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5 Things It's Important To Consider Regarding Transphobia and 'RuPaul's Drag Race'

Television
by Gregory Rosebrugh
April 7, 2014 10:07 AM
12 Comments
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Ru Paul 6

Recently, Rupaul Charles and the producers of Drag Race released a public statement in response to accusations of transphobia. It is worth noting that while Ru and Co. explain that they intend to tackle issues relating to transgender rights in the future of this show, they did not apologize to the transgender community for their offensive actions in the “Female or She-Male” mini-challenge. 

Days after the statement from the Drag Race PR team, Carmen Carrera came forward about her stance on the “Female or She-Male” challenge and its implications for the treatment of transgender women in and out of the drag scene: 

Some of you guys asked me to make a comment so here it goes... 
Although I am certain RuPaul's Drag Race didn't mean to be offensive, let this be a learning experience. I think the show has opened up and educated the minds of many people who were ignorant to the world of drag and has made equality and respect a possibility for those involved, not only as equal beings but as phenomenal artists. There has always been a huge presence of trans artists in the drag scene. "Shemale" is an incredibly offensive term, and this whole business about if you can tell whether a woman is biological or not is getting kind of old. We live in a new world where understanding and acceptance are on the rise. Drag Race should be a little smarter about the terms they use and comprehend the fight for respect trans people are facing every minute of today. They should use their platform to educate their viewers truthfully on all facets of drag performance art. 
#SheHasSpoken

In light of these events, and of the impassioned comments /bent has received from both sides of the issue, I feel it is necessary to provide clarity about my intentions in running my opinion piece about “Female or She-Male” a couple weeks ago. There are a number of things I want to clear the air about. 

1) Dialogue is important. I do want to promote a dialogue about this show and its impact on the LGBTQ2I community. If someone does not agree with the opinions of this article, I and the editors of /bent of course encourage them to share their thoughts, as silence around the issue of transgender rights will also not create social change. 

2) We can love the show while still pointing out its flaws. I still love this show, and I still love Rupaul. In fact, it is because I am a die-hard fan of Rupaul’s Drag Race that I had extreme difficulty viewing the “Female or She-Male” game. I do not feel comfortable viewing a show that I enjoy even as I know it promotes dangerous cultural practices in the community I belong to. This ambivalence is a difficult thing to constantly balance, but I know I would rather not pretend the show is politically pure and instead accept that there are dire representational problems in its creation. I do not think the solution is for offended viewers to stop watching the show, as that will not change its representational choices either.

3) We can love Rupaul while still pointing out his errors. I agree that Rupaul has done more for the LGBTQ2I community than I ever have. Thank you for that reminder, I totally forgot. For one, I will always remember Rupaul as a champion of AIDS activism in the early nineties, especially as the original face of Mac Viva Glam, a makeup line that donates one hundred percent of its profits to AIDS research. I think Rupaul ought to be acknowledged for the culturally relevant work he has done, especially for the drag community. However, I do not think these achievements should absolve Rupaul of responsibility for offensive actions he has committed. 

4) Impact and intent are not the sameWhat this means is that regardless of whether or not the producers of Drag Race had intended to create an event that was transphobic or cis-centric, and whether or not Rupaul and Co. perceive themselves as transphobic (my guess is that they identify themselves as transgender advocates), the effect of this mini-challenge has been evidently harmful to the transgender community. For this reason alone the producers of Rupaul’s Drag Race should have said in their public statement something like, “We apologize for our actions, as we had not thought ahead about who in our community we were hurting by creating a game like “Female or She-Male”. We appreciate your feedback and intend to create programming that is safer for all our brothers and sisters.” 

5) It’s not all about the language. My issue was primarily not as much to do with the word “She-Male” and who it belongs to, as much as the actual activity in the mini-challenge, which encouraged viewers to take apart women’s bodies based on how authentically “woman” they were. This was not just transphobic, but misogynist as well. This said, I do think it is easy to retire the term “She-Male” from drag culture, especially for the sake of our community members who it negatively affects. 


