Since the launch of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2009, the show has become synonymous with the image of drag queens dancing in ornate costumes strutting and enthusiastically lip syncing to pop songs.
Drag culture predates “Drag Race” by decades, but thanks to the charismatic presence of RuPaul and the series’ aspiring drag queens, the show now reaches millions of viewers on both Vh1 and Logo TV. Even if they don’t win, contestants enjoy a career boost for appearing alongside the modeling legend and host. RuPaul’s series has helped popularize drag queens, catchphrases and styles in a way few other TV shows or movies have ever accomplished.
Yet, even an elder statesman of the drag scene can stumble in heels. In an interview with The Guardian published Saturday, RuPaul revealed a prejudice against allowing transgender women to compete in “Drag Race,” claiming their presence altered the series’ image:
This did not go over well with “Drag Race” fans, who aren’t exclusively gay cisgender men but viewers of different genders and sexualities. RuPaul defended his opinion with a bit of weak reasoning that some have called out as hypocritical:
“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.”
Eventually, RuPaul apologized for his comments, but they raise a few questions about the show’s history and reputation for being an inclusive space.
Were other potential contestants passed over because they were already transitioning? Is the criteria going to change for contestants going forward? It’s likely fans and casual viewers will be watching closely to see if trans women are still sidelined from “Drag Race.”
As a post by activist and actress Phaylen Fairchild shows, there has been a lot of troubled history between RuPaul and transgender performers. Fairchild rightfully points to the “double standard” that allows cisgender men to audition even if they’ve undergone plastic surgery, but not transgender women who have started transitioning. Does RuPaul keep a running list of body modifications that are acceptable on the show?
Despite RuPaul’s limited definition, performative drag does not belong to one gender or sexuality. The stage is a safe space where drag queens can have fun, express themselves and challenge or engage their audiences with their acts. When one person comes to represent an entire community or subculture, they are almost certainly set to disappoint their fans. But RuPaul’s mistake was worse since he potentially excluded members of the transgender community from furthering their careers.
Since RuPaul’s apology, a former “Drag Race” contestant, Peppermint, released a statement hoping the reality TV host will learn from this incident and change his views on transgender women. “It shows all of us, there is room for growth, education, and I’m hoping a bit of evolution,” she told Billboard.
Hopefully, RuPaul is listening and learning on how to make “Drag Race” accessible to all talented drag queens.