The only thing I wanted to do less than attend a drag show eight months into transitioning was turn down free tickets to The Public Theatre. It wasn’t that I hated drag — I’d just decided that it wasn’t for me. The baby trans Tumblr-influenced predominantly white ahistorical internet had pummeled into my head that drag queens were relevant to me only in opposition. They’re the men in dresses that cis people accuse us of being, or something like that. But I just couldn’t turn down free tickets to The Public so I got dressed up and held my breath and eagerly used my drink tickets as I waited to watch someone named Jinkx Monsoon who had apparently won the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Watching Jinkx perform was one of those moments of instant recognition for me. Her bawdy genderfuckery felt so much closer to my true self than the sweet femme aesthetic I was trying to pull off. I had this impression that a modern day drag show would make me feel othered but Jinkx’s show was explicitly about their own experiences of feeling othered.
As she playfully harassed other audience members, she kept glancing over at me with a knowing smile. Her eyes were saying, look at these silly straight people, look at these silly cis people, they can’t hurt us when I’m the one in control. I bought a signed copy of their CD after the show and played “Just Me (The Gender Binary Blues)” again and again and again.
I spent the next few months educating myself on drag. I’d been interested in queer history long before coming out so it didn’t take much effort to erase the divide between pageants, ballroom, and other trans histories I was familiar with and a drag culture I’d somehow seen as separate. But even as I watched John Waters and Charles Busch movies, went out of my way to see Peppermint on Broadway, and attended drag shows at dive bars, I still avoided watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. My months of drag research hadn’t softened me to the show — it had given me an alternate reason to avoid it.
There are two categories of trans people who hate Drag Race. There are trans people who hate drag, hate being compared to drag queens, hate how much cis people love drag, and generally find drag and Drag Race a hindrance to their assimilation. If you are in this category you are — and I say this with love — wrong. I invite you to go on the same journey I did and educate yourself on our history! Or if assimilation is your goal, then assimilate — just don’t view those of us with different goals as an attack. But if you are in the other category and hate Drag Race because it’s too assimilationist, because it has packaged drag in a way that appeals to cis people, because RuPaul has a history of transphobia and fracking, because drag becoming synonymous with Drag Race is certainly a factor in that first group’s misunderstanding of our history, then I’m not here to convince you otherwise.
Personally, I held out on watching Drag Race until I could study it with a scholarly remove. Instead of going with friends to gay bar viewing parties and jumping in with season ten, I wanted to start at season one and watch the show evolve. I wanted to study how the language shifted, how the types of queens shifted, how queer culture in general shifted from 2009 to the present. I was prepared for a complicated experience and I wanted to be thorough — kind of like when I rewatched The Silence of the Lambs after coming out and then followed it with three hours of Criterion Collection special features.
I finally began my endeavor this year alongside a friend who is an AFAB nonbinary person and something of a Drag Race superfan. (What are pandemics for if not binge watching 19 seasons of a problematic queer television show?) We started in May and ended a few weeks ago. The experience upset me, but not for the reasons I expected. I wasn’t mad at the show or RuPaul — I was mad that I’d kept myself from watching it all these years. Yes, the first six seasons have a reoccurring gag of RuPaul saying “You’ve got she-mail” but what word do you think I had to search to find half the people I now follow on OnlyFans? Being trans in a transphobic world is complicated. If you prioritize purity of language over everything else, you’ll miss out on so much.
I’m not trying to erase the hurtful things RuPaul has done or said, but other than Pose and Veneno there’s no show in the history of television with as many trans people as RuPaul’s Drag Race. Getting to see those performers at their absolute best and at different stages of their own transitions and gender journeys is something I cherish. The fact that so many of the trans people on the show live somewhere outside the binary is all the more validating for me as a nonbinary trans woman. Watching the show made me question my own gender and my sexuality. I emerged from the experience more nonbinary and more bisexual and less concerned what anyone thinks about me, including RuPaul. The show may be a work of marketing genius for him, but it also provides the other queens with a mainstream platform they could not have achieved elsewhere.
As a queer trans woman writing about media for a queer women website, I have suffered through transphobia far more sinister than anything that appears in the RPDR franchise. After all, Autostraddle began in part as an off-shoot of Riese’s recaps of The L Word — another queer show that I love despite its problems. The assumption is that as a queer women website, we will grapple with TV shows overtly problematic like The L Word or subtly problematic like The L Word: Generation Q. The assumption is we will review movies about cis lesbians starring cis straight actresses because they are a part of queer women culture. But there’s nothing inherently more lesbian about watching two famous cishet Rachels playact queerness than watching a nonbinary drag queen kiss the shoulder of a trans woman drag queen. Drag Race is associated with gay male culture because of a misguided belief that queer people who are AMAB and queer people who are AFAB are somehow inherently in different categories. If we want to make “lesbian” spaces more trans-inclusive that requires an expansion of what is assumed to be lesbian. And this isn’t just about inclusivity towards trans women — there’s a reason why cis queer women and AFAB trans people make up such a large percentage of Drag Race’s fanbase. There are plenty of AFAB people who experience the same intensity of identification and validation from the queens as I do.
This is why starting with this Friday’s season 13 premiere, I’ll be writing weekly Drag Race recaps for Autostraddle. I’m excited to see how the show handles Gottmik, the show’s first transmasculine queen, and engage with the entire season as both a fan and a critic — and as someone who over the past few years has grown to care deeply about drag separate from Drag Race.
Our spaces don’t have to be perfect to be ours. We don’t have to claim all of the same spaces. Our shows don’t have to be perfect to be ours. We don’t have to watch all of the same shows. But if you watch Drag Race, or want to start watching Drag Race, and want to read my excitable, horny, complicated thoughts — I’ll be here the next few months with a queer trans POV on a franchise that owes us its success.