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Drag Culture and the Argument of Transmisogyny

I received an “Ask” on my Tumblr page discussing drag as transmisogynistic. Below was my response and since I get a lot of questions about this, I felt it would be useful to cross-post it here.

“There are views that drag is transmisogynistic, yes. I understand why some folks have come to find drag as a weapon against trans people and I feel the reason for this is two fold: abuses from more privileged groups and a lack of historical context. I respect each person’s right to have their own opinions and have no wish to challenge or invalidate anyone. I think that when discussing whether drag is transmisogynistic or not, is important to remember a few things.

History: Historically, “drag” is very significant in the history of communities that, today, we would call trans and gender non-conforming queers. Genderbending is a global theatrical practice, but for sake of time I’ll speak about it in the USA. In the late 19th century until the early-mid 20th cent. “drag” was called female and male impersonation. The sway of theatrical cross-dressing to impersonation came with vaudeville and it included singing and dancing as well as genderbending. M/F Impersonation was seen as a both a way to worship gender as well as a way to play with it and it’s norms. In addition to being fun, the purpose was to make us all question about what truly is a man or a woman and do bodies and cultural expectations really mean as much as we think? Also, drag, as a craft, was the first venue for gender non-conforming people to create lives as their true selves. In the 1920s, for the first time ever people in the USA (as a colonized country) where able to bend gender and dress as they wanted, be who they wanted, and not be arrested or institutionalized. Granted, when the post-war puritanism took hold this was all taken away, but it did happen and it impacted millions of people. The development of the trans community came from two branches: hetero supported transsexualism (started around the 1940s) and queer community gender transgression (started at the beginning of time). Both are valid; both are real; both are equally important. Drag is a part of queer gender transgression and trans people would not have this community as we know it without the power we sized through drag. Drag has played, and continues to play, a very important role in both queer and trans visibility, community building, safer space creation, and artistic craft. To forget this, is to forget our elders who brought us here today.

Drag is a diverse, artistic craft: RuPaul’s Drag Race is not an all encompassing representation of drag; farthest thing from it. Drag is not only DMAB people in feminine expressions for performance (drag queens); It is also DMAB folks dressing in masculine expressions (drag kings); Trans people doing theater, or doing drag as other genders; gender performance art that uses gender to communicate messages (like what I do); uses of hyper femininity and hyper masculinity (such as burlesque and boylesque); and heterosexual people challenging gender norms. Drag is about the conversation of gender and it is queer. It is the ONLY artistic craft we can, without argument, claim as exclusively belonging to the queer and trans community. Even if a hetero person wants to do drag, they have to come into our space to do it; they have to be an ally. We use drag as a form of artistic expression, merrymaking, activism, and beauty to discuss how we are different from hetero people and how there are more similarities than the heteronormative system of power would ever want to admit. There is a disappearing understanding in white gay culture especially of the deep connection between gender and sexuality. Many years ago, our community understood the fluidity between maleness and femaleness and how that impacted our lives as queer people; that is where drag came from. It was a way for us to reflect our realities for our own eyes, out of reach of the hetero cis world that would rather see us dead. There were no gay tv shows, no trans people on magazines. There were drag stages. That was all we had. When I was coming out, it was all I had.

Language: By the mid-late 1960s and 1970s the trans movement was starting to take visible shape. By the 80s, the word “transgender” was slowly gaining more recognition and at its creation “transgender” included not just trans folks as we know them today (women, men, and non-binary folks) but also drag performers, gender non-conforming cis people (butch lesbians for example), and anyone else who transgressed gender. Drag performers, who were trans women and cis men or trans men and cis women, where considered linguistically interchangeable because, at the time, gender was defined by expression, not identity. Back then, it was impossible to draw a line between drag performers and trans people as a group – it could only be done by individuals (a good cultural example of this is Candy, who associated with Andy Warhol). The line did exist, and could be considered to exist as early as the 1950s, but it was squiggly, dashed, and in some points invisible; in some communities it is still like this today. It was not until the mid-2000s (after 2006) that transgender truly became focused on gender identity over gender expression. In addition to this, we MUST remember that trans is not a universal term. There are many folks, particularly in communities of color where gender and sexuality are not as cut apart as in white cultures, where trans is not used. There are masses of people (countless) who from an external view would be called trans (in particular, would be called trans women) but they call themselves drag queens. Many of these people live as women every day, take estrogen and have gender affirming surgeries; they are women, but they never call themselves trans. To rigidly consider drag as transmisogynistic is to erase the identities of people who are a part of our community. This issue of erasure causes significant obstacles in accessing resources, in particular for poor trans women of color who do not use the language doctors and government offices want to hear when asking for resources. We must also remember the role classism plays here. Many trans women, whether they self identity as that or not, make a living from being drag performers. Performing drag does not make a person any less trans or any less of themselves; we are no different from other trans people… except we may be more theatrically talented… :P  Anyway, it is critical that we continue to unpack the word “trans” and recognize that the definition and the experience is not the same for everyone.

