On Thursday night, Drag Race dominated social media with the repercussions of All Stars 3 queen BenDeLaCreme’s decision tospoiler alerteliminate herself from the competition rather than send home one of her fellow queens. The discussions, memes and threads it elicited were heightened, even for Drag Race standards. They were emblematic of Drag Race’s level of popularity. On Thursday nights and the following weekend, it is able to command attention the way its queens shimmer and sparkle on the runway.
By Monday evening, RuPaul had issued the apology heard around the web. However, some are already questioning whether the apology will fall flat as trans representation holds more importance than ever before in American popular culture.
“Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience,” the RuPaul’s Drag Race host wrote on Twitter. “I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.”
Ru wrote these words in response to a controversy that erupted over the weekend after a Saturday morning Guardian interview in which he said he would “probably not” allow physically transitioning queens to compete.
“You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body,” RuPaul told the Guardian. “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.”
He added, “Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.”
Rather than stay quiet, several Drag Race queens took direct shots at Ru and his comments and stood up for the place of trans women in the drag community.
In an interview with INTO, Drag Race Season 5 contestant Monica Beverly Hillz slammed the equation of trans identity with body parts.
“I’ve always been a woman, so what I’ve done to my body or that I hadn’t started hormones while on the show doesn’t take away my identity,” Hillz said. “Our bodies do not equate our identity.”
After Hillz spoke out, she was joined by Season 6 contestant Gia Gunn, who said it makes her “so sad that our own leader doesn’t even see us as valid competitors in a world that’s supposed to be ‘all inclusive.’”
On Monday, Season 4 contestant Willam responded to a fan’s praising of a comment he made during a video segment with news website Mic. In the video, the interviewer asks Willam if there’s anyone who should not be allowed to do drag.
“When you won’t give another drag queen the courtesy that you would to any other drag queen on the street There’s this one drag queen It’s tragic how someone at the top of their game who has been so blessed won’t even smile at someone or stop to talk to you and say hi, ” Willam says.
Willam didn’t name names, but said in a tweet about the video, “I was talking about RuPaul. I’m constantly learning from her how not to behave.” In 2017, Willam himself faced backlash over some transphobic comments he made on his show Suck Less. He later apologized for those remarks and released a video of him wrestling with his comments and the backlash.
I was talking about Rupaul. I’m constantly learning from her…how not to behave. https://t.co/RHHTJoxSLv
— Willam (@willam) March 5, 2018
Season 9 winner Sasha Velour addressed the controversy head on and stood up for trans women’s place in drag culture.
“My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming folks doing drag,” Velour tweeted. “ That’s the real world of drag, like it or not. I thinks it’s fabulous and I will fight my entire life to protect and uplift it.”
My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming folks doing drag. That’s the real world of drag, like it or not. I thinks it’s fabulous and I will fight my entire life to protect and uplift it.
— Sasha Velour (@sasha_velour) March 5, 2018
Season 4 contestant Jiggly Caliente, who has come out as trans since her season aired, wrote on Twitter, “There’s a revolution amongst the rebels. Pay attention !!! We refuse to stay marginalized and held down while you chose who to take up with you. #blend #thotprocess #transpower @Peppermint247 kudos to your song. It’s timely and very relavant to our times. #transrevolution.”
There’s a revolution amongst the rebels. Pay attention !!! We refuse to stay marginalized and held down while you chose who to take up with you. #blend #thotprocess #transpower @Peppermint247 kudos to your song. It’s timely and very relavant to our times. #transrevolution
— Jiggly Caliente (@JigglyCaliente) March 4, 2018
Peppermint tweeted a series of emojisdisappointed face, shocked face, and closed mouth facethough, her Twitter Likes are full of statuses standing up for trans women and men in drag.
— Peppermint (@Peppermint247) March 4, 2018
BenDeLaCreme tweeted about his trans partner, as well.
My partner of almost three years is trans, and #bendelachrist help anyone who tries to tell him what he can and can’t do. Just sayin’.
— bendelacreme (@bendelacreme) March 5, 2018
Though she didn’t address the controversy directly, judge Michelle Visagewho is also Ru’s best friendspent her Saturday responding to fan’s questions about trans drag queens with a decidedly more enlightened worldview. When asked if trans women can be drag kings or drag queens, she said, “Both.” A trans man asked her her thoughts on his doing drag to which she responded, “Do what makes you happy!” And when asked if women can do drag, she responded, “LOOK AT ME! I DO DRAG! Of COURSE I love it!”
