But… Drag Queens.

Posted by – February 23, 2014

The other day I posted and commented on an article about the way language is used in the LGBTQ+ communities, specifically about the way gay men often insist that “tranny” is not a slur even though they would never be called one.

That is, by the way, my rule of thumb, and a good one for allies to remember: if it’s something someone would say to you before threatening you, you get to use it. If it isn’t, you don’t.

But the article talked about how drag queens return to being members of the gay male community when they get out of their femme gear, and a friend of mine protested, saying:

Great article, but I don’t really agree with this line: “When drag queens remove the trappings of their dramatized personas, they become once again a part of the gay rights movement and leave real transgender people to suffer the consequences.” Drag queens have always been a part of the gay right’s movement–they led at the Stonewall riots, and they’ve taught us to fight with our wits. I’m not denying that the language used on Ru-Paul’s drag race isn’t harmful to the T-community, but let’s not denigrate the important role that the queens have played in gay civil rights either.

And he is entirely right. Drag queens had a significant part in taking crossdressing laws off the books, which was an important step in decriminalizing homosexuality and of course transness itself. They were at Stonewall, and at Compton’s.

But here’s the thing: some drag queens identify as trans themselves. Others don’t. RuPaul, for instance, doesn’t, and yet he keeps speaking up about how tranny isn’t derogatory or a slur.

And as anyone who has ever seen a drag queen out of drag knows, they often are GNC (gender non confirming) in their masculine presentation, too. One of the problems here is that drag – and its favorite form of expression, camp – are ironic, sardonic styles of communication. The trans community, on the other hand, tends toward being dead-on earnest (although also, dryly, wickedly funny). That is, what we have here is a failure to communicate. No one is lacking a sense of humor here, and honestly, as a feminist, hearing gay men tell trans activists to “get a sense of humor” is really, really frustrating and reeks of that low-level, so not-benign misogyny of the gay male community.

My point here is that there are a lot of trans people who do not like drag or camp and find it a humiliating parody. There are drag queens who go on to transition and who retain a queer, campy sensibility. There are drag queens who think of themselves as gay men, and others who think of themselves as gay men and as trans women – simultaneously. Or, like my wife, there are people who think of what they do as drag and so don’t think of their gender expression as life or death, until they transition, when living in the world as a (trans) woman feels different, looks different, and IS different, and then “tranny” sounds different, too: like the slur it is for a woman declared male at birth.

So I’ll say again to all the cis gay men out there: if it’s not something you’d be called, don’t use it. If you’re not sure, don’t use it. If you examine your own gender, and your own feelings about trans people, and find you don’t really understand why someone would transition, or think (secretly) that trans people should just deal with being GNC, don’t use it. Really, that means you don’t get it. Y’all are starting to sound like that straight guy who tries to use “faggot” in a conversation and makes everyone think: ewww, I think he actually kinda means that. & I know you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t make you an asshole to use “tranny”. It just makes you woefully uncool and absurdly insensitive to a marginalized-within-marginalized population. Also, using it privately, amongst a small group of friends, is one thing; using it and telling the mainstream press that it’s an acceptable term is another.

3 Comments on But… Drag Queens.

  1. Donna says:

    From everything I’ve read, most of the “drag queens” at Stonewall were, in fact, trans women who lived their lives as women (not gay men who performed in drag), and (like Sylvia Rivera) later identified as trans. “Queen” (or street queen) then didn’t mean what it does now.”

  2. Donna says:

    To add: the fact that they may also have viewed themselves as gay didn’t mean they weren’t trans.

  3. divadarya says:

    You made the points extremely well, and I’m as guilty as any of using the word “tranny” in a specific way, as in historical context. Gay men do have a tendency to all-too-quickly dismiss what trans women have to say about the use of this word. That said, we all know elements of our own community who have never met a bath with a baby in it that they wouldn’t throw willy-nilly.

    Gay men are not fire-breathing oppressors and ferchrissakes let’s judge our friends who do drag as individuals. My friend Jake(trans man) was setting up Trans Pride LA (In other words, he delights in making no one completely happy, ever) and needed a performance artist and decided to call up on our friend Kelly Mantle, as talented, sweet and funny a human as ever walked planet Earth. Kelly is one of those trans/gay fluid people you talked about before; her picture with her boyfriend shows a happy girl with a studly guy.

    Well of course, a group of trans women were fuming because “Kelly’s a drag queen, and doesn’t belong at a trans event!” Jake won an award for his contributions to the LGBT community, then quit his job at the LAGC. He’s in Portland now, making mostly himself happy, burned out on the weekly hysteria and infighting of making other happy.

    I say we should learn to get along with everyone, including ourselves.

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