After yearning to do drag for nearly two decades in hiding, I had my makeup done for the first time at a MAC counter on Fifth Avenue in 2012. I had religiously watched Seasons 1–4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race in secret from inside the closet, and from listening to the queens bicker while they drank cocktails, I learned that a queen just starting out sought out a mother to teach her her skills. So, newly out and proud, I found myself in the chair of a makeup artist to whom a friend had referred me: a giant, shit-talking, off-duty blonde drag queen named Sweetie.
Sweetie had pounds of mascara and permanently limp wrists, and was exactly the kind of gay who’d make my mom grasp my hand and pick up our pace when I was younger, were we to cross paths at the mall. As she painted huge shimmery eyelids on me, she gabbed about her life in New York, about RuPaul “before she was rich,” and the parties of the ’90s. She refused to teach me to glue down my eyebrows like I’d seen the girls on Drag Race do. By the time she got to my lips, I realized I was in the presence of New York drag royalty.
Before she finished, Sweetie leaned close to tell me that she knew about private clubs where girls like us could meet gentlemen who love us. Startled, I told her that I just wanted to do drag, not BE a woman.
“Honey, all of us want to BE women,” she said, looking me squarely in the eye and waving a powder brush at me like a magic wand, “or none of us would do this shit.”
That day, getting my makeup done by the late legend, I took my first glimpse into the world of drag as it exists outside of the Drag Race studio: one that predates Drag Raceand the mainstream visibility of the art form by generations.
Those of us who work in drag were not surprised to hear RuPaul’s recent comments about trans inclusion (or in this case, exclusion) on Drag Race. In an interview with the Guardian this past weekend, she said that Peppermint, a trans woman and fan favorite who competed in (and nearly won) Season 9, had been allowed on Drag Race because she “didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned. … You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body.” To imply that a trans woman isn’t really a woman until she has breast implants is to invoke the same mindset of ignorant conservatives who marginalize and demonize queer people every day.
As RuPaul’s Drag Race was renewed season after season and its popularity heightened, the girls in New York began to notice that out trans women weren’t making it onto Drag Race — or if they did, it was only by sneaking by casting undetected. Rumors trickled down into the local scenes that being on hormone replacement therapy or having breast implants could disqualify you from getting your golden ticket to Drag Racefame. By the time the show made the jump to VH1 last year, exponentially increasing its audience, it was clear to us that Drag Race was choosing a specific and incomplete image of the art form to uphold. The drag queens favored most on the show weren’t only glamorous like RuPaul, witty like RuPaul, and meticulous like RuPaul — they were cis like RuPaul.
RuPaul is no stranger to backlash from the trans community. The show’s sixth season featured a mini challenge called “Shemale or Female,” in which RuPaul instructed the contestants to guess by looking at images of body parts whether those parts belonged to “a biological woman, or a psychological woman.” However, it wasn’t until RuPaul’s comments to the Guardian — which she later doubled down on in a tweet: “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics” — that she proved herself an outright transphobe. The ensuing backlash, which prompted responses from Peppermint and other Drag Race alums, led Ru to post a series of half-assed apologies. Read more via Buzzfeed