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RuPaul’s Train Wreck

Why the drag performer’s anti-trans comments struck a nerve.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

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Girlfriends, we have got to talk about RuPaul. The 57-year-old drag performer and reality TV star has been one of the most visible ambassadors for the LGBTQ community since I was a child, and honey, it shows.

In a recent Guardian profile, RuPaul was asked about drag’s relationship to the transgender community—and whether he’d allow a transgender woman to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race. RuPaul brought up Peppermint, a transgender woman who competed on the show. “Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned,” he said. Asked if he would accept a trans contestant who had already transitioned, RuPaul mused:

Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.

The transgender community was not amused.* This would not do. At first blush, it seemed RuPaul was sticking to his guns.

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But this comment hardly mollified RuPaul’s critics, and he soon tried to catwalk his comments back from the edge, tweeting: “Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers.” This would probably have helped his cause more if, in his follow up tweet, he hadn’t mistaken a 1950s modernist painting entitled “Train Landscape” for the transgender flag.

Although both the transgender flag and Train Landscape by Ellsworth Kelly portray large fields of colors arranged in horizontal stripes on a rectangular area, they differ significantly in that the colors for the transgender flag are pink, blue, and white rather than yellow and two shades of green, and in that the transgender flag stands for transgender rights while Train Landscape, presumably, stands for trains. Far be it from me to railroad RuPaul; perhaps he was suffering from tunnel vision.

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All joking aside, the tensions between the transgender community and Drag Race were probably inevitable. Although the show isn’t about transgender women, many Americans see little or no distinction between a gay man who puts on ostentatious costumes to skewer gender roles in front of an audience and a woman who has undergone medical transition in order to live as her authentic self, full time. For the trans community, this confusion is often painful because it contributes to the canard that trans people have illegitimate identities and are engaged in a frivolous transgressive performance.

Although RuPaul has been very careful not to offend in the past, the success of Drag Race has only fueled the conflation of male drag performers and transgender people. This isn’t the fault of drag, which has long been a safe community for trans women to experiment with femininity, as well as a job for trans people who have difficulty finding work due to discrimination in the mainstream labor market. And it isn’t the fault of RuPaul, although his comments display a callous ignorance toward transgender people that he was right to apologize for.

I hope that RuPaul’s apology, however artless it may be, is ultimately accepted and that transgender queens are welcomed on Drag Race for many seasons to come. But the tension between the trans community and drag is not one that can be solved by RuPaul, because it’s not really about RuPaul. It’s about public perceptions of trans people as performers engaged in dramatic, artful farce. We’d gladly overcome those misperceptions and embrace the art of drag as wholly separate from trans people’s daily lives, if only it was up to us to choose.

*Correction, March 6, 2018: This post originally misstated that drag was created by and for transgender women.