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12 Comments

  • noelani | April 11, 2014 8:12 PMReply

    I have been a fan of RuPaul's Drag Race since season one. Due to illness, I spend most of my time alone and I watch the episodes over and over. It makes me laugh and keeps me company and I feel like the people in it are almost like friends. I do not have any other contact with drag queens, gay people, or transexuals, at this point in time. I guess my personal experience must be lacking, because I don't understand the concern over the "female or shemale" mini challenge. I thought that male to female transexuals just wanted to be called "she" so, to me, "shemale" referred to a man who was a female impersonator.

    Irrespective of the use of that term, I can't imagine anyone saying that they hate RuPaul over it. Maybe it's because I'm nearly 60, but I know how much has changed in the last 30 years or so. RuPaul has been a big part of it. Regardless of your personal take on the term "shemale", I think RuPaul deserves a lot of respect.

  • Dylan | April 8, 2014 4:29 AMReply

    I sincerely apologize for my ignorance, but what does the 2I stand for in LGBTQ2I? I tried googling it myself but I didn't really find anything.

  • Dylan | April 8, 2014 6:46 AM

    That makes sense, human sexuality is too complicated to fit into a short acronym. And yes you did, thank you for enlightening me. Also, now I know to use intersex instead of hermaphrodite. Thanks again.

  • Gregory Rosebrugh | April 8, 2014 5:19 AM

    Hi Dylan!

    Though not often included in the alphabet soup, 2 and I stand for two-spirited and intersex. Two-spirited describes non-binary gender identities in Aboriginal cultures. It is not the same as transgender. Intersex is the correct term for people who have, to whatever degree, biology of both "sexes". Intersex individuals used to be called hermaphrodites, though the latter has become outdated and is considered a slanderous word.

    I do not think there will ever be a perfect way to represent every experience of gender and sexual orientation in a single acronym. This is how I try to include as much of my community as possible, but someone else might have a different acronym.

    Thank you for asking! Did I answer your question?

  • Marrvelous | April 8, 2014 2:41 AMReply

    Im 50 yr bi male who has worked with and shared many friendships with celebrity impersonators, drag performers, transexuals, and transvestites for 30 yrs. it should be acknowledged the words "shemale", "tranny", "chicks with dicks" or similar terms began in the drag/transexual world many, many years ago. I personally learned ALL of these words from transexuals who identified as such. But now I AM TRANSPHOBIC huh? I would argue the ageist trans movement is showing little respect those who came before them.

    Im also a little pissed at the Transgenderism movement for exploiting and weaponizing the term "phobic" on whim as they vilify others who don't abide by their perspectives in life. For people who are screaming for understanding and acceptance -- they lack the understand for others may not be following up-to-the-day nomenclature surrounding gender identity. You won't gain allies by slinging insulting terms at others who paved the road for you.

    If the term "shemale" offends you, maybe you should ask yourself what that word means. Maybe YOU are the one hating on the idea of intergender. Maybe YOU have self-hate around labels and identity definition.

    Throughout my life, Ive heard the words homo, faggot, sissy, queer, poofster, etc tossed around as insults toward ALL men, gay and straight alike. But.... I don't consider them insults because i understand the meaning of them; men who express love, affection and admiration for each other. I have no shame in who I am, regardless of the ridiculous words and labels people use. If I let the ignorance of others define my self-worth -- I'd have no self-worth. Respect doesn't come upon demand, it comes when you treat others with compassion and friendship. Telling someone, "hey, i prefer you use this term instead" is more effective than saying "respect me or you are label-phobic".

    PS... Im in San Francisco where we live with many variations to gender identity, but blame-shaming isn't respectful.

  • Gingerbear Todd | April 8, 2014 9:15 PM

    Thank you Marrvelous! I agree with you entirely. It has always amazed me how through time words change meaning, even when pioneered by the very group, or more accurately, a small segment of that group has decided to grow offence to those terms. I'm a gay man, one of my best friends is a post-operative transexual and I've also been a drag queen. Many of those so called offence terms have been around for a long time and we used those terms to describe each other and ourselves. The self-sanctimonious blame-shaming and podium grandizing victimization feels to me more of a ploy by those with their own issues trying to either put down others because they feel put down themselves or quite simply to push their insecurities for attention. No matter what "names" are given, we give each other or ourselves, there will always be people who will disagree, take offence or cause a flap. Words only have power if you give them and labels are only offensive when the majority of people have convinced they must be. It's shameful to subvert what was once a proud underground lexicon of the gay culture.

