It stung when RuPaul, mother of mainstream drag, said he “probably” wouldn’t allow cis or trans women to compete on upcoming seasons of his show Drag Race. His off-the-cuff remark, mentioned in an interview with the Guardian, was made during a discussion about how drag can be an important counterbalance to male-dominated culture.
I’m new to the world of drag. But in the eight months since I became a drag artist myself, I’ve experienced similarly problematic comments. I perform as a drag king, meaning I’m a woman who takes to the stage dressed as a man. My drag character, Dreamboy, does everything on 10: big moustache, big eye makeup and a whole lot of glitter. I don’t put too much effort into making myself look hypermasculine: I’m 5’3” and have the twig arms of a weak 12-year-old. I will never be a hunk.
My handful of performances have mostly been well-received, but not by everyone. A few months back, during a drag king competition, a judge told me that my figure wasn’t masculine enough. As someone who has becoming increasingly dysphoric about the femininity of my body in recent years, this was incredibly discouraging to hear—especially in a purportedly safe queer space. After all, drag is meant to deconstruct, disrupt and reject conventional ideas about gender. It’s a way for performers to feel seen and empowered in all their differing beauty.
When drag becomes exclusionary, it fails to live up to the values it was founded upon. By arguing for a narrow definition of what makes a “legitimate” drag king or queen, cis gay men like RuPaul—or anyone within the community—reinforce sexist, heteronormative ideas about how men and women should look and behave. Their gatekeeping supports the patriarchy: barring cis and trans women from participating, or devaluing their work, is just another way of privileging male voices.
Breaking down RuPaul’s remarks
RuPaul’s remarks came just a few weeks before he became the first drag queen to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead asked RuPaul if he’d accept a transgender contestant on Drag Race who had recently transitioned. “Probably not,” he said. “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.” (He’d previously said similar things on Twitter back in 2016.)
His comments, which wrongfully equate physical body parts with gender, were met with anger from fans, former Drag Race contestants and performers within the drag community. RuPaul initially doubled down with another offensive tweet, stating that athletes can take performance-enhancing drugs, but are not permitted to compete in the Olympics. Two days after, amid severe backlash, he apologized, saying he regretted the hurt he had caused.
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
I fundamentally disagree with what RuPaul said in his Guardian interview. The way a person’s body looks does not dictate their gender—nor should it limit what kinds of drag they’re allowed to do. This attitude is one I apply to my own performances, when, for example, I get onstage without a chest binder. For me, performing as a king and showing my unbound chest is political. Having breasts does not make me a woman, just as lacking them wouldn’t make me any less of one.
Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers. pic.twitter.com/80Qi2halN2
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 5, 2018
Drag is still a boys’ club
Infuriating as RuPaul’s comments were, they aren’t totally surprising. Drag is still a boys’ club. As is the case in other male-dominated fields, in drag, men’s work has continuously been elevated above just about everyone else’s.
Anyone who isn’t immersed in drag culture could be forgiven for thinking that male queens are the only gender-bending performers: they dominate mainstream stages and land coveted spots on Drag Race, which has helped to bring the art form out of late-night slots in gay bars and into the living rooms of straight and queer folks alike.
But the idea that gay men single-handedly built the scene is insulting and ahistorical. Trans men and women, non-binary folks and cis women have long contributed to the gorgeously dizzying and deranged world of drag.
Trans women of colour, in particular, are among its founders. The first Harlem Drag Ball, which took place in 1869, morphed into a vogue scene that’s elevated countless Black and Latinx performers (many of them trans femmes) and influenced the evolution of drag. Paris is Burning, a film that captured New York drag ball culture in the 1980s, depicted these events as some of the only spaces where trans women could express their gender identity without fear of violence or ostracism.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, foremothers of queer activism, were also queens. Johnson, who identified as trans and a drag performer, was reportedly one of the first to start the uprising at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969, kick-starting the riots that helped shape the gay rights movement. Rivera, also a trans queen, worked tirelessly to advocate for those typically left out of mainstream gay liberation: people of colour, people who were poor, people who were gender non-conforming.
Women in drag are often left out
Despite their contributions to the evolution of drag, women—both cis and trans—aren’t often given the space they deserve in the community. Take Lisa Morrison, a 21-year-old call-centre employee and drag queen currently living in Montreal. In 2016, just six months into her career as a hyper queen—a female-identifying artist who performs as a drag queen, sometimes called a faux-queen—she too faced harsh criticism. Dressed as her alter ego Lizzy Strange, Morrison was one of two women performing at a Halifax drag queen pageant. She remembers the moment the judges, a panel of cis gay men, reviewed her friend’s performance, and her own.
“The only thing they could find to critique about us was our bodies,” says Morrison. “They told my friend, ‘Oh, you don’t have a figure.’ Then they mentioned my performance and said, ‘You could see her rolls.’”
Morrison was furious. She was there to express her queerness and play with the idea of gender—not to be shamed for her body. The judges’ comments seemed to reinforce the belief that community members like RuPaul hold: despite identifying as women and as drag queens, the two performers weren’t “woman” enough. “You don’t expect that toxicity in a queer environment,” says Morrison. “But sometimes in a space that’s ruled by cisgendered gay men, it’s easy to come across.”
Other artists have dealt with far more aggressive backlash: in a story about faux-queens for the Establishment, Toronto-based drag artist Courtney Conquers explained that she’s had drinks poured on her head by folks who felt that she, as a woman, didn’t have the right to be a queen. As hyper queen Crimson Kitty told the outlet: “Many members of the gay community feel as if we are co-opting their art form… They forbid us in their clubs and on their stages. There is definitely friction.”
Certain drag sub cultures are also struggling to be recognized
Drag kings have been making audiences swoon for decades. They put as much effort into their shows as queens: kings contour, apply facial hair, conceptualize and choreograph routines. But they’ve struggled, and are still struggling, to become visible in the mainstream, largely because they aren’t given the space to perform. Montreal, the city I live in, doesn’t have a single regular performance night dedicated to kings. Toronto has only one.
In recent years, a subset of drag artists have begun to blur the king/queen binary, at times billing themselves instead as “genderf-ck performers” or “drag things”—think a king in makeup and a corset, or a queen with a pillowy, shimmering beard. Some performers, like Berlin-based drag queen Hungry—who broke into the mainstream after she worked with Björk—seem to defy gender altogether, appearing more alien than anything else.
Mixed shows, which feature kings, queens and everyone in between, have been growing in prominence in Canada and the U.S., giving less conventional artists a platform. But these types of shows still rarely get produced on larger, mainstream stages, making them less visible to those outside the drag community.
Let’s remember what drag is all about
In my opinion, anyone who polices a performer’s gender presentation, or tries to bar them from participating based on their sex, is fundamentally misunderstanding the point of drag.
The art form has always been a counter-culture. It is meant to be a safe space for queer, trans and non-binary folks to come out, and to be the selves they’re forced to suppress elsewhere. Counter-culture cannot—and should not—privilege dominant or oppressive attitudes.
Drag, ultimately, is not about gender. It’s about the performance of it. It’s designed to question, subvert and mock the binary. To blow it wide open into a million tiny, glittery pieces.