[Content note: discussion of transphobic language]
It’s clear to me that my thoughts on RuPaul’s use of transphobic slurs differ quite a bit from a lot of the trans folks I know. I’m not lining up to take a side for or against, because I don’t think this is one of those either-or issues. I see this as two separate questions—should RuPaul use these slurs, and is he* entitled to?
No. RuPaul shouldn’t be using “shemale” and “tranny.”
These words are always going to be offensive to a number of folks, including me. However, that’s not my problem with RuPaul. My problem is with his performance. RuPaul is committing the cardinal sin of drag—being boring and predictable. As far a I can tell, RuPaul’s act centers on the transgressive idea that folks with bodies designated as male can be fabulous. That’s not news to a lot of us. That may throw down a challenge to the Log Cabin crowd, but it’s pretty old hat to the folks I roll with. Drag Race isn’t dominated by RuPaul, as much as it is by some of the contestants. There are plenty of drag artists that are capable of giving filthy, provocative and queer performances. Some of them are on Drag Race, but RuPaul isn’t one of them.
It’s not just that RuPaul is your conservative mom’s drag queen. She’s got a show on a network show that needs ratings survive. Indeed, RuPaul’s very career needs respectable people’s money to survive. Instead, she finds herself reaching for self-depreciating language in an effort to stay “edgy.” These slurs are mainstream enough to pass muster with Viacom, yet obsence enough to make her act still seem cutting edge and shocking to folks who haven’t been exposed to drag.
It’s a sad sight. RuPaul’s been on the scene for a long time. He’s a savvy, whipsmart, talented entertainer, but he’s delivering pedestrian, family-friendly schmaltz. I used to watch Drag Race with my kid, for fuck’s sake. If RuPaul wants to become relevant again, she needs to find a new way to be nasty and disrespectable. That starts by dropping the cheap slurs.**
RuPaul has earned the right to say a lot of things.
I know that I’m at odds with a lot of folks here, particularly queer generations that are even younger than myself. (Although I think it’s important to note that this disagreement isn’t just a matter of older generations versus newer folks.)
In the past month, I’ve seen trans folks assert that drag is a problem. I’ve seen people I respect state that RuPaul is a man, fullstop. Pretty much every day I’ve seen at least one person put forth that RuPaul and other queens are cis.
The implication here is that there’s some set of us, the real trans folks, that’s allowed to reclaim (or reject) these slurs. But who’s really trans, and who isn’t?
I’m trans because other people police identities. A lot of my struggles are rooted in other people’s need to decide who is who and what behaviors are appropriate for which people.
I came out between 2004 and 2006 (just a moment ago, really), and in that short time, I’ve witnessed battle after battle over who is entitled to what label. Who’s really transsexual, and who’s merely transgender? Who’s transgender, but who’s merely a crossdresser? “What’s the difference between an X and a Y” jokes shared in bars and on Internet forums. I have yet to see one of these boundary wars end well for anyone.
RuPaul, by his own volition, defies boxes. She is neither a man nor a woman. He is not cis or trans. RuPaul does not, to my knowledge identify as living outside the gender binary, nor does she identify as living within it. This isn’t because RuPaul is playing some sort of disingenuous game (oh, if I had a ticket to Bangkok every time some shallow-minded smartass accused me of doing the same), it’s because he’s refusing to play the game that other folks play.
I understand that not all cis people identify as such. However, I think it’s an oversimplification to define cis as anyone who’s not trans. What about gender non-conforming people who don’t identify as cis? What about members of cultures that recognize gender diversity in ways that fall outside of male/female, cis/trans dichotomies. Are two-spirit people trans? If not, are they cis? What about ball culture? Is that trans?
My point is that gender isn’t simple. Thank fucking maude.
I don’t have a lot of rules for who gets to reclaim which slurs. If you or people like you have been the target of a slur, you should be able to choose (at your own peril) whether to use a slur. Drag queens have been the targets of all sorts of slurs. If you have any doubts about whether “part timers” really count, I suggest you check out the opening chapters of Leslie Feinberg’s Drag King Blues. On the topic of “she-male” and “tranny”, I think that anyone who’s been read as a feminine “man” in “women’s” clothes has the right to reclaim the slurs.
I have no interest in reclaiming those words. I have no interest in hearing other folks do the same. However, I have even less interest in policing the vocabulary of my sisters.
*RuPaul has previously stated that he answers to both “he” and “she”, and I’m not one to argue. I tend to refer to performing drag queens using “she”, although it’s never precisely clear when RuPaul is performing and when he isn’t. I let the pronouns fall as they may. It’s not supposed to be easy. That’s the point.
**Although if you want to drop the slurs and stay boring, at least I’ll be able to watch with my kid.