[Image description: RuPaul in drag wearing a red dress with a red flower in a blonde wig. Caption reads “sashay…away.”]
Trans women have been decrying Ru’s transphobia for years. Drag Race contestant and trans woman Gia Gunn wrote of Ru’s most recent statement: “Makes me so sad that our own leader doesn’t even see us as valid competitors in a world that’s supposed to be ‘all inclusive,’ I’ve felt this was the case for many years but now it’s presenting itself in the flesh and showing its true colors. Only #girlslikeus can do something about it!”
Likewise, trans competitor Monica Beverly Hillz wrote, “The more ‘real’ our bodies look and appear to be women, the more money we’ll often make in the nightlife and drag worlds. And for many of us as trans women, we do drag as a form of survival to support our very ability to start medical transition.”
Monica Beverly Hillz’s comments point to a history that RuPaul doesn’t seem to know. Trans women have been an important part of drag subcultures for decades. They helped to create drag culture; Ru couldn’t kick them out if he tried.
Let me sketch out some history for you. Gender stage performances in the United States go way, way, way back. In fact, according to historian Nan Alamilla Boyd, what we might call drag was once regarded as wholesome family entertainment. Boyd claims that “female impersonation” as entertainment began in the United States mid-nineteenth-century as a part of minstrel shows — yeah, those racist shows where white men would dress up in blackface. That disturbing history is important to acknowledge, even though it does not mean that trans identity has anything to do with blackface. As minstrelsy waned, “female impersonation” lived on in vaudeville. Boyd traces drag performances in San Fransisco queer bars back to this history. I would argue that there are two other important history lineages that helped to shape contemporary drag culture: Balls and “soldier shows.” These two worlds were very different and their clash helps to explain tensions over drag today.
[Image description: pictures from drag balls published in Black magazines from the 1960s and 1970s]
Balls were and are social spaces where queer and trans people, including a great many people of color, could gather. They go back much further than Paris is Burning. Genny Beeyman documents the New York annual Fun Makers Ball, held in Harlem’s most lavish dance venues, beginning in 1945. Similar balls took place in Chicago and other major cities. Black magazines Jet and Ebony published photos of them, as did drag queen Lee Brewster in Drag Magazine.
“Soldier shows” started during World War II in the US military. Faced witha “homosocial” environment where women weren’t allowed, soldiers entertained each other through drag acts. The soldiers shows were sanctioned by the army and many gay soldiers performed in them, creating scenes that were queer coded and catered to men like them. Soldier shows helped to popularize “camp” culture. They were, however, very much a gay men’s cultural phenomenon, in contrast to the more queer and trans balls.
Drag shows today come out of both of these traditions. Gay men, however, have been much more visible as specifically drag performers. Nonetheless, at various times, a great many trans women have performed in drag shows or advertised themselves as “female impersonators.”
[Image description: Sir Lady Java in a white dress on the picket line holding a sign reading “Java vs. the Right to Work.”]
Sir Lady Java, for example, lives as a Black trans woman and performed as a “female impersonator” in LA from the 1960s through the 1980s. Calling herself a “female impersonator” allowed her more space to work legally. Lee Brewster, who ran a drag and trans-related media and travel mini-empire in NYC in the 1960, 1970s, and 1980s, lived as drag queen, in his terms, and used the pronouns “he.” Both Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson sometimes called themselves drag queens, while also identifying as women. These are just some of many examples of transgender co-creation of drag culture.
RuPaul told the Guardian, “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture.” Ironic to claim trans women can’t make a social statement against patriarchy when they have been doing so for decades. RuPaul’s analysis of the social significance of drag breaks my heart because he’s missing part of what makes it so interesting: drag history frustrates the ability of scholars to draw a firm distinction between transgender and cisgender spaces. Drag ruptures gender and the more people participating in it the better.
Drag Race is one of the most influential queer and trans representations in mainstream media. Trans women have every right to participate in the art form they helped to create. To Ru, I say, don’t fuck it up.