Sunday, April 27, 2014

a few thoughts on drag, trans women, and subversivism

For decades (and still to this day), radical feminists have argued that drag is an inherently conservative phenomenon in that it reinforces the patriarchy. Twenty years ago, queer theorists retorted that drag was inherently subversive, in that it deconstructed binary notions of gender. Interestingly, what both of these very different feminist camps shared was a belief that transsexuality was inherently conservative, assimilationist, and reinforced the gender system.

I just thought that this was worth pointing out in the wake of arguments that have been playing out on the Internets lately between some trans women who suggest that trans women who don't appreciate drag are conservative and assimilationist, and other trans women who suggest that drag (and the trans women who appreciate it) is conservative and assimilationist. I am not linking to any pieces here, as this post is not intended to be a "call out" of individuals. Rather, I feel the need to point out the subversivist nature of these arguments, and how they happen over and over again in feminist, queer, and progressive circles.

In Excluded chapter 12 ("The Perversion of 'The Personal Is Political'"), I show how subversivist arguments have been used to dismiss transsexuals for decades. I also point out how entirely arbitrary these sorts of claims are. Radical feminists in the 1960's accused lesbians of being "too attached to sex roles" and of "reinforcing the sex class system." So how did lesbians respond? Well, they claimed that "woman-loving women" were actually more radical because they undermined the hetero-patriarchy. So now lesbians are superior to heterosexual women, how revolutionary!

Find me someone who thinks bisexuals reinforce the gender binary, and I'll find you someone who thinks bisexuality/pansexuality is more radical than monosexuality.

Find me someone who thinks that drag is more conservative than transsexuality, and I'll find you someone who believes the exact opposite.

Do you know what all these positions have in common?

1) they are all hierarchies
2) they all condemn an entire group of people based upon some shared gender or sexual trait

Drag is not inherently conservative, or subversive, or assimilationist, or liberating. It is simply an expression of gender. People who do drag are different from one another, and they gravitate to drag for different reasons. Some drag performers are cis gay men, while others are eventual trans women. Some drag queens present masculinely when they are not performing, while others present femininely 24/7 and face cissexism and misogyny on a regular basis. Some people do drag to explore or experiment with their own gender, others to challenge societal binary gender norms, and still others may do it to mock other marginalized groups (e.g., women or transsexuals).

If you don't like the language Ru Paul uses, or you find a video that Alaska Thunderfuck makes to be offense, then by all means *critique those individuals and acts*. But once we start making blanket claims about drag and the people who gravitate toward it (e.g., that they are inherently assimilationist, or misogynistic, or trans-misogynistic) then we are condemning a whole slew of people, many of whom have done us no wrong.

Finally, the recent rifts among trans women with regard to drag seems to have veered into separating-from-the-transgender-umbrella (or purging-drag-from-the-umbrella) territory, so I figured that I should point out my earlier piece A “Transsexual Versus Transgender” Intervention. It was written with regards to HBS-type separatism a few years ago, but some of the points I make are still relevant in this case - especially the section where I point out that transsexual is an umbrella too:

We are a disparate group of individuals who share one thing in common: We all identify and live as members of the sex other than the one we were assigned at birth. Other than that, we differ in almost every way. Some of us are conservative while others of us are liberal. Some of us are middle- or upper-class while others of us are poor. Some of us are white while others of us are people of color. Some of us are straight while others of us are queer. Some of us are vanilla while others of us are kinky. Some of us are out as transsexual while others of us are stealth. Some of us are able to “pass” or “blend in” as cissexual while others of us are not. Some of us are very feminine, or very masculine, while others of us are less conventional in our gender expression. Like the population as a whole, transsexuals are highly diverse, and we should respect that diversity within our own community.

To add to that passage: Some trans women appreciate drag, while others do not. Let's please stop pretending that there is one single consensus among trans women regarding drag, Ru Paul, the "T-word," and other issues. We can disagree with one another without resorting to good-versus-bad, righteous-versus-oppressive, subversive-versus-conservative hierarchies.

note added 5-1-14: since publishing this piece, I wrote another post about this community rift. And I also published a longer piece called A Personal History of the “T-word” (and some more general reflections on language and activism) which is tangentially related to this whole affair...

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. Interesting read and pretty true about lumping people based only upon one trait.

