“It’s not the word itself, but the intention behind the word.”
— RuPaul —
Before I start, here’s the deal: I’m going to flip the coin a few times on this argument, in an attempt to cover the many angles of skinning this puss n’boots.
Earlier this year, on 17 March, the hugely successful and popular reality television show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, featured a mini-challenge called “Female or Shemale”. The challenge pitted the contestants against each other in a quest to determine whether they were being shown a picture of — as RuPaul phrased it — “a biological woman or a psychological woman.“
Great stuff! I can see the entertainment value in that… When I was little, my brother and I waited outside Auntie Maud and Uncle Marvie’s bedroom every morning to see if we could guess who came out first. Maud or Marvie? They looked exactly alike before they’ve had a shower and shave (both of them shaved… ‘nough said).
Any who, after the “Female or Shemale” episode a Twitter furore erupted with many of the show’s followers calling the segment transphobic.
But what caused the offense?
It started with how the name of the game was announced. “Female” was said in a higher-pitched tone, while “Shemale” was said in a low, gruff, masculine-sounding tone. Obviously, there was a play on words happening (albeit a bit obvious and slapstick), after all the drag scene is known for its turn of phrases and somewhat trashy tone… Nonetheless, feathers were ruffled!
RuPaul’s Drag Race has a long history of using the term “shemale” in various nuances. However, “Shemale” is a word that historically refers to transgender women, most prominent in pornography. The word originated with transgender porn and doesn’t have roots in “drag culture,” as some have argued the case is with the word “tranny.”
Here’s where things start to look like a jelly-and-berrie trifle at a garden party in the middle of a thunderstorm: Halfway down the first page and already the trannies, drag queens and porn are all laid out on the table…
This was never going to be an easy conversation.
The US LGBT media watchdog, GLAAD’s transgender media reference guide denotes two levels of terms to avoid: problematic and defamatory. “Shemale” falls under the defamatory heading, with GLAAD officials writing that the word — along with words like “tranny,” “shim,” and “gender-bender” — “only serves to dehumanize transgender people and should not be used.“
Again, even I am walking on eggs here, because I love using the term ‘gender-bender’, especially when it is exactly what I am observing in the drag community… Cue Conchita Wurst with her beautiful bearded faces, fabulous frocks and luscious lashes. However, in my own defence, I can also say that I never use the term in a transgender context… because it would be insensitive, defamatory and frankly also problematic.
Nearly two weeks after the “Female or Shemale” episode first aired, the show’s producers, including RuPaul Charles, LogoTV, and GLAAD released statements about the incident.
The statement from RuPaul’s Drag Race producers read: “We delight in celebrating every colour in the LGBT rainbow. When it comes to the movement of our trans sisters and trans brothers, we are newly sensitized and more committed than ever to help spread love, acceptance and understanding.“
Logo’s response followed similar lines, saying, “We have heard the concerns around the segment. We are committed to sharing a diverse range of trans stories across all of our screens and look forward to featuring positive and ground-breaking stories of trans people in the future.“
Notably absent from both statements was any indication of remorse, or even the words “sorry” or “apology.” Some critics claimed the term “newly sensitized” seemed to be more of an abstract idea than a course of action.
No She Did’ant!!! Sashay Away Guuuuuurllll!!!!
The truth is, over the past few years RuPaul’s ‘tranny trashing’ has happened a lot and it’s starting to look like a cheap way to hog the limelight… Soz Ru, but seriously, much as I love you bitch, you’ve been messing with this now for a while… Let’s shake this cat out your Gucci handbag once and for all:
In 2012, when the ABC sitcom, Work It, was criticized by gay and transgender activists for mocking transgender women, RuPaul bitch-slapped (that’s a word right?) the LGBT activists: “Don’t take life so seriously… We live in a culture where everyone is offended by everything.“
Later, when the actor and entertainer, Lance Bass, apologised for using the word “tranny” in an interview, RuPaul said: “It’s ridiculous! It’s ridiculous!… I love the word “tranny”… And I hate the fact that he’s apologized. I wish he would have said, ‘F-you, you tranny jerk!‘”
RuPaul stoked even more ire from the transgender community when he famously defended his use of the word “tranny” in his music, by saying that the only difference between a transgender woman and a drag queen was “$25,000 and a good surgeon.“
Thing is, Mizzz Ru-P, you fierce, sickening hussy, dragging and wigging it up is nothing more than an art form and for some even a lucrative career (when you do it well), but being transgender is not something you take a holiday from. It’s who you are. BIG DIFFERENCE.
Carmen Carrera, who has transitioned since her appearance in RuPaul’s Drag Race season 3, said: “For me ‘Female or She-male’ just wasn’t cool. RuPaul’s Drag Race should know better. They have educated so many people on drag. Drag is so huge now because of RuPaul’s Drag Race… The main purpose of the show is to show that drag queens have emotion, and that drag queens are artists; they are people that you should love and admire… The word ‘tranny’ is just like saying ‘faggot,’ ‘spic,’ or the N word. It’s words you don’t speak.“
Yesterday, RuPaul Charles finally broke the silence after this year’s ‘Tranny Gate’. In a Podcast on WTF With Marc Maron, he said: “If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say or what they do, you are in for a f*cking hard-ass road.”
He added: “My 32-year career speaks for itself. I dance to the beat of a different drummer. I believe everybody — you — can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain’t stopping you. But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or what I can’t say or do. It’s just words…”
Lately, RuPaul has turned a bit Oprah Winfrey with his ‘dancing to a different drummer‘ and ‘you can be whatever you wanna be‘ spiel… However (and maybe it’s just me), if you are a role model like RuPaul (or Oprah for that matter), you have to own some social responsibility for when you open your cherrie-glossed cake hole.
As the world’s most famous drag queen, I honestly thought RuPaul had some insight into the sensitivities and challenges of the LGBT community… especially the transgender members of our community. I agree, a joke is sometimes just a joke and drag queens should never be taken too serious because most of the time they are high on their heels and hairspray… and well, ego.
However, when a group of people stands up and tells you how much your words are hurting them (especially when it is a minority within a minority), then you rewrite those lines.
There’s a thin line between being the court jester and the playground bully. The court jester makes everyone in the audience laugh with earnest wit and intelligence. The bully singles out one person or group and picks on them by finding their week spot and ‘joking’ about it in front of others.
Just sayin’ guuuurllll.
Otherwise RuPaul, we are all luuuuurving your work.
(P.S. From one woman to another, go easy on the auto tune… No Shade, bitch. No Shade.)
Images: Open Source Editorial
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes