Trans vs. Drag: A Clash of Terms

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Left to Right: Manila Luzon, BenDeLaCreme, Pandora Boxx, Jinkx Monsoon

In the wake of the “Female or She-male” controversy surrounding RuPaul’s Drag Race and transgender activists, in which the segment was deemed degrading and offensive, ThinkProgress writer Zach Ford penned a very comprehensive and balanced article titled “The Quiet Clash Between Transgender Women And Drag Queens” where he delved into the growing tension between the transgender and drag communities concerning terminology and representation. Transgender activists were upset by the nature of the “Female or She-male” segment and its use of the word “shemale,” which asked the contestants to look at pictures of bodies and they had to guess if they were biological, cisgender women (“Female”) or drag queens (“She-male”). Although LogoTV and Drag Race addressed the controversy by pulling the episode and cutting out the “You’ve Got She-Mail!” intro, Ford writes that “the incident has continued to be a flashpoint about how the visibility of drag culture on Drag Race impacts public understanding of what it means to be transgender. Questions about the appropriate use of words like ‘shemale’ and ‘tranny’ speak to a larger conflict over media representation and the authenticity of identities.”

Ford then incorporates interviews with four Drag Race alumni (pictured above) and a genderqueer individual, who speak about the usage of these terms and what it means to be in that conflict. He then goes on to discuss the conflict of representation and identity, in which it is said that because of the visibility of drag queens (and their usage of words like “tranny” and “shemale”), those not in the LGBT community are not privy to the nuances, and therefore can confuse transgender women as drag queens (a.k.a. men in dresses). This strips transgender women of their identity. The questions provoked by this are “Are transgender women drag queens?” and “Are drag queens transgender?” In regards to the former question, transgender women are not drag queens, unless they participate in drag as a profession (much like transgender performer Kylie Sonique Love). As for the latter, the answer is a bit more complex. Ford writes that the answer “[depends] on who is considering the question and how, the answers “Yes,” “No,” and “Sometimes” could all be accurate. That’s because the word “transgender” can mean different things in different contexts.”

Kylie Sonique Love

Kylie Sonique Love Click Here for Kylie’s opinion on the RPDR controversy

Les Feinberg wrote in “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come” about the ever-evolving nature of terminology within the transgender community, with words and identities going in and out of fashion and shift definitions. this can be plainly seen in the complexity of answering the aforementioned question, in which transgender is both the term for people assigned a gender at birth and realize that they identify with another gender and transition and as “an umbrella term, the “T” in “LGBT” has also been long-used to encompass all gender identities that are nonconforming to society’s gender norms. […] These various interpretations accommodate gender identities and expressions that are not easily measured by a man-woman binary.”

Ford then brings in various voices from the transgender community, like transgender activist Riki Wilchins who states that “Transgender was intended as an umbrella term, then a name of inclusion. But umbrellas don’t work well when one group holds them up.” This is the opinion of those who were outraged by the “Female or She-male” mini-game, who believe that the transgender community is just for transgender men and women. Other transgender activists, like Harper Jean Tobin, Director of Policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, who addressed her position in her keynote speech at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, discussing the complex overlap of “transgender” identities. She touches the place of gender nonconforming individuals (genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, etc.) and all forms of gender expressions outside the binary within the Transgender community. She states that “there is also a fear, I think, on the part of some trans men and women that even acknowledging the existence of non-binary identities will threaten our right to be recognized as the men and women we are. We must resist the fear that there is not enough dignity and justice to go around. Our movement must recognize and elevate the voices and the rights and the leadership of trans folks who are not men or women.”

Casey Plett

Casey Plett

Casey Plett blogs about this very issue, and seems to be able to see both sides of the conversation, acknowledging the history of these terms and also the pejorative uses of these terms and how they can invalidate transgender identities. She states that she has a connection to terms like “tranny” that is positive. She seems to be in the middle of this conflict, though “the vocabulary game can’t be won.”