Has 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Reached a Trans Tipping Point?

by Naveen Kumar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday September 12, 2020

Malaysia Walker
Malaysia Walker  (Source:Courtesy of Malaysia Walker)

RuPaul famously tells her cover girls to let their whole bodies talk. But in the time since her ascension to self-proclaimed supermodel of the world, whose bodies are allowed in the conversation has become a strong point of contention.

It's been more than 10 years since "RuPaul's Drag Race" first sashayed onto Logo. From a modest debut season seemingly shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens, "Drag Race" has grown into an undeniable global phenomenon. It's now a multi-series franchise that includes, among others, 12 regular seasons, five "All Stars" editions, and international iterations in the U.K., Canada, and Thailand. And that's only on television. In 2018, RuPaul's fourth annual DragCon racked up more than $8 million in merchandise sales alone. The most recent spinoff, "RuPaul's Drag Race: Vegas Revue," is a six-part docu-series about the mounting of that live show, premiering on VH1 August 21.

The impact of RuPaul's ballooning empire has been profound and, in some ways, immeasurable. For example, competing on the show (and certainly winning it) has indeed garnered some 150-plus former contestants varying degrees of exposure and celebrity. On the extreme end, season six winner Bianca Del Rio performs to arenas of more than 10,000 fans, has made two star-vehicle movies, and appeared on the West End. Others leave the show in debt for all the expense of coming up with a competition-worthy trunk of looks. Some drag queens say that the recognition that comes with appearing on the show is the only way to make a living at it.

Less quantifiable are the reverberations "Drag Race" has set off through the culture at large. Fans in their 20s may have been watching since puberty; teenagers may not remember a time before an Emmy-winning televised drag competition seemed to air every Friday for months on end. The series' decade-long run has coincided with significant cultural shifts, including the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, a hyper-accelerated rise in social media visibility and communication among LBGTQ people, and a growing field of queer representation across mass media.

It's also a decade that saw Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine in 2014, next to the words "The Transgender Tipping Point." Trans people have gained a greater measure of visibility in media, and continue to make inroads in politics. This fall, Taylor Small, who is trans and performs in drag as Nikki Champagne, is poised to win a seat in the Vermont state legislature.

At the same time, many LGBTQ rights advocates have redirected their focus toward trans women, and trans women of color, in particular, as the community's most vulnerable. The reported number of trans people killed in 2020 already exceeds the total for all of the previous year. Trans people are disproportionately subject to harassment and discrimination, and are far more likely to experience homelessness and die by suicide.

RuPaul's resistance to inviting openly trans performers aboard the "Drag Race" juggernaut may seem like the least of all worries, considering the realities trans women face off-screen. Nor does this type of exclusion, on this influential scale, exist in a vacuum. As swiftly as our culture has evolved toward recognizing and legitimizing more progressive, less stringent conceptions of gender identification, the youngest generation is already leaps and bounds ahead. Approximately a third of Gen Z currently ages 5-25, know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, compared with a quarter of Millennials and just 16 percent of Gen X, according to a Pew Research Center study. The definition of drag that RuPaul brought into the mainstream and now promotes is rooted in ideas about gender that many young queer people have already outgrown.

(l to r) Trans drag artists Jupiter Doll and and Charlotte Doll

Drag can be a deeply meaningful and life-saving means for trans people to explore and come to terms with their identity. More than half a dozen former contestants have opened up about the evolution of their gender identification, coming out as trans or non-binary after appearing on the show or memorably on air. Openly trans performers say their exclusion from the show perpetuates a narrow idea of drag, delegitimizes their journeys as trans women, and deprives viewers of a valuable opportunity to recognize the humanity of trans people. While scripted representations of trans characters grow ever more sophisticated, the most popular reality program made by and for queer audiences has largely overlooked trans people altogether.

For a series that insists on self-love, vulnerability, and community, the continued exclusion of openly trans artists seems hypocritical at best. At worst, it signals a series once at the vanguard receding from cultural and political relevance; its stilettos stubbornly stuck in the mud.

Whose Drag Is It, Anyway?

Marsha P. Johnson (l) and Sylvia Rivera (r).
Marsha P. Johnson (l) and Sylvia Rivera (r).  (Source: Equality Archive)

There was nothing very 'punk rock' about RuPaul's now-infamous comments, to The Guardian in 2018, regarding his attitude toward trans performers.

"Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it's not men doing it," RuPaul said. "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."

The paradox here is that these comments serve to reinforce the gender binary that drag has always aimed to disrupt. Following a swift backlash, RuPaul apologized, writing on Twitter: "The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers," adding that "Drag Race" will only ever screen for "charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent."

When the cast of season 12 was revealed earlier this year, alumni once again decried the absence of trans artists.

Carmen Carrera, who came out as trans after competing in the third season, wrote on Twitter, "For someone to consciously block the truth of trans performers and the progression of our movement all [because] the public at large doesn't know any better is just a cruel and evil use of power."

Detox, runner up on "All Stars 2," wrote, "Enough with the feigned inclusivity. Time to start putting your money where your mouth is. #AllDragIsValid."

Season 9 winner Sasha Velour told a Brooklyn crowd shortly after RuPaul's comments in 2018 that trans and non-binary performers, "but especially trans women of color, have been doing drag for literal centuries and deserve to be equally represented and celebrated alongside cis men."

Any account of drag herstory proves that much is true.

