The US TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race has been in the news recently over its use of transphobic language in attempts to be humorous. At least, I hope that this was their only intention. Having never seen the show and having no interest in reality TV, I cannot comment on this particular case but, I suspect, working with the people that they work with on the show, they really should have known better.
Recently, I have been thinking about why transwomen, arguably, have a harder time transitioning than transmen and why their transition is seen as such an affront to society that some people feel compelled to acts of violence and brutality against them in far greater numbers than against transmen. Why is it more shocking when a man wants to transition? Why do people get nervous about seeing a transwoman in her feminine clothing for the first time? I certainly don’t believe that it is physically harder for a natural born male to become a woman. Both transitions have their limitations and difficulties. In fact, you could argue that MtF surgery is more advanced and produces more satisfying results than FtM surgery does at the moment. What I do believe is that transwomen face more prejudice than transmen.
I have come to the conclusion that the answer largely lies in how our society has been conditioned to react to men wearing feminine clothing. Ciswomen adopted traditionally masculine clothing as women’s rights progressed. Nobody thinks anything of a woman wearing trousers these days but go back less than 100 years and she would have been an oddity, stared at in the street and called unflattering names. There has been no similar social movement to make it acceptable for cismen to wear feminine clothing. Men like Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry, who enjoy wearing traditionally feminine clothing, are in a minority. It doesn’t say much for society’s view of women that putting on a skirt is not seen as a manly thing to do, it is a sign of weakness: women who wear trousers are to be taken seriously, men who wear dresses are to be sniggered at.
In Britain, we have a long history of cross-dressing on stage. Every Christmas, we take our children to see a man dressed in an outrageous frock and we teach them to laugh at him. Doesn’t he look ridiculous? Again, the message is brought home that the pantomime dame is a source of mockery but the principal boy (a girl in drag) is the hero, to be taken seriously. British film and television has a rich archive of men dressing up as women: the Pythons, Fry & Laurie, the Two Ronnies, Dick Emery, Stanley Baxter, Alec Guinness, Alastair Sim, Barry Humphries, all doing it for laughs. The last time a male actor dressed as a woman and expected to be taken seriously was in the Jacobean theatre.
The British tradition of cross-dressing for the stage is not drag. The actors do not intend to fool the audience into thinking that they are women. They are grotesques – obviously men wearing women’s clothing. Drag, as performed by Danny La Rue, Lily Savage, Hinge & Bracket and RuPaul, is more realistic. It attempts to fool the audience into believing they are watching a woman until the performer chooses to reveal his secret. Again, the emphasis is on comedy but also on the shock revelation that the woman you are watching is actually man – how daring, how risque, how exotic!
Don’t get me wrong, I like our British tradition of cross-dressing and drag. There is no denying it is funny. It is a clever, witty play on our perceptions and serves to highlight some of the absurdities of gender stereotypes. However, if this is your only experience of seeing a man in dressed in feminine clothing, it is limiting and, when someone who you formally knew as a man transitions, a reaction is regrettably pre-programmed. As a society we need to do more to explain and differentiate the act of a drag performer from the reality of a transwoman.
Importantly, this is why drag performers cannot speak for the trans* community and can be just as transphobic as any other cis man or woman. By the very nature of what a drag artist does, i.e. act as the opposite gender, their intention when dressing as that gender is totally different from that of a trans* person. Trans* people dress, not to shock or make people laugh, but to pass as that gender, to actually live as that gender. This is a message that the trans* community needs to get out there so, when people like RuPaul make crass comments, it is important that they are picked up on in order that an educational process can happen.
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