RuPaul's competitive drag empire began eight years ago, only weeks after President Obama's 2009 inauguration. Since then, the mononymous icon has grown an initially niche show into a commercial industry, reinvigorating his music career with eight albums in as many years, an international drag conference entering its third year, and an ever-growing roster of over 100 drag queen contestants. Last Friday marked the ninth season premiere of the award-winning reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, and the competition to find America's "next drag superstar" made two landmark moves: moving to LOGO's sister channel VH1 and casting its first openly transgender contestant.
RuPaul has carved a dangerously important space for black queer visibility, yet his brand of glamorous and light-hearted self-determination can venture into #AllQueersMatter territory that muddles necessary progress. And since the show is often relegated to the "guilty pleasure" cultural sphere, criticisms have had little impact on the show's massive fanbase.
As with most reality shows, Drag Race has had its share of controversy, most notably accusations of transphobia. This year, as Drag Race is brought to a more mainstream audience and a national spotlight shines on legislative and physical attacks against trans people, both the show and RuPaul have a greater responsibility to support trans rights.
Back in 2011, professional homosexual and boy band alumnus Lance Bass apologized for using the word "trannies" to describe drag queens, citing Drag Race and other reality shows as sources where he'd heard the term often. In a radio interview, RuPaul scoffed at the apology, (incorrectly) claiming, "No one has ever said the word 'tranny' in a derogatory sense." Three years later, Drag Race again drew criticism for a mini-challenge skit called "Female or She-male," in which contestants had to guess someone's gender based on close-up photos. Season 3 contestant, model, and trans rights advocate Carmen Carrera wrote a Facebook post addressing the controversy, saying, "Drag Race should be a little smarter about the terms they use and comprehend the fight for respect trans people are facing every minute of today."
It took Drag Race more than a month to apologize for the transphobic segment; executive producers including RuPaul said in a statement that they were "newly sensitized" to the movement for trans rights but "delight in celebrating every color in the LGBT rainbow."
Has Drag Race's newest season—which broke records with nearly one million viewers—become more "sensitized" to trans rights? While fans and news outlets gagged over the "progressive" casting of Peppermint from New York City, the show's first openly trans queen, the premiere episode completely omitted her truth and never gave her screen time to speak. And the decision to keep the show's catch phrase, "Gentlemen, start your engines—and may the best woman win!" felt especially tone-deaf among contestants who don't all identify as men.
Drag has a complex history when it comes to gender performance and identity, with many trans and non-binary people using the medium as a jumping-off point for exploring and expressing their personal identities. Furthermore, many popular styles of drag feature callous mash-ups of identity that can muddle conversations around oppression, prejudice, and appropriation. (Consider the backlash against season 6 contestant Laganja Estranja's affected speech pattern, which, while virulently appropriative, was simply dismissed as a "character choice.") Although these microaggressions can feel easy to dismiss in a cultural landscape where contestants understand the dangers of prejudice, they aren't in the national context of overwhelming violence against trans women of color.
In 2014, I took to Twitter to engage with RuPaul about how the word "tranny" leaves queer bodies vulnerable to this kind of violence, appealing to our position as black queer creatives. Instead of receiving a response, I was quietly blocked—but I'm still Ru's biggest fan.
From teen dramas to nightly news, mainstream America is getting a crash-course in trans terminology, and LGBTQ media icons like RuPaul play a critical role in protecting our community while fortifying its history. With millions tuning in to Drag Race, RuPaul has the scope and ability to uplift trans artists, fight misogyny, and address racism in the LGBTQ community.
Because of the surprise ending, this season's Drag Race premiere didn't feature RuPaul's usual benediction: "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?" The maxim, though largely affirming, evades the real question we face: If we don't protect our trans community, how the hell are we gonna survive?