RuPaul's Drag Race Gets Schooled on Sensitivity
By Peter Lawrence Kane
RuPaul’s Drag Race has announced that it will stop using the word she-male. The show, now in its sixth season, had always had a regular feature called “You’ve Got She-Mail,” where Ru addresses her “girls” via a televised message, but got into trouble because of a segment called “Female or She-Male” where the competitors had to guess who was a “real” woman. That was the breaking point for many activists, including two former contestants who have since transitioned, and RuPaul has made the right decision.
That this particular episode and the pushback are taking place almost exclusively within the LGBT community, where RuPaul has millions of fans but no small number of detractors, is interesting. It’s not hard to see tension between gay male drag queens and transgender women who feel more than a little dehumanized by callous drag, especially when the rest of America doesn’t see much difference and the internet is already awash in “she-male” porn. (To be clear, draq-queen-versus-trans-woman is a big difference. Also, if you’re cisgender, meaning the opposite of transgender, you shouldn’t call anyone a tranny, either.)
Still, it’s not as though all trans people are demanding that Logo #CancelRuPaul, and it’s important to remember that LGBT history is bizarrely full of scolds and puritans who want nothing more than to airbush out or silence anything flamboyant, hypersexual, or weird. Writer and trans activist Andrea James wrote a lengthy defense of RuPaul that points out how trans homophobia can be just as noxious as gay transphobia, although the latter has much more power to marginalize.
To accuse RuPaul of being transphobic is, in a way, almost to admit that he definitely isn’t, unless you want to go all the way to “Drag is oppressive.” Few people have promoted the acceptance of non-gender-conforming people as much as RuPaul, which makes him a lightning rod for criticism – especially from anyone for whom being an ally means being the one who should know better. Insensitive jokes can stand out against a professional lifetime’s worth of good, but crossing the line is inevitable when you’re a satirist or provocateur.
Really, though, it’s pretty simple. If Group X says a word hurts, and you’re not part of Group X, just don’t use the word. Whether or not a particular mode of oppression was new to you doesn’t mean anything. People have pointed out that “She-Mail” is actually a pun, a self-aware twist by one of the most fabulous queers of all time. OK, but how many times can jokes get repeated before the laughs are spent? And have you thrown niggardly around lately? Considering the precarious position of trans people and the law, swatting concerns away with “Can’t you take a joke?” isn’t going to fly this time. That move to overturn AB 1266 by referendum – which is to say, to ask the voters of California whether or not transgender children can use the bathroom– failed, but only barely.
Of course, the best course of action is always to assume positive intent, and correct mistakes as they happen (unless someone is, you know, shrieking, “Kill all the faggots!”). That might sound suspiciously like urging people to have empathy for their oppressors, but we’re all human. RuPaul did the right thing here, and quickly. Probably because most activists did, too.
Image via RuPaul's Drag Race Facebook page