Why RuPaul’s Reversal on Trans Issues Is So Surprising

RuPaul. Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday, after writing an inflammatory tweet, RuPaul did something uncharacteristic: He apologized. It all started when he commented that trans women who have begun physically transitioning should not be able to compete on his show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s not the first time RuPaul has criticized the trans community, but it is the first time the backlash was so widespread and vociferous on Twitter. On Into, one trans writer and advocate, Precious Brady-Davis, wrote that she found RuPaul’s idea of drag “misogynist” and “repulsive” and that he needs to “catch up with the rest of the movement.” Former Drag Race contestant Willam called Ru out on Twitter and Instagram, writing, “We work with trans women every night side by side and for them to be denied the opportunities because of someone’s narrowminded view on what they call ‘drag’ is fucked.” Perhaps sensing the winds were shifting, RuPaul tweeted an apology, writing: “I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.”

So, what happened? How did the tide turn on such a beloved figure? And why does this moment feel different from others? Well, get out the Crisco, because we’re going in deep.

I’m so upset! I thought we loved RuPaul?
We do! Icon! Diva! Legend!

But his comments on trans women have struck many as prejudiced and incorrect. In a recent Guardian profile, RuPaul said this in response the question of whether transgender women should be able to compete on the show:

So how can a transgender woman be a drag queen? “Mmmm. It’s an interesting area. Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.” Would he accept a contestant who had? He hesitates again. “Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.”

His response implicitly suggested that he’s fine with the many cisgender male contestants who have gotten injections, plastic surgery, and fillers (of which there have been many), but not with trans women who have started transitioning. Once people began criticizing him (and we should note, the backlash was still pretty tame considering RuPaul’s obvious stature), he then dug his heels in further on Monday, tweeting:

That, of course, only made things worse, because it looked like he was re-entrenching his belief that trans women who have begun physically transitioning should not be able to compete on the show, which has become a platform for drag queens to launch their careers. But then, in a surprising move about six hours later, he tweeted an apology.

You say “surprising.” Why?
Well, it’s important to remember that this Twitter controversy isn’t the first on this issue, and RuPaul has been famously stubborn about his views (sooo Scorpio). In 2014, RuPaul’s Drag Race had its biggest controversy over its use of the word “she-male.” Through season six, the show had a spoof on America’s Next Top Model’s Tyra Mail that they called “She-Mail.” The firestorm started after a mini-challenge that season, where the contestants had to identify whether a photo was of a “Female” or “She-Male.” Trans writers called the show out, as did former contestants and trans women Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly Hillz. Logo, the show’s home network at the time, issued an apology and took out mentions of “She-Mail” from that point on. (The mail call would then become “Shealreadydonehadherses.”)

After that controversy, he was more defiant than contrite. He went on a tweetstorm defending himself. He did an interview with Marc Maron on WTF, where he discussed the use of his use of the word “tranny.” “You know, I can call myself a nigger, faggot, tranny all I want to, because I’ve fucking earned the right to do it. I’ve lived the life,” he said. “I’ve been on the front line.” Moreover, he described his critics as such:

It is not the transsexual community. These are fringe people who are looking for story lines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with.

When I asked him about the decision to change the name of the segment in 2016, he replied, “I didn’t do that. The network did that, and you’d have to ask them why they did it, but I had nothing to do with that.”

Why is this controversy different now?
The discourse around trans rights has changed rapidly since the show began in 2009, with a number of trans activists and writers articulating the need for civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. When the controversies around the use of “tranny” and “She-Mail” first happened, it was seen as a niche concern about language, and what words people have ownership over. This controversy is explicitly about people, and who is allowed to participate in drag. Also, the preeminence of social media has only grown since 2014. For drag queens, it has become the way in which people make careers, create fandoms, and receive critiques. The show has always been heavily invested in social media, so it only makes sense that a backlash would begin to form there.

So, why does RuPaul think that trans identity is incompatible with drag in the first place?
During our interview, I also asked him about his views on how he saw trans identity relate to drag — a conversation he wasn’t interested in having. He replied:

I think it’s a boring topic. I don’t really want to talk about that because everybody wants to ask about that. It’s so topical, but they’re complete opposites. We mock identity. They take identity very seriously. So it’s the complete opposite ends of the scale. To a layperson, it seems very similar, but it’s really not.

I’m a layperson: Explain it to me! What does he mean?
Well, get out your well-worn copy of Gender Trouble, because the library is open. RuPaul has always seen drag — and by this, specifically, the culture of cisgender men dressing up as women — as genderfucking. He sees it as a transcendent act, a way to peel back the curtain of gender and sexuality that blinds people. These are shackles that plebes don’t recognize, but drag queens do: It’s all a joke; it’s all the matrix. This philosophy is consistent with RuPaul’s own background in drag, which came out of doing punk music and hanging out at clubs in New York City. Gender was an idea he could play with and something he could choose to put on or take off at will.

One of RuPaul’s famous quotes is, “You’re born naked, the rest is drag.” It’s a populist way of saying that gender is inherently performative. In his mind, trans people are essentialists, whereas drag queens are not. But this is also where there’s a contradiction, because if it’s all drag, then why does it matter whether someone is a cisgender male or a transgender woman? Why can’t trans women subvert gender too? That’s where Ru’s idea of drag is also inherently essentialist — it requires believing there is an origin point of maleness with which to fuck. What if you simply didn’t think that existed at all?

I’m shook. Let’s forget about Ru for a second. Has there ever been a connection between drag and trans people?
Always. There has always been a deeply interconnected history between drag and trans people: We just didn’t always have the same language for various identities. Even RuPaul’s Drag Race has reflected this, featuring a number of trans female performers, from Sonique in season two to Jiggly Caliente in season four to Peppermint in season nine. During the season-nine finale, Laverne Cox made a pointed video statement to Peppermint, saying, “Being a proud transgender woman is not incompatible with being America’s next drag superstar. You can have them both.” When RuPaul brought the topic up, Peppermint said, “Trans women have always contributed to the wonderful art form of drag since the beginning of time. This is not new.”

Drag has been a way for trans women to, relatively speaking, safely explore their identity. Indeed, even one of the movement’s heroes, Marsha P. Johnson, also performed as a drag queen, later co-founding STAR — Street Transvestite (now Transgender) Action Revolutionaries — alongside Sylvia Rivera. Even that change, from transvestite to transgender, indicates that our language for how to name identities has evolved over time. To suggest that drag has only been performed by cisgender men is incorrect and a historical erasure.

Are people taking his apology seriously?
Sure! But as RuPaul would say, let’s not be too serious:

Why RuPaul’s Reversal on Trans Issues Is So Surprising