I really didn’t even have any friends for a long time.” Westerberg described his hatred as “self-inflicted,” reflecting “a feeling of not loving myself for who I am.” And Steck still experiences harassment “all the time” when he’s not in the safety of the gay bar or a pride festival.
The similar experiences of rejection and harassment that gender nonconforming people share with trans women reflects the power masculinity still has over society. In fights over transgender equality, conservatives regularly reference people who do not conform to a male assignment at birth as threatening to women and children, framing nondiscrimination legislation as “bathroom bills” to remind of this supposed threat. It’s simultaneously those very individuals who are most vulnerable to harassment and discrimination, in part because of that demonization. Trans men and drag kings are largely absent from these conversations, most likely because neither identity transgresses masculinity or the male body. Transphobia, the force that motivates violence and discrimination against people who do not obey gender norms, does not seem to care with which definition of “transgender” people might identify. Drag at least provides a refuge for some, while many trans and gender nonconforming people live in isolation without communities or visibility to support them.
Putnam described himself as “heartbroken to see this rift where it does exist between the drag community and trans community.” He acknowledged that “there’s a fear and defensiveness we have as oppressed communities,” but, he concluded, “I hope that we can continue to seek common ground and see the ways we can help each other, feed each other, and lift each other up as communities.”