  2. Intersting and I think pretty spot on. One thing I think needs to be added, especially with reguard to Ru Paul, and others is Drag as a comercial activity. While many people are playing with gender roles, exploring non binary, trans women, some are simply spotting a way to make money. Go to any stag or hen night with a Drag performer in the UK and you will see it carefully marketed and packaged, and often performed by people with no interest in anything but the pay packed.
    Now as a sex worker I am the last person to condemn how others pay their bills, however I see the appeal to some greater worth than making money as disingenuous for some performers. This may of course be a particularly UK phenomena where we have a history of straight cis men dressing as women, from panto dames to les dawson.

    1. ooops, pushed wrong button. i replied to you in a separate comment...

  3. Thanks for adding this important point, as drag performers & performances can vary greatly depending upon how commercialized they are. Ru Paul's show is highly commercialized and targets mainstream audiences. What I see there is completely different from drag performances at my local queer bars/clubs in Oakland, where performers make almost no money (except for maybe a fistfull of one dollar bills). Most do it because they enjoy doing it, and it's typically a mix of trans, gay, & queer identities both on the stage & in the audience. It is more of a celebration of gender variance than a gawking/mocking of "female impersonation" or "the man-in-a-dress-stereotype."

  4. YAY!!! Thank you!! I was seeing camps forming, and that's not what any of us, anywhere on this spectrum need.

  5. I think this is great, and well written. I would add, though, that part of the respect you call for in the last paragraph should extend to recognition of, and respect for, the different goals pursued by different groups that have banded together under the transgender umbrella: for example, people who define themselves as third gender/two-spirit/genderqueer/gender-abolitionist/androgynous/etc. often seek recognition and validation of their chosen non-binary gender identity and gender performance by means of either legal recognition of a third gender/no gender option and other similar status markers that convey rights, respect, and recognition. On the other hand, though, to many transfolk who view transition and transgender status more as a journey that they take on the road to 'becoming' or 'physically manifesting' as one of the binary genders - male or female - the idea that the government might one day lump all transpeople under a new legal gender categorization - trans* - that denies their self-identification as male or female is frightening, and has led to many back and forth arguments about whose aims are more valid - with genderqueer activists accusing binary transitioners of trying to enforce the binary on them while binary transitioners react out of fear that the genderqueer activists will try and force an unwanted gender identity or classification as -trans- upon them. There are other variations on these differences, and other differences not covered by those two, but those are the two positions I am most familiar with. I think it is important to recognize that these are different aims, and that not everyone who sees themselves as or who is defined broadly by society as 'transgender' wants the same thing.

    But there's no reason that both groups can't get what they want, for themselves, without imposing those aims on the other side. There's no reason we can't push for a non-binary/third gender 'trans' status for those who want it while also affirming the male or female gender identities of those who identify that way. There's no reason that we can't address queer transmisogyny in a way that allows for a variety of different levels of femme expression among trans people. There's no reason we can't address the differences in our community and the different aims that different people hold with recognition and validation of the aims and desires of those who differ from us. That's part of respect, too.

    1. yes, I agree. genderqueer vs transsexual hierarchies exist as well - on numerous occasions, I have witnessed transsexuals claim they are more legitimate than genderqueer folks (and vice versa). as with drag, I believe we can acknowledge differences in perspectives and overlap between our gender-variant subgroups without creating all-encompassing hierarchies or stereotypes that condemn one group or the other.

  6. I haven't followed the original discussion about drag. What I experience most is how drag is viewed in cis queer circles and I experience this kind of drag as a cis (or maybe passing) privilege that is rarely acknowledged. In that sense I really question the political power of drag since it only works if you have a clearly readable gender (other than the one you are performeing) to begin with.

    Has this been addressed in any way?

    1. drag has no inherent political power. like all forms of performance, it means different things to different people. also, I have known trans women who perform as drag kings, and genderqueer folks who perform as drag kings and/or queens. Sometimes drag involves androgynous people performing androgynously. drag is not monolithic - it is not any one particular thing...

  7. Thank you, Julia, for your thoughtful analysis and voice of reason. I think your subversivism model explains a lot of the tragedy that is unfolding. I use the term Horizontal Minority Scapegoating to describe prejudice between and within oppressed groups, who feel powerless in the face of larger common prejudice and appropriate the language of their own oppressors to attack others who are similarly disenfranchised. Like many trans women, I was offended by Mr. Charles' “F-you, you tr***y jerk!” cruelty and his self-entitled defense of media trans-defamation in defiance of GLAAD guidelines. But I can never forget that, when I moved to Colorado in the mid-90s, my first friends to welcome and accept me were of the Denver drag community. Some of them later came out as transsexual women. I remember being shunned as too independent, too outspoken, too subversive, by some traditional TS orthodoxies of the time that were built on internalized stereotypes of psychopathology. (And I'm still shunned by some of them today) So I cannot march to the drumbeat of condemning drag culture and disregarding the trans and TS women and men who have emerged from drag communities. Nor can I excuse Mr. Charles from personal accountability for his media defamation of women born like me.

