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Werk In Progress: Trans representation in RuPaul’s Drag Race

When will everyone get to boots the house down mama?

Art by Bonnie Huang

Since its inception in 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been ground-breaking in popularising drag as an art form. The series has continued to play a seminal role in shifting queer culture from the fringes of society into the crux of mainstream pop culture, commercialising the previously underground anti-capitalist art form and engraining terms like ‘yas, queen!’, ‘spill the tea’, ‘shade’ and ‘slay’ in contemporary vernacular. Whilst the show touts itself to be a progressive platform which spotlights the queer community and celebrates queerness, the issue of transgender inclusion has been contentious among fans, Drag Race alumni and RuPaul Charles himself for years. Despite its success the show somewhat ironically has continually fostered cis-normativity by explicitly degrading, trivialising and excluding transgender and nonbinary people.

RuPaul has exhibited his indifference towards the history of violence associated with derogatory transphobic slurs, releasing songs such as “Tranny Chaser” and “Lady Boy” in the mid-2000s and using similar transphobic language over the course of his show. In 2014, trans activists led by Drag Race alumni and transgender model Carmen Carrera lobbied against the show’s weekly usage of the slur “she-male”, with RuPaul announcing ‘you’ve got she-mail!’ every time contestants received a challenge. RuPaul then claimed that those who took issue with the term “are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims.” In 2015, Season 7 reluctantly retired the term just in time for the first openly nonbinary contestant Violet Chachki to win the crown. 

The notable absence of gender diverse casting choices in Drag Race has been a point of criticism amongst viewers for years; particularly in regards to the possibility of including drag kings, as well as  transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid and Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) performers. Such scrutiny heightened drastically after a 2018 interview with The Guardian where RuPaul stated that he wouldn’t allow trans queens on his show if they had begun medically transitioning, and signalled that female-identifying performers have no place in drag. He doubled down on Twitter by analogising drag queens undergoing gender reassignment surgery to athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs, before half-heartedly apologising amidst backlash from prominent Drag Race alumni, such as transgender queens Peppermint and Gia Gunn, as well as Sasha Velour, BenDeLaCreme, Courtney Act and Willam. “We work with trans women every night side by side,” Willam noted, “and for them to be denied the opportunities because of someone’s narrow-minded view on what they call ‘drag’ is fucked.” 

These sentiments enable transphobia at a time where trans people are experiencing unprecedented rates of violence, rape, and homicide. 2020 saw a record-high number of trans and non-binary murders globally, with one in two transgender people having been sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives. Regardless of ongoing improvements, it’s impossible to ignore that Drag Race’s history has been mired in a bedrock of trans-exclusionary ideology, imbued with its creator’s parochially narrow definition of what constitutes valid drag.

As Drag Race has grown in popularity, it has signalled a willingness to highlight trans issues. For example, Season 9 in 2017 aired a scene where Peppermint came out as transgender to her castmates. In particular, 2021 signifies a turning point for trans and non-binary representation with two concurrent series. The long-awaited Season 13 line-up drew praise from viewers and trans advocates when Gottmik, the show’s first AFAB transgender man, was announced as a contestant. Gottmik – who remains a front-runner in the currently-airing series – has proudly championed their own trans journey at every turn, from taking pride in their top surgery scars on the runway to opening a self-written song verse with “Gottmik was born a girl, baby/Was told that I can’t do drag/Knew I had something to prove.” Whilst Gottmik’s portrayal appeared tokenistic at first, each successive episode seems to complexify the depth of their emotional narrative and idiosyncratic journey as a drag queen.

Episode 10 saw Gottmik discussing their depression prior to transitioning and described using drag as a “mask” to conceal and alleviate their gender dysphoria. In expressing this, Gottmik echoed how drag has existed long before Drag Race as a safe space for trans people to express their gender through performance, and even as a mechanism for some to discover their own gender identity, as it was for Gottmik. In fact, the very concept of drag has thought to be borne of trans experiences. In light of Drag Race’s history of erasing trans folk and exhibiting an ironically exclusionary attitude towards gender norms, it’s fair for viewers to be wary of whether this represents a meaningful shift in trans representation. To invalidate or erase the existence of transgender and non-binary drag queens is to erase decades of drag history and the boundary-pushing, gender non-conforming queer people who conceived and shaped the art form.

On the other side of the world, the recently concluded Season 2 of Drag Race UK was noted for its moving conversation about non-binarism between Bimini Bon Boulash and Ginny Lemon. “It’s basically just someone who doesn’t feel like they are either masculine or feminine, they float between the two,” Bimini explained, whilst they and Ginny engaged in a conversation about the lonely confusion and melancholic hardships of growing up without identifying with either gender. Bimini tweeted after the episode “How nice was it to hear two gender non-conforming people discuss identity politics without Piers Morgan?” The moment was a rare vestige of calmness in a sea of socio-cultural discourse which commonly reduces gender politics to a culture war. And the fact it was aired on the BBC represents a cautious improvement of the show’s trend of ambivalence towards non-binary contestants, whilst properly educating mainstream audiences on their hardships.

It’s important to note as well that representational politics may not solve all of Drag Race’s ills, especially as the show’s burst of popularity leads to the rapidly increasing commercialisation of drag. Drag Race has created a colossal business empire with numerous spinoff series, thrice-yearly DragCon fan conventions, smartphone apps, a slew of chart-topping iTunes songs and franchised versions in the UK, Canada, Thailand and Holland. Over the years, Drag Race has arguably become a demonstration of ‘rainbow capitalism’, shifting away from its anti-capitalist roots and instead prioritising  profit above the needs of disempowered groups. Resultantly, trans and non-binary representation in the show will always be considered a product of RuPaul’s economic interests and to keep the franchise aligning with the tides of social progression to avoid obsolescence.  The show has historically done the bare minimum to keep up with advancements in gender discourse, including normalising terms such as ‘non-binary’ and ‘genderqueer’. The crumbs of transgender representation over the show’s lifetime have done little to outweigh how it has stigmatised gender non-conforming communities.

Whilst the recent discourses of gender representation are steps in the right direction, they don’t erase or compensate for the years of exclusion RuPaul’s Drag Race has enacted towards transgender and non-binary communities. To omit trans drag queens is to omit a world of flourishing talent in an artform intertwined with their own culture. Entrenching the narrative that only cisgender men can partake in drag is holistically harmful for all queer people as it reinforces the restrictive patriarchal gender binary that has constricted queer people for centuries. With the recent announcement of the Drag Race Down Under cast at Mardi Gras, which features queer, non-binary, and First Nations performers, we can only hope the show continues its positive evolution of intersectional representation to properly celebrate homegrown Aussie talent in all its glory.

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