Rupaul’s drag race and transphobia: why the shemale game was offensive.

Enjoyed This Week’s RuPaul’s Drag Race? Then You’re A Little Transphobic.

Enjoyed This Week’s RuPaul’s Drag Race? Then You’re A Little Transphobic.

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Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
March 19 2014 4:16 PM

RuPaul’s Drag Race Crosses the Line with “Female or Shemale”

I’m a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now early in its sixth season, the Logo drag competition show manages to be smart, entertaining, and hilarious—and, to be honest, drag queens are naturals when it comes to reality show dramatics. However, with each passing season, I feel like I’m constantly giving RuPaul passes for transphobic behavior—passes that I wouldn’t give anyone else—just writing it off because, “Hey, it’s RuPaul. RuPaul loves everyone.” This week’s mini-challenge left a particularly bad taste in my mouth, and now that I’ve slept on the episode, I’m just going to say it: Ru, girl, it's time for the transphobia to sashay away.

In the mini-challenge, called “Female or Shemale,” the queens had to look at an extreme close-up of a celebrity and then decide if the person was a “biological woman” (female) or a “psychological woman” (shemale). I was over this stupid game from the moment it started. While I’m not a trans person, it’s pretty clear that using a derogatory term like “shemale” to directly refer to a human being is a no-go. Society has come a long way in respecting difference, and the queer community especially has become more open about gender identity and expression. But we are far from the day when a trans woman will be able to walk down the street without fear of hearing insults or worse, and suggesting that “shemale” is an acceptable word—even as a joke—is not helpful in getting us there.


Part of the problem with this little game is that a drag queen is not, in fact, a “psychological woman.” A drag queen is a drag queen. A drag queen goes home at night, takes off the wigs and makeup, and is still a man. You can be the most feminine queen in drag, but, at the end of day, you still enjoy the privileges of being a cisgender man. Trans women don’t have that option. They are women every day, and that comes with the threat of ridicule, exposure, and violence. True, there are male-to-female transgender folks who gravitated toward drag as part of their journey through gender identity, but that’s a limited case. Generally speaking, to put drag queens, who pretend to be something like women as a profession or hobby, in the same category with trans women—which is to say, real women—is offensive.

I realize a lot of Drag Race fans will say I’m being overly serious; Ru himself probably would. But I can’t help feeling it’s gratuitous and unnecessary to continue exploiting these old, hurtful stereotypes when the game could just as easily have been “Woman or Drag Queen.” Why are we still looking the other way when RuPaul uses “shemale” in every episode? Are there people who really defend that term and say it’s not derogatory? “Shemale,” “he-she,” “man-woman,” etc., are all terms the public has used and continues to use to defemenize and dehumanize transwomen, treating them as people less-deserving of compassion and respect.

I like to think I’m not an overly sensitive person, but that mini-challenge took me out of the whole episode. We all know RuPaul’s mantra is to love yourself and one another, but how far does intent take you when you refuse to change your behavior? Ru has been called out on transphobic behavior for years now, but so far he’s excused his crassness as good fun or accused the trans community of being too fragile. At some point, don’t you have to listen to the T in the LGBTQ community that made you famous? I’m not asking for some kind of tearful apology, but for Ru to hear time and time again “Girl, you’re being transphobic, stop that,” and to not only continue with the same behavior but to magnify it even MORE is just outright disrespectful.

Drag Race is the kind of program that has the potential to do a lot of good in the world; its message of love and acceptance is one that gays and straights both need to hear. That’s why this willful disregard for trans people’s feelings and wellbeing is so jarring—it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the show. Maybe RuPaul honestly doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong, but I’m at a point where I really don’t care if he personally understands why “shemale” is offensive. This isn’t just a question of bawdy humor or political correctness; at the core, Ru is showing a blatant disregard for members of the trans community who have repeatedly asked him to put that language to the side. Drag Race’s success depends on the support of fans, and we are complicit if we keep watching this show without calling on Ru to cut the transphobia. It’s just not a good look.

This post originally appeared in an extended form on Rafi D’Angelo’s blog, So Let’s Talk About... Read more of him there, and follow him on Twitter @RafiDAngelo.