“When a straight man puts on a dress and goes on a sexual kick he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a transsexual. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen” —Noxeema Jackson, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar
“I’m not a fucking drag queen / I’m in another bracket
What you see before you / Is not some midnight racket /
Nothing here is padded / I’ve paid a mighty fortune
A few things have been added / And one or two subtractions.”
—Judy Squires (Better Than Chocolate)
I was getting a cup of coffee at a cafe outside Chicago. I had only transitioned months earlier and, to the casual eye, I looked like a boy in a dress. The barista was very friendly—she even seemed eager to talk to me. This was years before transgender people were an undeniable part of the cultural zeitgeist, but there’s an appeal to encountering any rare creature, particularly in the homogeneity of suburban sprawl.
“Do you do shows?” she asked.
I balked at the question.
“No, this is just who I am.”
I got my coffee and quickly exited, stung by her assumption: That this life-upending process I was going through was some sort of performance. That it was in any way, shape or form “fun.”
Or in the immortal words of Judy Squires: “I’m not a fucking drag queen.”
It’s a natural instinct to define ourselves in opposition to what we’re not. It’s one of the ways the self is created and maintained. When identity is early in formation, or tenuous for any reason, the sting of being confused for that “other” we define ourselves against can be particularly acute.
But the intensity of our emotional recoil can obscure the uncomfortable blurriness of the lines we see so clearly: If the difference between transvestites, transsexuals, and drag queens was self-evident, it wouldn’t need to be articulated by Noxeema in To Wong Foo.
To make a definitive statement of difference is to make tacit admission of similarity.
Just as I helped define myself by rebuking the idea I was a drag queen, drag has often dealt with the tension of similarity by explicitly defining itself in opposition to transness. Pageants like Miss Gay America had specific rules prohibiting hormones or surgery, and contestants were expected to live their daily lives as men. The magic was in the art of female impersonation, of transformation. What does that mean if the participants are already beautiful women offstage? In an ironic way, men dressing up as women actually reinforces their maleness. The proximity to the thing they’re not, their ability to simulate it while still maintaining their own stable masculine identity, is proof of manhood, one necessitated by its expansion into typically feminine categories.
For anyone in the drag world to actually identify as a woman calls the whole edifice into question.
But the best-laid anxieties of trans women and drag queens often go awry. Lived experiences and material realities slips past the inforced boundaries and dual citizenship becomes common. Sometimes drag queens become trans women and sometimes trans women do drag. With increasing traffic between those worlds you can either retreat into “make gender great again” dogmatism, or embrace a brave new world that has many genders in it. As with the polarization in other arenas, the more liberal response has the advantage of being a lot more fun.
With fun as the goal, rules soften to become guidelines, allowing for exceptional exceptions. Which is why RuPaul’s Drag Race fans can bask in the singular talents of Peppermint.
My best guess is that the gender differences between Peppermint and the other contestants means much less to Drag Race’s audience than style, creativity, dancing, lip-syncing, and fabulous cattiness. That’s part of the price any subculture pays for going mainstream: Identity formation and community politics become less important than a good show.
And the same goes for our foes: LGBT people know the shades of difference between bear, otter, diesel femme, soft butch, fish, and brick. But plenty of folks look at all of us and just see “queer,” and not in a loving way.
There are legitimate critiques of drag culture, of course: Through a particular lens it reeks of misogyny, a caricature of womanhood, a mockery by a subculture that defines itself precisely by its total lack of interest in actual women.
And through another, just-as-legitimate lens it’s a celebration of womenhood, an homage to the divine feminine as it manifests in divas, starlets, and pop stars. In a hypermasculine culture that punishes femininity in men, strong bold women on screen are sirens calling to young gay men, and drag honors them.
But more importantly, it’s just fun. It gives you something to look at when you’re at the bar and it makes for damn good television.
No, I’m not a drag queen, but these days if someone thought I was I’d blush with gratitude and reply, “No, but bless you for thinking I could be so glamorous!” I no longer need to define myself by what I’m not, and my gender doesn’t depend on the perceptions of strangers.
Or, to quote Noxeema Jackson once again, “Approval neither desired nor required.”