A Legacy at Risk: Why RuPaul’s Views on Gender & Race Feel Problematic Today

A Legacy at Risk: Why RuPaul’s Views on Gender & Race Feel Problematic Today

By Sondra Morris

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9877963gc) RuPaul Charles arrives at night two of the Television Academy’s 2018 Creative Arts Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater, in Los Angeles Television Academy’s 2018 Creative Arts Emmy Awards – Arrivals – Night Two, Los Angeles, USA – 09 Sep 2018

Whether you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race religiously or you’ve never seen an episode, you’re likely familiar with the eponymous legend behind the television phenomenon. RuPaul is famous not just for portraying an impossibly beautiful drag queen and leading a hit TV series, but also for wielding considerable influence both within and beyond the LGBTQ+ community. As the first drag queen in the United States to hit mainstream superstardom, RuPaul has long been considered a legend and trailblazer within the community to the point of donning the affectionate nickname “Mother.” However, over the last few years, his controversial responses to criticisms of the show’s treatment of race and gender among contestants have many fans–myself included–wondering if he’s capable of evolving with the times.

“RuPaul has inspired, supported, and lead members of the LGBTQ+ community for decades.”

To start, let’s run down Ru’s impressive list of accomplishments and conquered feats. He was crowned Queen of Manhattan in 1989 and went on to garner international fame with dance hit Supermodel (You Better Work). He continued to break barriers in the mid-90s, becoming the first face of MAC cosmetics and the original celebrity behind VIVA GLAM, which raises funds for HIV/AIDS research and he has returned to support the campaign since. VH-1 aired over 100 episodes of his talk show, The RuPaul Show and he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2017. He’s spoken at multiple pride events and fundraisers, he introduced the world to drag in a way they’d never seen before with RuPaul’s Drag Race, and he developed the annual event RuPaul’s Drag Con. By living his life unapologetically and openly, RuPaul has inspired, supported, and lead members of the LGBTQ+ community for decades.

However, as public consciousness shifts, Ru’s brand of unapologetic realness has begun to create controversy. Take, for instance, his now-viral interview with The Guardian in March 2018.

Over the course of the interview, Ru spoke to his stance towards women competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race. He explained that trans-women were allowed to compete as long as they had not begun transitioning physically and that biological females (whether they be cis-women or gender neutral female-bodied individuals) were unlikely to be seen on the show. “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it,” he explained, “because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”

Fans on twitter balked at the comments, many pointing out that drag does not equal men dressing as women, but a hyperbolized performance of stereotypical femininity. Historically, drag has been donned by individuals of all gender identities and sexual orientations: it is not nor has it ever been exclusive to queer cis-men. Ru doubled down on his statements to The Guardian with a tweet comparing trans-women who take hormones and perform drag to athletes who use steroids at the Olympics. The implication that a drag queen who is transitioning her gender identity is somehow “cheating” is wildly offensive to the trans community and suggests cis-male ownership of drag. After considerable backlash, Ru tweeted a pseudo-apology, stating, “I understand and regret the hurt I have caused.”

“Should my offense dim what empowers others or should others ignore offending me in order to empower themselves?”

While Ru’s tweet was shocking, it wasn’t altogether surprising. Up until Season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, challenges to the contestants were heralded in with the sound-byte “You’ve got she-mail.” In Season 6, the show premiered a segment titled “Female or She-male” which drew ire not only from fans but from former contestants as well. Carmen Carrera, a Season 3 contestant who came out as trans after her season aired, explained in an interview with The Advocate that then Season 6 segment inferred that trans-women weren’t “real” women and stood to harm members of the trans community. Carrera’s fellow Drag Race alum Monica Beverly Hillz, who made waves as the first contestant to come out as trans during her season, agreed that certain terms–including “she-male”–are too offensive to be on the show.

Carmen Carrera, Monica Beverly Hillz, Peppermint, Jiggly Caliente – trans contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Credit: The Advocate

Though Logo has apologized and the show’s changed its language since, Carrera’s point that language causes harm deserves further examination. RuPaul’s Drag Race has provided viewers with countless catchphrases and quotes through its 10-year run. It’s not unlikely that people would adopt terms from the show they may not have used or known before. In 2011, former NYSYNC member Lance Bass used the slur “tranny” on Access Hollywood Live and garnered widespread outrage. Bass later claimed he thought the word was acceptable as he’d heard it used commonly on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Project Runway. Ru then appeared on Access Hollywood Live himself, claiming Bass had nothing to apologize for: Ru insisted that the context in which Bass used it and his intent in doing so were not harmful. A notable fan of the slur, he has explained that using it to self-identify as a transvestite and/or drag queen is not equal to a bigot using the term to insult a transsexual individual.  

“Ru must understand the influence he wields as the only international mainstream creator, host, and judge of a drag supershow.”

