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The problems with confusing trans and drag

One is an artform while the other is a lived experience – to muddle the two erases the inherently personal nature of being trans

Last week, my uncle, a straight man in his 60s, mentioned a show called RuPaul’s Drag Race to me. There’s no surer sign something has totally hit the cultural mainstream. He began to enthusiastically explain the show’s premise and how ‘convincing’ some of the queens he had seen were, completely unaware that I had been a committed fan of the show since 2009. What I did notice, however, is how the conversation was triggered in his mind: there was an item on television about trans women.

And so we come to the problem. I wear skirts and high heels and sequins and MAC pigment eyeshadow. But I’ve never done drag. I have done stand up at gay clubs. I still wasn’t doing drag. I am trans – there was no character here: this is me, this is my life. I am not a man in a dress, I am a person in her own clothes. To me, the difference between my drag queen friends (most of whom are gay men) and myself is obvious. Sadly, I recognise that, in society, transmisogyny means trans women and femmes are perceived as inauthentic and so become conflated with the intentional, playful inauthenticity of drag.

RuPaul himself was asked to comment on the ‘difference’ between drag queens and trans people last week. His response was brief: “Drag is really making fun of identity. We are shapeshifters. We’re like ‘okay, today I’m this, now I’m a cowboy, now I’m this’….transgender people take identity very seriously – their identity is who they are.” He didn’t have much time, admittedly, but this explanation is ropey. My main issue with it is his use of “we”, as it implies a false dichotomy – gay men who do drag on one side and trans people on the other.

This is both historical and contemporary nonsense – drag is an art form and the artist can be a cis person, a trans person, a man or a woman or non-binary. RuPaul should know – on Drag Race itself, six of the former contestants are trans women out of drag. Season 5 winner Jinx Monsoon is non-binary. Outside of that show, trans actress Laverne Cox has said that she once worked as a drag queen on Lower East Side during her transition, though she confesses that she personally found this use of her identity and aesthetics to entertain patrons ‘degrading’.

Drag Race created a new popularity for drag in the gay community that has become bigger than its eponymous creator. On the UK LGBTQ scene, I am aware that there is a tension between trans women and gay drag queens. Last year, at Free Pride Glasgow the trans and non-binary caucus initially announced drag acts would not be invited to perform: “The decision was taken by transgender individuals who were uncomfortable with having drag performances at the event. It was felt that it would make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable”, the statement said.  The backlash was fairly strong and the decision was overturned.

Though I didn’t agree with banning drag performers, I understand the discomfort. I believe the tension is not actually about drag at all – much like a headache, drag is the site of referred pain. The pain isn’t caused by the art form itself but what’s underneath: a historical and ongoing power imbalance between white cisgender gay men who dominate the LGBT scene, and trans people – who were erased, rejected and reviled for many years as gay rights advanced.

The popularity of drag now means it’s not just professional performers – there is a dilettante attitude. Gay men may try drag out on an amateur basis on the odd night out – buying a cheap wig and doing simple makeup. No-one is paying them: this drag is an alter ego they create purely for the club. When I ask Bryn, a non-binary trans person assigned male at birth, about the tension a cavalier approach to both gender and drag can create in trans people, they feel sympathetic to both sides.

“I sort of sympathise with people trying drag, because I discovered my femininity through it. So if gay men want to express something about themselves in a “safe” way, I get it. It's when it all just feels like a joke at the expense of women, cis or trans, that I have a problem. That’s not to say either that it shouldn’t be funny. There are plenty of drag queens who use humour to make a positive and intelligent statement about gender”.

Bryn and I both agree that much of drag is in the hands of the person doing it. I have met gay men who aren’t particularly witty, gifted at creating looks or artful in their performance having a go at amateur drag. While their failed attempt is no personal affront at me in itself, it can become more so when the “joke” they are making is at womanhood or other downward punching targets: like people of colour and working-class people. “Throwing shade” – a drag art form brought to cultural attention by the transfeminine drag queens of Paris Is Burning – is now such a mainstream slang term it has been bastardised. In the hands of drunk half-arsed DIY drag “queens”, it can mean nothing more than being a rude dickhead.