    For me, however, it is even more heartbreaking to hear trans women, and especially transsexual women, attacking each other with the very derogatory language of our most intolerant oppressors: Raymond ("sh*-m*le), Bailey ("queen"), NARTH/CAMH ("nutty"/mentally defectve), Brennan/GallusMag ("hetero privileged"/presumably male "privileged"), and those who sexually exploit, assault and murder us ("tr*nny"). When trans community leaders resort to hurling misgendering language at each other in the media (ironically in response to issues of misgendering language in the media), all trans people lose-- especially our most vulnerable children and youth. This makes me want to cry.

    1. thanks, I appreciate everything you said. While I am OK with individual trans people identifying how they want, no one should nonconsenually impose derogatory or unwanted labels onto others.

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  9. Dear Julia, I am truly grateful that there is a voice like yours out there. I have and admire both your wonderful books, which I have recommended and given as a present to others. I usually agree to most of what you have to say and should keep saying. I also agree to your understanding of drag. Personally, I have defended drag as a legitimate practice, even risking losing "points" when other women insisted in telling me apart from drag queens early in my transition, a few years ago. As to subversivism, you've exposed the problem perfectly well in your books, and this is something many of us can see at work in queer settings pretty often. However, I do not think these are the central matters at stake regarding the RuPaul debate, nor the Molloy-Addams-James confrontation.

    The focus here is not drag itself, nor subversism in relation to drag. This whole shit storm is about one man with some considerable influence on media feeling empowered to use whatever language he deems appropriate for a group of women now, in the year 2014 and not in the 1980s (we do not use most of the GIC language anymore either), and regardless of how many trans women have found their right and legitimate ways to transition and womanhood through drag culture back then and nowadays. Moreover, this is about a community (trans women) being deemed legitimate to express criticism about that fact, or not, depending on their different positions, and not about being told, as is customary with women, to not "react hysterically, calm the fuck down and let the man speak for their sake". Or else, as is specifically told about trans women, to "not be angry, not being 'divisive' and not taking so much damn space". Lastly, this whole thing is once again about misogyny and men speaking for women, and specifically about some gay men once again playing the 'queer ally card' and expecting being allowed to widespread transphobia and misogyny as they please. Long story short, this is about their appropriation and our disempowerment. All of which is quite the opposite of the principle "not about us without us".

    I must insist: regardless of Molloy's calling out Addams and James, regardless of the latter ad feminam arguments against Molloy, and regardless of the fact that it is all of us who are going to be the losers of this fucking quarrel among us, this is about gay men establishing our image in media for us, and not about drag. After the 'divisive trope', so well played by some gay men and lesbians to downsize and marginalize us within queer discourses and spaces, it seems as if trans women were failing to see beyond their personal interests and ties to certain individual drag artists (not drag itself) and turning against their own sisters, of which they claim to be their forerunners, instead of enriching the perspectives and perhaps correcting the forms of the criticism voiced.

    Rants aside (and sorry about the increasing rant tone of this one), this is increasingly all about the fucking divisive fucking "trannies" and "shemales" (we all! :) internalizing the defamatory bullshit repeated about us for the last decades by quite a few straight and gay men taking too much space in women's issues and by a dozen privileged cis female scholars –and about our acting accordingly to the point of now dividing ourselves instead of uniting against those who appropriate and disempower us, no matter how fabulous and famous they happen to be! And unfortunately this is about our failing in one feminist department: sisterhood!

    Personally, I believe many would listen to you on this, Julia. We need you writing about trans women's sorority, feminism and unity this time. Not about drag, as this is not the problem. And not necessarily about taking sides for one or the other names quarrelling already, but about the unity and feeling of sisterhood that is at stake. We need you voice out there on this!

  10. In my own post responding to Addams' and James' I challenged the usage of male privilege as an argument to dismiss the opinions of a lot of the trans* community. As I understood them they are suggesting that loud, outspoken trans women are still on a male privilege high – so to speak. This is common TERF rhetoric, but in addition it's quite anti-feminist too in my opinion. If the implication is that they haven't been living as female long enough to have learned the female role of being quiet and submissive, then that's a good thing. Being also in a political feminist community, I am surrounded by cis women who are every bit as loud and, when needed, angry as the trans* community. Now, whether everything the online trans* community does is productive or not, is another topic. It varies widely, but many are certainly doing a lot of good. Like for instance Janet Mock with her #GirlsLikeUs.

    I have identified as genderqueer for most of my adult life, and I eventually transitioned a few years ago. Having read your books my journey identity-wise is very similar to yours, but probably more closeted in the past. In my lovely community we have pretty much a complete spectrum of identities from cis to trans. I keep arguing there is no cis/trans binary, but I too need to check my language every now and then because we all tend to use cis/trans in a binary way. I love my community. It's hard to find two people who identify exactly the same on any of the axes, whether it is gender or sexuality.

    I have been asked to participate on several boards in this local LGBT community, and currently spend most of my free time working for these. If the day comes that this organisation grows stagnant and uniform, I'm out. I'm still relatively new to the wider LGBT community, and I keep discovering new normative ideologies all the time. The LGBT community is riddled with them. Just the fact that we're still LGBT and not inclusive of the other queer identities is sad, and a huge ongoing discussion. *sigh*

  11. Im still highly offended by drag. Art does not happen in a vacuum, and drag is no exception. When you put gender in of itself on stage as an art form with very strong messages I think its highly problematic. It still comes down to an individual voicing thier often complex opinions with the bluntness of a hammer. It has little to nothing to do with identity than the manner of which its presented that I think many of us find offensive. You are right that we should call out individuals and focus on that more than fighting drag culture as a whole. But that doesn't change the fact that drag in of itself can be offensive and alienating on it's own. The prevelance of drag in so many queer events makes some of us (like myself) very uncomfortable in queer space. Im binary identified lesbian with trans history and I have a lot of trouble passing in public. Which is something that limits my ability to be out in public as i become suicidal when misgendered. This isn't the fault of any drag performer but the constant tropes presented in drag and often the way its presented (whether intentional or not) kind of shines a spotlight on things that limit the passability of others. I guess I feel its limiting in a similar way that you wrote about how extreme focus on the awesomeness of genderqueer folks in queer space sometimes shoves trans women into the corner. Im sorry im babling now and having a hard time not sounding like an asshole. To me all genders are equally valid but because gender is such a huge and crazy universe it means we have to be more careful in how we act so that we down make our own experiences overrule the experience Ans needs of others. I guess my opinion comes down to this that the comfort level and safety of one group in our umbrella is more important than a public performance of another group. Finally I think some of us would be more comfortable if there was more self policing in the drag community to curb acts that border or become racist/mysoginistic/transmisoginistic. In a way I'd hope for something akin to whats happenining in the heathen comuninity to combat the rampant racism from a very small and vocal white supremacist minority. I know for myself I wont be comfortable in queer space until something like that happens. I hope this doesn't offend Im trying to be as logical and neutral as possible. Please call me out and give me time to apologize if it does. Thank you.

    1. sorry, I have to disagree with pretty much everything you said here.

      There are crossdressers who wish that transsexuals didn't exist, and transsexuals who wish that genderqueers didn't exist, and genderqueers who wish that crossdressers didn't exist, and members of each group hate drag artists, & some drag artists hate all of us. this is all the result of social pressures pitting members of similar yet different minority groups against one another.

      you say people under the umbrella should "self police" themselves. but according to whose standards? it sounds mostly like you want people to self-police themselves according to your standards. what about cis lesbian-feminists who want you & me to "self-police" our gender identities (aka, make trans women disappear). who gets to decide who gets to exist & who should repress their identities for the "common cause"?

      the argument you are making is identical in form to the one that early gay & lesbian activists used to cast off trans folks from the movement. Please please investigate that history!

      finally, this keeps coming up again in the comments to this essay (please look above): RuPaul-style drag *is not the be all and end all of drag*!!!!!!!!!!!! drag is diverse. my local queer bars sport queer & trans people doing all sorts of gendered performances (e.g., more dyke & androgynous & other forms). I have never done drag myself, but lots of trans folks (both transsexual & other transgender umbrella subgroups) feel empowered by it & use it in ways that move well beyond conventional hyper-femininity & so-called "female impersonation."