  • Dan J | April 8, 2014 2:37 AMReply

    A lot of trans people have come out in defense of RuPaul. I think it's important to point out that many trans folk aren't offended. That speaks volumes for this controversy.

  • GLBTQ Jamaica | April 7, 2014 5:16 PMReply

    Excellent post and balance to this matter, other places I have noticed an intolerant view of intolerance or plain misunderstanding as this faux pas has shown, I still luv Ru and mistakes will happen, some of our trans allies have forgotten the etymology of the terms used way before the raised visibility and understanding of transgender issues. We ought to take this one as a major learning curve.

    Luv from Jamaica

  • Eric Tomlinson | April 7, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    Bitch used to be an insult but women can reshape the word to be empowering to themselves, as such we can take away meaning from terms such as f**, n****r, etc. Those words strike close to home for me, as does bitch for some people, but where does the line of sensitivity need to be laid.

    It sound rude to poll people on how offended they are for a term such as shemale- but it is important to understand that offense as a way of determining wether we can have a show use that term in my opinon. Will someone inflict harm or hurt themselves from Rupauls Drag Race using this term, or will it help in bringing more attention to the Trans community?

    I don't have the information to form my opinion, but please comment on how you feel about this if it means something to you.

  • Eric Tomlinson | April 7, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    I agree with so many points of this article.
    But one question I have to ask is do we have to be respectable of sensitive terms. I'm sure many members of the T community do feel offense to this, but who is to decide if a term is universally unclaimable. As a member of the LGBT community, I believe that deconstructing social ideas to take meaning away from words is a more important agenda.
    Many would say that the art of drag is offensive to the T community because many members are offended. Many Trans-people want to just get by without being noticed and drag identities takes away some sense of privacy to them. So where do we really draw the line?

  • Eric Tomlinson | April 7, 2014 3:19 PMReply

    This blog is not allowing me to comment.

  • FP | April 7, 2014 11:45 AMReply

    As someone in the demographic of LOGO and RuPaul's Drag Race, but not being white, male, or Gay, it's just very sad to see how divided and divisive a silly game has made everyone. As a person of color, I know all too well that names and baited comments exist everywhere in media, and there are instances when I should pick my battles and be offended or respond to it, and times when it's not worth it.

    So when it comes to my T sisters and brothers and how they see the world, I do my best to just listen and learn, the way I hope white people listen and learn from folks like me if they were not aware of what drives me or drives me crazy.

    I want to understand the how and why a term such as "she-male" might offend all T's or just some T's but the context of the offense feels more than confusing. I know that variations of the N word fly around my community like jets in the sky, and know that my sisters throw the D word like they in a flood in Holland, and amongst friends, we tolerate it because there is no malicious intent. I have heard Gay men call each other the other F word, and even if it makes me uncomfortable because I know the history of that word, it's not for me to tell alike people how to be.

    For me to believe that RuPaul, the gay producers, or the gay network had malicious intent is for me to believe that they don't like transgendered people, and I can't do that. People have said I bear a resemblance to Bebe Benet and that's cool with me. She got better makeup skills than me, but I get it. I'm not offended. If they put my lips up on that screen, and some contestant said they were she-male, why would I be offended? I love my face, my legs, my everything, and what some stranger has to say has nothing to do with me.

    To me, it takes so much effort to throw shade or hatred at someone when no harm was intended. To tell the drag community that a word should be retired is not for people outside that community to say. It's culture and outsiders have no business being involved. I detest the Confederate flag, so I'm not rushing to South Carolina anytime soon, but bearded southern men want to dress up like a losing army and commemorate getting they ass whupped, go ahead. Just don't use that N word with me if I watch, 'cause it's not 1863.

    And I think that's the real issue. It's a unique culture that's broadcast to a wider spectrum. So I can feel my sister Carmen's comments about a teaching moment. I think Ms. Ru has more to teach than Ms. Carmen but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a voice too.

    It just concerns me that as we learn more about and embrace our more visible T sisters and brothers, that it has uncovered a lot of anger and separation, particularly towards our drag brethren who were at Stonewall and made all this progress happen. T's being so upset with men in drag that they have to single out this instance of unintended offense gives me pause. All of us in the rainbow have our unique cultures and seeing any of us back biting feels regressive. But I guess I will do my best to keep listening and learning.

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