Systems of Oppression: The connection of drag to transmisogyny primarily comes from, no surprise here, cissexist systems that refuse the realness of trans people, most visibly trans women. The “men in dresses” issue is very old, but the connection between drag and trans women is relatively new. Trans identities where not generally visible to society until the 60s, and not even by much then. During that time, and as transgender branched from transsexual, drag performers and now identified trans folks visibly populated the same spaces. This proximity lead oppressors (straight and gay) to use drag as a method of attack on trans women, and to a lesser degree trans men (there where no words for non-binary back then). Oppression has also been promoted by cis-gay communities and cis drag performers. A sticking point that is often mentioned is the use of the T-word which we see unapologetically used in drag spaces more than nearly anywhere else (it bothers me too). The reason for this (note I say reason, not excuse) comes from two sources.

1- As I mentioned, trans historically belongs to both what we consider modern trans people AND drag performers which meant that at one time the t-word was owned by both. (When looking at the use of the t-word in porn-exploitation, it is likely that cis people got the t-word from trans people themselves and then began to fetishize it.) This is why so many drag performers, in particular queens, hold on to the t-word with their teeth and aggressively think they can use it/claim it. One would think that people would recognize that language evolves… one would hope folks would understand that what was “ok” 20-40 years ago is not necessarily “ok” today, but unfortunately some people have not figured that out yet…much to our chagrin.  Which leads me to the 2nd primary reason oppression can be found buried within drag culture…

2 – Basic cissexist privilege; Most drag performers feel a deep connection to their drag characters and they were/are unable/unwilling to understand how someone, often who was/is a fellow performer, may be different from them. Essentially, “I’m wearing the same outfit as you and I’m not a woman which means you can’t be one either. So, I’m gonna say whatever I want and invalidate you – but it’s all in good funnnneeeehhhhhh-barf…” Male privilege rears it head in horrific, twisted ways in drag communities, which many find ironic considering that the people expressing this male privilege are men expressing as women – and some folks are actually trans women and trans men. There are many layers of privilege, sexism, racism, (all the isms) in drag culture; to those of us within that culture, it is a never-ending fight and conversation about how we can do right by our people through drag. In order for us to continue this important, historical craft as a method of empowerment, we have to push it to grow in social justice.

One other system of oppression that helped develop concerns of drag = transmisogyny is the heteronormative gender binary. A significant root for the vilification of drag as a weapon upon trans people is from transsexual separatists. Transsexual separatists do not want any form of gender non-conformity present in the community; they feel that if the identities of others do not perfectly align with their own, their personal identities are invalidated. They also feel that any non-binary or genderbending identity or expression will destroy their own legitimacy in the eyes of greater society. When I came out, this was usually manifested in the phrase, “You’re fucking it up for the rest of us.” Many transsexual separatists took an active role in demonizing drag as a threat to trans women and even carried it as far as demonizing any trans woman who where queer or visible trans activist, including people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The saddest part about this is that many of the people they targeted where trans women themselves, albeit ones who were poor, queer, and people of color who either where no able or did not wish to “transition” in the way power systems saw as legitimate. Sound familiar to anyone? Cause it should.

Again, I feel it is up to the individual to decide their feelings and opinions. I readily agree that there are parts of the drag community that are transmisogynistic and that many cis views of drag and trans women are often transmisogynistic. That doesn’t mean that drag as a cultural practice, or a historical experience, is by default transmisogynistic. And through I have directly experienced a lot of transphobia and cissexism in the drag community (and I mean A LOT), I still speak from my own place of privilege as a DFAB person. The history of trans misogyny has had less of an impact on my experience than it has on my friends who are trans women. All of that said, I still think it is very important that as our community gets younger, we continue to look back at our history. It is critical for us all to understand where we came from, which includes the importance of drag in a historical context as well as a modern craft. Different strokes for different folks, but we are all within the same community.”

For anyone who is curious; yes, I do have two workshop lectures on this subject so that is why this post is so thorough and organized. lol”