Ru has stated over and again, “I’ve been a tranny for years.” It’s a term Ru identified with throughout his time coming up in the drag world and one that, over the years, has fallen by the wayside because of it’s offense to the trans community. However, Drag Race executives have decided to outlaw the term “tranny,” against Ru’s wishes.  When it comes to reappropriating terms, who has the right of way? As a black woman who identifies as queer, it’s a question I encounter daily and there are no set answers. Within my race, my sexuality, and my gender there are terms I feel offended by that others within these communities find empowering. Should my offense dim what empowers others or should others ignore offending me in order to empower themselves? I don’t have an answer to this quandary.  

As I am cis-gendered, I can only compare the use of terms offensive to the trans community on RuPaul’s Drag Race to my experiences with slurs in my own minority communities. With all of his celebrity and reach, Ru must understand the influence he wields as the only international mainstream creator, host, and judge of a drag supershow. He’s an icon and a role model to countless fans. RuPaul’s Drag Race boasts a diverse viewership of all ages, races, sexualities, gender identities, and levels of social consciousness. For many people without previous exposure to drag, Ru isn’t a voice in drag, he’s the voice of drag. Drag Race is Ru’s creation and he’s welcome to showcase whatever iteration of drag he likes best, although including an allusion to other, equally valid, forms of drag on his show could change the conversation around the show’s lack of inclusion. As could explaining the context of controversial terms within the drag and trans communities–two communities closely intertwined and at the heart of the show. If he’s not going to refrain from airing controversial language on RuPaul’s Drag Race, then the show could benefit from explaining the context around each one.

While many of the show’s fans recognize problems within the show and/or it’s creators, they continue to watch in hopes of progress. However, there is another sect of fans who watch and dedicate themselves to promoting the ugliest views found within the LGBTQ+ community: transphobia, misogyny, and racism. When Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly Hillz spoke out regarding the “Female or She-male” segment discussed earlier, both received hateful and transphobic messages from the show’s fans. They’re far from the only former contestants to come under the scorn of hateful fans.

The issue of racism–on the show and between fans–has sparked debate among both parties. For years, black drag queens have received less love from the fandom, with some fans resorting to downright abuse when they disagree with black queens and/or their accomplishments. Season 2 winner Tyra Sanchez claimed in a Reddit AMA that “[The biggest change is] the fans are psychotic. White queens are always the favorite. Black queens deserve hateful tweets. Queens should be stoned or tarred and feathered even if they deserved the win. ie.: Nina Bonina Brown or me.” Season 7 contestant Jasmine Masters received death threats following her elimination from the show, which Ru responded to by encouraging Masters to stick with love and pay the haters no mind. Season 10 contestant Asia O’Hara posted a tweet describing the racist vitriol she’s been subjected to as a black queen. While the show’s official account responded to the tweet, Ru did not. Despite his influence, Ru has been hesitant to scold the problematic portion of his fan base. In the eyes of black fans, Ru doesn’t have the backs of black queens who’ve competed on the show.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to ask him to evolve with the times and increase his social awareness. The legacy he’s created requires him to.”

It wasn’t until Season 10 that the issue of racism came into play on-air. During the reunion episode, former contestant The Vixen pointed out that she, a black queen, was being constantly scolded and instructed on how to act and Eureka, a white contestant she frequently found herself in conflict with, was not. Upset by the double standard, The Vixen left the set and fellow contestant and black queen, Asia O’Hara confronted Ru, stating that they should have handled the situation differently and asked The Vixen to stay. Ru disagreed, stating that “I come from the same place she does.”

The statement is telling and, considering it along with Ru’s other comments on race, may explain his refusal to respond to criticisms of racism among fans and former contestants. In The Guardian interview referenced earlier, Ru stated:

“People have always been threatened by me as an African-American man, because of the inherent black rage that all black people have in our culture, the underlying black rage because of what happened to us in this country. It’s always there; it’s a glaring issue that’s saying, ‘First of all, let’s talk about the black rage.’ So one of the ways that I’ve been able to dilute that perception is to dress as a character that says, ‘Look I’m fun, I can have a sense of humour about life because I’m in drag. I acknowledge black rage, but we’re going to have some fun.’ So then people are like, ‘Oh, OK, so we can laugh together, we don’t have to address the black rage.’”

The Vixen’s outburst and Asia’s response are aspects of the black rage Ru mentions playing out in a public sphere. Ru’s decision to “dilute the perception” of black rage in the 1980s makes sense: it was a smart and creative survival tactic. It’s only in the last few years that black Americans have returned to a civil-rights-era comfort in unapologetically vocalizing the anger and hurt we encounter from this country’s institutionalized racism. The Vixen and Asia O’Hara’s comments–honest, upset, and publicly voiced–are indicative of today’s mindset on dealing with race while Ru’s comments harken back to another era.

It’s odd to suggest that the man credited with propelling drag into every household in the United States and moving the barometer of acceptance for this art and entertainment form is himself stuck in a bygone time, but considering his views on gender and race, this just might be the case. Mother Ru has accomplished so much and, while we will always be grateful for his contributions, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to ask him to evolve with the times and increase his social awareness. The legacy he’s created requires him to. Otherwise, the new generation will only know him as a beautiful queen complicit in the racism and transphobia of his fans. And we all know that Ru can do better than that.

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