    2. The only self policing I think they should involve themselves in is to prevent racist acts like the ones Shirly Q. Liquor performed. And from the most obvious of misoginistic acts (the ones performed by Cis-Gay males in order to directly mock women and or trans women as a group), that's all. I wouldn't want them to do it to my own standards, I'm far too triggered by drag to be able to judge folks on that matter. I don't wish anyone didn't exist personally. Like I said I'm against the negative stuff that happens on stage, not against anyone's gender identity. I'm happy that there are more diverse kinds of drag out there, that's wonderful for the folks who can enjoy that kind of entertainment. I am painfully aware of what gay and lesbian activists did to shove trans identities under the bus. Again I don't feel that the expression of one's hobby is the same thing as an identity. I'm a painter/illustrator and I think over the last century we've put performance arts on this super high gaudy pedestal and treated it as some kind inflatable art form. I see the same hubris happening in performance art, theatre, film, and well most anything on stage that happed to the paris Salon in the late 1800s. Its the same kind of pervasive untouchable infallibility that destroyed western painting. I mention this because I see drag as a part of that, And though art can be an expression of an identity, its still should be subject to criticism, especially when its shoved down people's throats as drag is. I should be able to go to a queer event and not worry if there's a mandatory drag show out in the middle of everything. I should be okay with going and being gendered properly, and not worried if people are going to ask if I will perform or what's my real male name, etc. Anyways, again if the drag community is so amazing and diverse as you say then they should have no problem standing up against the racist, misogynistic and trans misoginistic acts as an ongoing thing, just as privileged ass white Heathens do as a visible attemtpt to stop racism, sexism and homophobia in thier communities. If mostly white cis straight people can do this without complaint, I find it laughable and dishonest that it would be impossible in our community.

  12. Late to the party but... Cristan Williams wrote an interesting examination of the history of the word "tranny" and pointed out that there are two very distinct usages and they do not overlap at all. One is inside the drag community where it's something of a term of endearment. The other is in the wider culture where it has tended to be an insult and a way to dehumanize trans people, especially transwomen.

    Rather than confront RuPaul and accuse him of being insensitive, if it had been me, I'd have asked him how do we keep these usages separate and how do we discourage the wider culture from seeing the insult version of the term as acceptable when the drag community openly uses the term? But then, I'd rather dialog than dictate.

    I think RuPaul could have been co-opted to help us rather than feeling accused and separated from us and all of that came from how we approached the topic in the first place.

  13. I'm in a weird position with this question. I'm trans male and gay, and the gay male community in my country has been massively supportive of trans people during the last 25 years since I came out. In the 80s and 90s, the gay male and trans women communities mixed strongly. Opposed to that, the lesbian communities have been hyper-transphobic until recent years, and I still remember vividly seeing trans women physically attacked by lesbians.
    So I still feel gratitude for the support that I have always gotten and still get from gay cis men.
    I understand that many trans women have a problem with drag because they often get thrown into the same category by the environment. I had a similar problem when drag kinging started to become a thing and everybody assumed that I must have lots of fun drag kinging. The truth was that I started crying when I tried out some false beards and so on, for reasons that I probably don't have to explain to you. I still can't watch drag king shows very well.
    I know that some gay men are dismissive of trans women, and that includes some drag queens. I heard that tendency is a lot stronger in the US then where I live.
    But the whole trans - gay divide is not that simple, and often the line would have to be drawn across people.
    A significant percentage of gay men have been gender-non conforming children, and this might lead to all kinds of results later in life. Some feel a strong affiliation with trans women. Others believe they understand trans people intimately because of their own gender-nonconforming experience, but might misinterpret some trans experiences because of that. We all tend to think that other people are similar to ourselves, so that's a mistake that is understandable. Others, because of being gender-nonconforming in some way, might distance themselves strongly from trans women, maybe by making fun of them ("She think she's a woman, poor thing" etc) So this is a really complex topic.
    For those of us in the gay and trans communities (gay trans men, but also transgender identified drag queens or trans women with a strong affiliation to the gay communities) that means we get trapped somewhere between the transphobic gay cis men and the drag queen-hating trans women.
    What I'm trying to say here- it's easy enough to shout at each other on the internet or to demonize the other group. The more sensible people in every group usually don't participate in the shouting matches, so you probably won't meet the gay men or drag queens who are trans allies in the heat of this debate.
    "There are crossdressers who wish that transsexuals didn't exist, and transsexuals who wish that genderqueers didn't exist, and genderqueers who wish that crossdressers didn't exist, and members of each group hate drag artists, & some drag artists hate all of us. this is all the result of social pressures pitting members of similar yet different minority groups against one another. "
    This needs to be a poster or something. Divide and conquer it used to be called and we really need to be aware of that danger. It's obvious who's the winner from such a situation - certainly not us.