As you may know, Monica Beverly Hillz came out as transgender on this week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. (You can even read our chat with the show’s producers about their reaction to her announcement.)
By my count, that makes Monica the third queen to identify as transgender. Sonique came out during the reunion special for her season, and Carmen Carrera came out last year. The difference, of course, is that those two women announced their transgender identities after they competed on the show. Monica revealed her secret on the second episode of her season.
In her NewNowNext recap, Julianne Smolinski wondered if that was fair. “I appreciate her candor and her strength,” she wrote. “But… That’s kind of cheating, right? I feel like that’s definitely cheating. But Ru just tells her to chin up and bring what she came to bring.”
And I can understand why someone would have that reaction. “Hey!” they might think, “Isn’t this show about men pretending to be women? Isn’t it an unfair advantage if one of the contestant actually identifies as a woman?”
But I’d argue that it’s not a problem for a transgender contestant to compete on the show. In fact, I think it’s a great step for Drag Race that expands our vision of what “drag” can be.
Because “drag” isn’t just about dressing up like someone of the opposite sex. It’s about donning a persona. It’s about an artist using his or her talent to create a larger-than-life performance that somehow captures, critiques, celebrates, or enhances our typical understanding of identity. Think about RuPaul’s Drag U, which focuses on turning biological women into “drag queens” for a day, just so they can feel fabulous. When they dress outrageously and take on stage names, those women ARE drag queens.
I know where this argument leads: By my logic, you could say that anyone dressing up in any kind of costume or notable outfit is putting on drag.
And… yes. That’s exactly what I mean.
Drag is everywhere. In this history of drag balls, for instance, there have always been categories like “executive realness,” in which gay men dress as heightened versions of heterosexual business men. In those cases, those queens aren’t rocking girl drag, but they were still in drag. When I put on a suit and tie for a work event, I’m rocking executive drag. And so is Donald Trump.
The point is, we’re always putting on identities. We’re always performing a self for the world. We’re always in drag. All of us.
On RuPaul’s Drag Race, of course, the basic premise is that the contestants need to be serve lady drag. But just because the show has only featured biological men doesn’t mean a woman couldn’t be allowed to compete. Sure, she’d get read for it, but if she could turn out a fierce illusion that clearly wasn’t just a version of her daily self, then why not? Why not challenge ourselves to see the drag of a woman dressing like a woman?
And Monica Beverly Hillz isn’t even pushing the envelope to that extreme. As far as I know, she has all the biological parts of a man. It’s her spirit that’s female, even if her body contradicts what she knows. So when she puts on her runway outfit, she’s still dealing with the same tucking and taping issues as all the other contestants. And she’s still creating a character. I don’t know Monica, but I’m guessing the Monica on stage is not the woman behind the scenes. She is a performer after all.
That’s another thing: As @Anti_Intellect pointed out in a comment on Julianne’s recap, RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t only a show about who can look the fishiest. It’s also about artistry. Performance. Skill. Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. When Monica lip synched for her life and killed it, her gender didn’t matter. Her talent did. She gave us a high drag interpretation of Rihanna-style attitude, and it was awesome.
(I’d like to add that I admire RuPaul for putting Monica in the bottom two, even after she came out. That was sign that RuPaul wasn’t giving Monica pity points because she’d just made a hard revelation. RuPaul respected Monica enough to keep judging her on her talent, and not her gender identity.)
Add all this up, and you get a newer, larger vision of drag—and of human sexuality and gender identity—from a show that was pretty much designed to break boundaries. And that’s outstanding. Monica’s no cheater. She’s a competitor who has earned her spot on that stage just like all the other queens, and the show is better for it.
Mark Blankenship is living for the way Coco Montrese read Serena Cha Cha. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship