The trans community was dealt another blow at the hands of reality show host and self-styled queer figure head, RuPaul Charles. On March 5, he tweeted: “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.” This sparked a major uproar from his fan base and the queer community as a whole. Many interpreted the tweet as RuPaul equating transgender hormone therapy with performance-enhancing drugs.
His reality shows, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (RPDR) and “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars”, exclusively feature AMAB (assigned male at birth) drag queens. Coupled with his tweet, the not-so-thinly veiled implication here is that trans queens are inherently different from AMAB queens.
This further alienates trans performers from the drag and queer communities. Personally, this immediately brought up issues such as questioning the validity of trans identities, and supporting the unspoken practice of gatekeeping within the drag community.
RuPaul’s shows are clearly rife with gender bias. But his attempt to exclude all but AMAB drag queens fails to account for trans and nonbinary queens who have not, or choose not to transition.
There have been several trans queens in the show’s run, such as Peppermint, a RPDR season nine finalist and open trans woman. When pressed about Peppermint and her participation on the show, RuPaul answered rather dismissively: “Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show […] She was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.”
The point RuPaul is attempting to make is that since Peppermint did not adhere to the societal perception of what transitioning is–getting surgery, taking hormones she was not truly a woman and was therefore a male drag queen in keeping with his standards.
This comment inherently invalidated Peppermint’s identity, along with countless other women who do not wish to, or do not have the funds and resources to, as RuPaul tastelessly put it, “really [transition].” As a long time Drag Race fan, but also a trans individual who cannot afford surgery or hormones, it is difficult to move past the exclusionary and classist tenor he used to police trans bodies.
RuPaul’s statements, not so unwittingly, reinforce gatekeeping within the drag community. In an interview with them, Creme Fatale, a biologically female drag queen, aptly described the power of the RPDR franchise over professional careers: “Drag Race is really the only way for drag queens to achieve major success: It gives you a platform […] It gives you exposure to producers in music […] people working in entertainment. It puts you in the spotlight to receive opportunity.” By openly invalidating and rejecting transgender women from his shows, RuPaul is preventing trans queens from achieving the fame and success that is accessible to their AMAB counterparts.
RuPaul’s response to the uproar did not do much to help his case. He released two tweets, the first of which read: “Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.” The tweet was a PR olive branch, but an ineffective one in my opinion, reading as a simple placation that was all talk and no action.
The second tweet, however, exacerbated the situation: “In the 10 years we’ve been casting Drag Race, the only thing we’ve ever screened for is charisma uniqueness nerve and talent. And that will never change.” This was accompanied by Ellsworth Kelly’s 1953 painting, Train Landscape.
The piece is an abstract representation of fields seen from a moving train, depicted by three horizontal blocks of color. The painting bears a striking resemblance to the format of queer pride flags. This, coupled with RuPaul’s track record of transphobia, caused many to believe that he ignorantly mistook the painting for the transgender pride flag. He has not released a statement about this issue or his intent with the photo.
Supporters of RuPaul have argued that the painting was an intentional choice to illustrate a point: that things are far more simplistic than people make them out to be. As an art history major, this strikes me as nonsense. Train Landscape is an abstract representational painting, meant to take reality and conceptualize it in another form.
Kelly took the streaking landscape seen from a train window and reinvisioned it as horizontal blocks of color. He literally took the landscape and simplified it, the exact opposite of RuPaul’s supporters’ reasoning. The argument that this painting was picked to exemplify blowing a simple issue out of proportion is embarrassingly superficial and uninformed. And, it completely ignores the accepted ideas and interpretations of abstract art.
Trans queens are being barred from and discriminated against by the governing institution of drag. Yet RuPaul supporters are suggesting that trans people are overreacting. The modern queer community was created as a safe, loving and inclusive space. The behavior of RuPaul Charles spits on these values and makes us just as bad as the bigots we try to rise above.