“I have never seen “faggot” in the title of any gay night – it’s not an edgy crowd-puller, perhaps, as it’s a painful word for many gay men”

Sink The Pink, a popular queer night in London’s east end has become a leading name on the drag scene for its costumed balls and vibrant atmosphere. Last October, the theme was “Trannies in Space”. When I heard this, I sighed and rolled my eyes.  “Tranny” as a slur has a complex history but in today’s society, “tranny” is used as a very particular form of abuse: against trans women who do not ‘pass’ on the street. If a trans woman hears “tranny!” shouted at her by a man at night she may frankly fear she is about to be raped or beaten. While this could happen to a gay man travelling alone at night in drag, he will still wipe his make-up off and wake up the next day as a man. A trans woman or femme will have to go out again as she is the next day and the day after that. Reclamation of slurs is a political statement: taking that which is still painful out of the mouth of your oppressor.

The concern with club nights with “tranny” in the title is that most of those attending (and being tacitly encouraged to use to the word) have never felt the violent repercussions of it. I’d ask any gay man – whether a drag queen or not – who defends its use to consider two things. Firstly, if he knows any transgender women or has asked them how they feel about the word and, secondly, I’d ask him whether he calls himself and his gay friends ‘faggots’ or would attend an event called ‘Faggots in Space’. I have never seen “faggot” in the title of any gay night – it’s not an edgy crowd-puller, perhaps, as it’s a painful word for many gay men.  

“Drag has never been about comfort”, Leigh Fontaine points out. Leigh is unusually placed for this discussion – he identifies as a queer person rather than as a gay man, has been involved in London’s drag scene as a queen himself for several years, while remaining vocally critical of the flaws of that same scene as a person of colour. Now, in his day job, he works for a leading UK mental health charity, where he is piloting a new advocacy and support service for trans people accessing gender-related healthcare.

“I defended the use of ‘tranny’ a few years ago but this has changed since I’ve been around more trans women through work. Some of my trans women clients’ stories are so depressingly fraught with adversity and sadness; their very being is a triumph” – Leigh Fontaine

In discussing this point about drag and discomfort, Leigh explains an upcoming drag look he is planning related to the Black Lives Matter movement. When he describes it and I imagine white onlookers’ reaction, I wince at the thought. However, I see its intent – it will be a black performer making a political comment on racial oppression boldly in a white-dominated space. It is stylised unease. I suggest that simply defending free use of the word “tranny” is not the same kind of anarchic practice. There is no radically destabilising comment on power structures. He agrees: “I defended the use of ‘tranny’ a few years ago but this has changed since I’ve been around more trans women through work. Some of my trans women clients’ stories are so depressingly fraught with adversity and sadness; their very being is a triumph. I don’t need to hold onto language that makes life worse for them. Young white gay men want to be oppressed so badly and maintain their ‘right’ to throw around language like its progressive and ‘queer’ – but there’s nothing queer about causing pain.”

This is the crux of the issue. As a trans humourist and sometime comedian my sympathy for anyone so fearful about ‘censorship’ to the point of defending cruelty is limited. Talented drag performers and comedians alike consider carefully the following questions: what is the subtext of this playfulness, performance or humour? What is the message I want the audience to be left thinking about? If it’s a joke – who is the target and why? (causing offence isn’t always bad either – last summer a gay Tory left a show because he was offended by my jokes about gay Tories – good! he voted Tory! I’m glad I made him uncomfortable!). On top of this, any performer should remember all performance invites feedback and criticism. If you don’t want to consider these questions and reflect on criticism with grace I’m not calling you a transphobe. But I still think you should consider hanging your wig up. We may all be born naked, but you're the one who’s kind of a drag.