— michelle visage (@michellevisage) March 3, 2018
Do what makes you happy! https://t.co/nq1n4wRTZ9
— michelle visage (@michellevisage) March 3, 2018
LOOK AT ME! I DO DRAG! Of COURSE I love it! https://t.co/TXiysdkKBd
— michelle visage (@michellevisage) March 3, 2018
The controversy comes at a precarious time for Drag Race. The show is in the middle of about 22 straight weeks of programming and is in its first full season that was shot as VH1 programming. The ninth season was shot for Logo and then switched networks. Obviously, its TV overlords want the shows audience to grow.
Other similar shows, like America’s Next Top Model, which air next to Drag Race have taken pains to grow the pool of people who are allowed to compete for its prizes. This season, a woman in her 40s is battling a number of teens and twentysomethings for Tyra’s coveted title. And in the past, the show has allowed men to compete, as well. For RuPaul to constrict the talent pool seems antithetical to the changing nature of reality shows.
It also betrays his own words. During the Season 5 reunion, while interviewing Monica Beverly Hillzwho famously said, “Drag is what I do. Trans is who I am”RuPaul said, “The only requirement for being here is the desire to be America’s Next Drag Superstar. And the only thing we screen for is Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.”
The video is available via Willam’s instagram, which he posted with the comment, “‘The only thing u screen for? Hmm.’”
Aside from contradicting his earlier statements on the Season 5 reunion, Ru’s comments in the Guardian call into question whether RuPaul was acting for the cameras. What are the consequences if Ru’s trans-friendly attitude in Season 5 was a veneer for a much less inclusive behind-the-scenes casting procedure?
RuPaul and Drag Race have been able to weather trans-related controversies before. In 2014, RuPaul came under fire for a “Female or Shemale?” segment on Drag Race that asked contestants whether a picture of a body part was a biological woman or a drag queen. Two months later, RuPaul defended his use of the transgender slur “tranny” on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast.
Season 3 contestant Carmen Carerra, who came out as trans after her season, took RuPaul to task for his use of the term. She received swift, immense backlash, including from Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio, who told her to “take what’s left of her dick and stick it in her mouth and shut the fuck up.”
In 2017, Season 5 queen Detox slammed VH1 for allowing Wendy Williams to host the RuPaul’s Drag Race pre-show, given her poor history with the trans community. Michelle Visage agreed with Detox in an Instagram comment. Williams’ pre-show was eventually removed from the programming block.
While the Williams controversy is fairly new, much of the previous controversy happened in 2014, a very different moment for trans visibility. In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner announced herself and her new name on the cover of Vanity Fair. Since then, she’s already become persona non grata in many LGBTQ circles for her early support of Trump and her general lack of knowledge on issues that affect trans women of color.
In many ways, Ru’s exclusionary language mirrored the reality that many trans people have had to live. While gay and lesbian couples marched to marriage equality, the trans community was told they had to wait for their moment of political and social reckoning. Despite being the people who birthed the modern LGBTQ rights movement, trans people were put on the back burner. Similarly, as Drag Race shatters ratings records and brings a wealth of LGBTQ narratives to the mainstream, trans peoplespecifically trans womenwere once again sidelined in our own community.
RuPaul remains a cultural touchstone for LGBTQ people. In the 1990s, he challenged America to allow a 6’4” gay man in heels and makeup into their living rooms on The RuPaul Show and he brought drag mainstream in a way that it never was before. RuPaul’s raison d’etre has always been to expand people’s ideas of gender and to challenge heterosexual America to open its hearts to queer people. However, it seems at this stage, he cannot turn around and do the same for trans women.
There is a difference between drag and Drag Race. Trans women helped create the art form that is drag. Drag Race helped bring that art form to the mainstream. Though RuPaul can make the rules on his show, it’s important to note that the exclusion of trans narratives on Drag Race ultimately misrepresents the art to its fan base, which is increasingly cis teen girls. Given that VH1 has huge plans for Drag Race, it’s not too inconceivable that the network may find a new captain for the ship if they deem him unable to helm it responsibly.
Photo by Tasia Wells/Getty Images for VH