(Content Note: Discussion of problematic language)
A recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RPDR) featured a segment that upset and angered many trans* (and non-trans) people. The episode itself and the reactions from all sides to the episode (and to Drag Race in general) have got me thinking a lot about “transgender” as a contested identity category still in a state of instability. Before I get into that, let me lay out what happened on RPDR to set up some context.
RPDR Segment: “Female or She-Male”
During the segment, a mini-challenge titled “Female or She-Male,” contestants were shown close-up photographs of people and asked to identify them as “biological females” (in reference to Paris is Burning) or as “she-males.” The “she-males” shown in the challenge were all drag queens, and none of them have (so far) identified as trans* women. As far as I know, none of the people “correctly” (according to the challenge) identified as “she-male” during the challenge identify as trans*. Still, this was obviously a problematic segment.
One of the reasons it was so problematic was not so much because it called the drag queens she-males, but because some of the “biological females” it showed were meant to be perceived as more masculine looking and thus evoke a sense of disgust in viewers. Even some of the contestants made fun of some of those “biological females”—one contestant asked, “Are you sure?” in response to being told the person was a “biological female.” In this way, the segment really was playing on harmful stereotypes of trans* women.
Many trans* folks voiced concern over this, including former contestant Carmen Carrera, who transitioned after her appearance on the show in season 3. The producers of the show eventually apologized and have removed the segment from the show’s distribution as well as removed another regular feature of the show, the “You’ve Got She-Mail” that begins each show. Many people, including some trans* people, have argued that this went too far and that the show should have kept the “she-mail” feature. Much of the back and forth over this has been trans* folks disagreeing about whether or not Logo and RPDR should have removed the mail feature, and indeed about who has the “rights” to use such terms (let me be perfectly clear here: this is not a free speech issue).
I am not going to get into that issue here. Instead, I want to try to examine the ways that identity politics are at play here. What has come to light through these various responses to the RPDR segment and Logo’s response is just how contested the meanings of “transgender” still are. There seem to be at least two meanings in use: one broad and one narrow.
It’s Just Semantics: Contested Meanings of “Transgender”
The first—and the one that I’ve seen used a lot around the internet—is “transgender” as an umbrella term (check out this Google Image search for some visualizations). Under this usage of “transgender” fits anyone whose gender does not neatly align with the sex they were assigned at birth—including drag queens, a point that is not insignificant when trying to make sense of the issues around RPDR.
At least since Leslie Feinberg’s 1992 Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come (available as Ch. 16 in The Transgender Studies Reader—old copies of the out-of-print text are quite expensive if you can find them; a pdf is floating around on the internet), “transgender” has been utilized as an umbrella term to include any gender-variant person. Before Feinberg, “transgender” was a term used to refer to male-bodied people who lived as women without undergoing any physical transition. Feinberg’s re-working of the definition opened it up to bring in all kinds of gender-variant people, including transsexuals, butch lesbians, transvestites, and drag queens/kings.
refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place—rather than any particular destination or mode of transition…
The National Center for Transgender Equality defines transgender in a similarly broad sense as “a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.”
What these expressions of “transgender” mean is that drag queens are considered by some to be transgender. And I think this is an important historical point that has to be considered when trying to make sense of the back-and-forth arguments about RPDR.
One of the things that initially surprised me about the response was that I thought that drag queens were more widely considered to be transgender. In fact, before the 1980s, people who would today identify as transgender did not identify that way—the category did not exist in any useful or meaningful way. Many people, like Silvia Rivera, later identified as transgender but, prior to that identity category becoming available, they identified in other ways, including as femme gays, butch lesbians, transsexuals, transvestites, and drag queens and kings. Rivera herself identified with drag culture and was adamant about keeping it and gender variance in general on the radar of the more assimilationist-minded gay rights agenda.
I bring this up because some of the responses I’ve seen from some trans* people have been calls for the erasure of drag. This very clearly illuminates some ongoing tensions among gay, lesbian, and trans* communities. Today, most trans* people do not come to their trans* identities through drag as was more common in the past, and it seems that perhaps this has given rise to a new, more focused definition of “transgender.”
Another view of “transgender”—and one that seems to be a historically recent narrowing of the broad umbrella term usage—is a person who lives their everyday lives as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. According to this petition posted on Zinnia Jones’ site (emphasis original):
We reject [trans-activist Andrea] James’ classification of RuPaul as transgender, as well as any implication that cisgender male drag queens are therefore entitled to use transmisogynist slurs. Cisgender male drag queens are assigned male at birth, and they neither consider themselves to be women nor live as women in their everyday lives. Unlike trans women, they are not the ones who regularly face the consequences of widespread transphobia and transmisogyny, and they are not confronted with the fallout of normalizing transmisogynist slurs.
Clearly drag queens are excluded from the category “transgender” in Jones’ usage due to the fact that most drag queens do not try to live out their daily lives presenting as women. This more narrow vision of “transgender” very clearly indicates that only those people who have transitioned in some way to living their everyday lives in ways visibly different from the sex/gender assigned to them at birth are to be considered transgender.
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What I have noticed is that it seems that in some ways this is a generational divide. Perhaps it is confirmation bias, but it appears as if those who are advocating for the broad conceptualization of “transgender” are those who come from older generations and those who utilize a narrow usage are from younger generations.
In many ways, this divide reminds me of the same sorts of liberationist vs. assimilationist arguments in the gay and lesbian communities that were especially tense in the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t help but think that some of the more outlandish responses (such as the person calling for the “delegitimizing” of drag on Zinnia Jones’ petition) have come from people who may be classified as assimilationist, or seeking to integrate trans* people into heteronormative society through normalization of “transgender.” And some of the responses from people like Our Lady J could be seen as more liberationist with their calls for unfettered freedom for people to identify however they wish and use language however they wish without regard to the potential harm caused by such language.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has perhaps inadvertently helped to illuminate a very real tension going on within the trans* community. It seems to be less of an issue between gay and trans* communities, or between drag queens and trans-activists. I think it’s important to consider that even within the gay community drag is often marginalized and stigmatized. In some ways (contrary to Zinnia Jones’ assertion), drag queens do experience transphobia, though obviously in different ways than trans* women who have transitioned in their everyday lives. But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the unique kinds of oppression that drag queens have been subjected to historically. Just because RPDR is around (on a queer television network) and is popular does not mean that drag queens are magically treated wonderfully by mainstream society or within the LGBT community.
I think RPDR is helping to change the stigma that has followed drag performers around for so long, and in the process, it has shed light on other kinds of tensions within the transgender community. The meaning of “transgender” will continue to be contested and perhaps at some point in the future another category will emerge that will resolve the disparity between these broad and narrow conceptions. But until that happens, it is likely we will continue to see these same kinds of issues arise around identity categories and labels.
(Edited 4/20/2014 @ 2:38 Eastern Time: I realize that the way I phrased the assimilationist vs. liberationist paragraph towards the end of the article may have implied that I was treating the liberationist side as more correct. It was not my intention and I have added some wording to try to clarify that they can both be equally problematic.)