There’s More to Being Queer Than What You See On Drag Race

When I was studying for my undergrad degree, I extensively scoured every gender studies resource available to me that talked about trans people (there weren’t that many), and almost all of them included mention of RuPaul, or the following quote:

“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

Which is strange of course, because RuPaul isn’t trans. And a trans person’s gender expression isn’t drag, either.

This phenomenon, of correlating drag race as a microcosm of trans and wider queer experiences, isn’t restricted to confused gender studies papers from the late nineties. Often, when I talk to people about being gay or trans, the topic of RuPaul’s Drag Race comes up. Many times has my identity been condensed to make it more palatable or immediately understandable by viewing gender through the lens of Drag Race. Regular viewing has become a badge of ally ship for many people outside of the community: ‘it’s okay, you can trust me; I love Drag Race!’.

I’m not trying to throw stones here. I love Drag Race too. I watch Untucked, follow the twitter beefs and commentary on YouTube, and pre-pandemic I even went to a viewing party for the first UK season. But my identity, being queer and trans, cannot be condensed or adequately represented by the show. To have your only education about the LGBTQA+ community be based on Drag Race would be a bit like trying to understand the entire history and culture of the British Isles by binge watching Blackadder. You’d understand some of the fun parts, but you’d be sorely lacking depth and nuance.

So, let’s start with the good. Drag Race normalises queer lives, love and culture in a way unseen in the mainstream. Having a large body of cis-het viewers is great, because it provides a platform for education and visibility that the queer community might not otherwise have. And the show does mention tricky issues occasionally, if only in passing. In the first UK season, Divina De Campo’s recollection of her experiences living under Thatcher’s Section 28 prompted the BBC to produce explainers for those coming across the homophobic legislation for the first time. In All Stars Season 2, Detox talked about the Pulse Nightclub Massacre, and her colleagues murdered at the hands of a homophobic terrorist. Bringing attention to topics like this can help give an, albeit basic, understanding of some of the issues queer people face on a day to day basis.

Drag Race, and the art of drag in general, can also help people understand the nuances of gender, and provide opportunities for self-reflection that people may not otherwise have access to. Drag as an art form, by virtue of its very existence, challenges notions of the gender binary by challenging what it means in society to be male, female, androgynous, or agender. Providing a space for this conversation for who are not trans is important and normalises gender diversity in wider society.

Let it be recognised that Drag Race does have an important role to play in promoting mainstream acceptance of queer lives and breaking down the gender binary. However, as previously alluded to, this is not to say that the show and its host do not have issues that need to be recognised.

RuPaul is, for as iconic as he is within gay and mainstream culture, kind of a dick. He has been challenged multiple times for his transphobic comments, perhaps most notably his claim that trans women can’t be drag queens and wouldn’t be hired by the show (despite multiple trans women previously competing on the show, such as Peppermint and Gia Gunn). In a much memed gaffe, after being called out on social media for his comments, RuPaul, meaning to tweet a picture of the trans pride flag, accidently posted an image of Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Train Landscape’ (with many speculating the star had simply mistyped ‘trans flag’ as ‘trains flag’ into google). He has also been condemned for his use of the terms ‘she-male’, ‘ladyboy’ and ‘tranny’, all of which are considered slurs by the trans community.

There’s also the racism. Black Drag Race contestants consistently face rampant and unchallenged racism from the fanbase, which is helped in part by the way the show is edited, and the fact that RuPaul himself seems extremely hesitant to address it. Many fan favourites of the show are white, despite an extremely diverse cast of queens and overall winners. As Season 8 winner Bob the Drag Queen has pointed out, none of the black queens from Drag Race has been able to gain a social media following of over 1 million, despite many of their white counterparts achieving this level of notoriety. RuPaul’s failure to address this issue, and his unhelpful lip service on issues such as black equality and racism have soured many fan’s reaction to him.

That’s all without even mentioning the climate change denial and the fracking issue (google is your friend). RuPaul is a bit of a Caitlyn Jenner figure within the trans community. Because they enjoy such mainstream notoriety, they are widely famous and recognised by people who are not trans as being representatives of the LGBTQA+ community, when within the trans community, both are somewhat vilified for their conservative and unhelpful views.

And therein lies the problem. If allies watch Drag Race and take the show and its host at face value, they are missing the depth and nuance of the community at large. They may assume that certain individuals represent what the LGBTQA+ community stands for, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. It pushes queer lives into the mainstream, but only the queer lives that are palatable to mainstream audiences, and those that make for good TV. There is more to being queer and trans than what you see on Drag Race, and good allies should view Drag Race alongside other portrayals of queer and trans culture.

I am reminded of being back at the UK Season 1 viewing party. There was always a group of straight white women with their boyfriends that would get there early and take the front row seats. They would make a lot of noise and cheer for their favourites; they identified as super fans. But often, I would notice them giving me funny looks, avoiding socialising with the queer people in the audience, and pushing us out of the way for a photo op with the Drag Queen hosting the event. It was the physical manifestation of consuming queer culture and queer lives without true ally ship, and a reminder that RuPaul’s Drag Race isn’t the bastion of acceptance that some claim it to be.