But what's at stake for non-cis performers is acknowledgment, on a massively influential scale, that drag can serve as a means for gender exploration and discovery. Peppermint, who came out as trans on season nine, articulated that intersection in a recent interview with Cox.

"Many trans people, especially historically, haven't had the opportunity to safely transition in their own spaces. Doing drag is that safe space to experiment with gender... where everything goes, and some people leave that space with the conclusion that they're just a performer, and some people leave that space with a heightened knowledge or awareness that they are also trans."

Drag as a Vehicle for Self Discovery

Malaysia Walker y
Malaysia Walker y  

Performance was a means of coming-of-age for Malaysia Walker, a trans artist based in New Orleans who started doing drag as a teenager in Mississippi. She says she felt like an outsider and an ugly duckling until she gained a deeper understanding of herself through being on stage.

"[Drag] taught me how to be a woman; it taught me what my identification with femininity really was," Walker tells EDGE. She says it took some time to tune into her thoughts about transitioning; representations of trans people in pop culture were scarce and social media was nonexistent. "A lot of us, like myself, did not realize that we were trans individuals until we started doing drag, which gave us an opportunity to understand who we were and a place to feel safe," she says.

Psychology experts hesitate to suggest a causal or direct relationship between the desire to dress a certain way or play a role on stage, with how anyone conceives of their gender identity. Of course, doing drag doesn't make anyone transgender, and there are loads of ways to explore gender beyond doing drag. But dressing across socially accepted gender categories is a significant form of developmental play, beginning in childhood. A boy tiptoeing around in his mother's heels, for example, may be demonstrating "early signs, at the very least, of somewhat unconventional personality," that he is "more fresh, more liberal, more open to different ideas," not necessarily that he's trans or gay, says Francisco J. Sánchez, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at University of Missouri's College of Education.

Taking that play with dress-up to the extreme on stage can be "a socially acceptable way to covertly explore your gender identity," Sánchez says. "With anyone who's on stage, be it a young comedian or a drag entertainer, how the audience is responding to them could affect their self-worth or sense of self-efficacy."

Performing a character who may be, in the case of many drag queens, a heightened version of the self, can also prove revealing. "All drama and performance is play and entertainment," says Dana Bevan, Ph.D., author of "Transgender Health and Medicine: History, Practice, Research, and the Future." "There's some self-discovery that goes on during that," says Bevan, who is trans. "Doing theatrical work can bring stuff out from your subconscious that you didn't know was there."

To be denied recognition within an artform so foundational to your identity feels "like a slap in the face," Walker says. "People like me fought so long to understand why we are like we are, and to find something like drag that influences us or makes us comfortable with our own being. Then to be chastised for accepting who we've become — it really does make people postpone transitioning until they feel they don't have anything to prove," Walker says. That's perhaps one reason several former contestants have come out as trans only after appearing on the show. "The definition of drag has changed drastically, but there are still people who feel that there is no place for trans women because they feel we've given up that aspect of our identity when we chose to acknowledge that we were trans individuals," she says. "It's preposterous and insensitive."

The Power of Realness in Representation

Love Latonia
Love Latonia  

"Disclosure," the Netflix documentary produced and led by Cox, puts the significance of media representation into perspective: One early statistic estimates that 80 percent of Americans don't personally know anyone who identifies as trans. That number includes young people who are questioning their own gender identity.

Many of the film's subjects, who are now Hollywood professionals, recall how they first became aware of trans or gender variant people, from popular media. Early depictions of trans characters in TV and film, even when they were most often cast as villainous or mentally ill, became meaningful touchstones nonetheless. And when it came to introducing actual trans people to American audiences, that charge was led by hosts like Jerry Springer and Sally Jesse Raphael.

"The thing about the daytime talk shows of the 80s and 90s, and "RuPaul's Drag Race," is that you are showing representations of actual people, they are not playing other characters," says Robert Thompson, Ph.D., director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Newhouse School of Public Communications. "Certainly, with 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' there is a sense of being performative, that's what the show is about," he says. But there is a difference between reality TV and scripted series, like 'Pose' or 'Orange Is the New Black,' "in that you are presenting, maybe not people as they really are, but real people how they choose to present themselves."

Despite the mediation of production and editing, to see someone like Monica Beverly Hillz, for example, come out as transgender on season five was the kind of watershed moment that might be easy to overlook. How many viewers had witnessed anything like that personal confession, on television or elsewhere?

"If they open the gate up a little more to expand their horizons, I think the world is ready for it," says Love Latonia, a New Orleans-based performer, of 'Drag Race' welcoming a wider array of contestants. "It would be very impactful because people would get a chance to understand women of trans experience and not be afraid of them," says Latonia, who identifies as two-spirited. "Black women of trans experience are being killed daily. They're being killed because we're not understood." Given that the series focuses on drawing emotional connections between contestants and the audience, including people of trans experience would mark a major opportunity for insight.

"It would show a younger generation of trans people that it's okay to be who you are, that you don't have to alter yourself for anybody," Walker says. "Especially in a world where we're telling everybody it's okay to be who you are, and it's okay to love yourself."

Drawing divisions between folks who are supposedly united into an LGBTQ community impedes progress, Latonia suggests. "We're always talking about bringing people together, but we can't do it if everything is separated. It'd be great if they could come up with creative ways that we can all work together," she says.

"We're doing it because we love the art form. The only thing I think we ever push for is liberation for all — for people to connect, come together, and enjoy themselves," Latonia says. "But do we get the same love back? Are we not worthy of the same love we give out to the world?"

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on them.us, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.