The important thing to remember is that “drag” and “transgender” are not the same things, but that people who are transgender can perform in drag. Let’s start with the definition of drag. The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, also known as the NLGJA, defines drag as “dressing or acting in a style typically associated with another gender, typically through costume and/or performance.”
So it means man dressing up as women and women dressing up as men?
Those are common examples, but certainly not the only ones. The description says “typically,” rather than “definitively,” and the organization’s stylebook goes on to say that “drag is more strongly determined by the nature of the costume and performance than the performer’s gender identity or assigned sex at birth. Some drag performers are transgender.”
In the NLGJA’s definition, the words “costume” and “performance” are what’s key to understanding drag. It “typically” involves people performing as other genders, but gender identity is not the determining factor in drag. Historically, cisgender men who perform as women in drag have been called “drag queens” and cisgender women who perform in drag as men have been called “drag kings.”
Are there drag performers I might have heard of?
RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag performer in the world. RuPaul the drag queen is the stage persona of RuPaul Charles, a cisgender man. RuPaul became well-known in the ’90s, and has since created an empire with the TV show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” RuPaul and the performers on his show have shown that there are a variety of ways to exist in drag culture. RuPaul performs as RuPaul, but others will use stage names. Some drag performers model their looks after specific people. Some are clean-shaven, and some have big beards. Some wear wigs, and some go bald. Some use minimal make-up, and some lay it on thick.
But the unifying factor has been performance, costumes, and some sort of exaggeration?
Right. Many of the performers on RuPaul’s show have been cisgender men. But the unifying thread of is not the gender identity of the performer or the character being portrayed. Each of these performers, in their costumes, is challenging the stereotypes and conventions of gender. Each one is portraying a character of sorts. One person on Twitter framed it by saying a transgender woman can play a drag character who is a woman in the same way that an actress can play a role. A drag character is just that: a character. It can be put on and taken off. It’s a performance, but not a person’s identity.
And thus it’s not a gender identity.
Correct! There’s a difference between RuPaul Andre Charles, the bald man who wears glasses, and RuPaul, the badass diva in heels and a wig. The diva exists onstage, but that diva is separate from the RuPaul Andre Charles who wakes up in the morning, has lunch with friends, and goes about his life.
But a transgender person’s identity is not a character. Caitlyn Jenner is Caitlyn Jenner when she goes to bed at night, when she wakes up in the morning, when she appears in interviews, when she’s in private with her family, and well, every second of the day.
OK. Got it. Drag performers are not transgender people and transgender people are not drag performers.
Correct, though that is not to say that a transgender person could not also perform in drag. A “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant named Peppermint came out as transgender while a contestant on the show. In August 2017, Peppermint talked with NYLON about being a transgender woman and a drag performer:
In the beginning, my relationship to drag was primarily a way of being able to express myself as a woman. That was the main reason I did it. That might have been the only reason I did it: So I could feel like a woman and look like a woman. Over the years, I danced around that in many ways. I remember, in the beginning, I would have never destroyed the sanctity of my expression of a woman, meaning I would have never worn blue hair or done anything campy. I always wanted it to be real. It wasn’t until much later, when I became a lot more comfortable with myself as a trans woman and was able to express myself in other ways outside of drag, that I realized I can have fun with my appearance in drag as well. My performance has been, and still is, always fun; once I get on stage, I have a good time. But, in terms of the campiness of my appearance, only when I realized my womanhood didn’t depend on what I looked like in drag or my appearance in general, did I start to go over the top…
…I really separated my coming out as a trans woman from my drag persona and drag career in the beginning. I wanted the two things to be separate because I needed the time and space to sort through it; my trans-ness needed its own identity and room to grow. I really wanted to protect my drag career because I was afraid people would see me just as a woman and, for some reason, those two things — drag and being trans — aren’t congruent. I transitioned under my drag. I would go out every night under my drag, act the same, and have the same story. People didn’t know I was transitioning physically and medically under my drag. They never saw it. Before I started my transition, I didn’t feel comfortable presenting as male or being perceived as male. People never knew what I looked like outside of drag, which served as a great advantage to me as I was transitioning. The first time I came out to the world was on an episode of “The Daily Show” alongside another trans activist, speaking on the bathroom bill that was becoming a point of contention, right after North Carolina. I had the opportunity to express myself as a trans person who worked in the context of drag.
Peppermint’s participation in “Drag Race” became an issue in 2018 when RuPaul was interviewed for a piece in The Guardian. Decca Aitkenhead had asked RuPaul about Peppermint and the concept of women — trans or otherwise — doing drag. In addition to offending people with his comments about Peppermint’s transition, RuPaul framed drag in a way that many found too narrow:
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. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.
That seems to contradict the definitions of drag you mentioned earlier though, right?
Right, and that’s why the week that RuPaul’s interview was published in The Guardian, many people took to Twitter to protest and criticize RuPaul’s comments. RuPaul initially doubled down, but then apologized and tried to distance himself from those comments.
I can see people finding that offensive or too narrow.
Writing for the publication them., Samantha Reidel explained how this was just the latest in a tense relationship between the drag and transgender communities:
Whereas the drag and trans communities were once closely allied, this sort of antagonism has colored trans people’s perceptions of drag for years, especially among younger trans women and transfeminine people. The day before Drag Race All Stars’ season three premiere in January, a user of the subreddit r/Asktransgender asked “Who else has a problem with drag?” to describe the hurt she felt at being lumped in with the “man in a dress” by cisgender audiences. Responses were mixed: Some laid blame with individual performers, but many seemed to think the well itself was poisoned. One user called drag “frequently somewhere between casually and blatantly misogynistic,” while several went so far as to compare it outright to blackface.
Reidel also explained that it would be too simplistic to dismiss drag performers completely:
…drag still possesses transgressive value in cishet spaces. Drag Queen Story Time (where queens visit libraries to read to local children) is a regular event in cities like New York and San Francisco, but when the Broome County Public Library in central New York State announced its first such event in [January 2018], it was met with outrage. Patrons accused the library of “normalizing perversion,” “indoctrinating children,” and making the county’s youth “pawns in a dangerous game.” Seeing that sort of backlash, it’s easy to understand another reason trans people don’t always want to be associated with drag — after all, this line of thinking usually ends with accusations that the “transgender movement targets kids” for grooming, and not everyone restricts their anger to the Internet. But for young and questioning LGBTQ+ folk, especially those in more rural areas, drag still posits a radical idea: Queering gender performance isn’t just acceptable and normal, it’s fun.
Reidel offered that there are drag performers of all sorts of gender identities and gender expressions, allowing that the perception of what drag is can change.
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