Which is part of what makes the controversy that RuPaul himself kicked up this past weekend—eclipsing his own show’s BenDeLaCreme-related buzz—so bizarre. In an interview with The Guardian that he eventually walked back, the 57-year-old entertainer said he’d “probably not” allow a transgender woman who’d undergone gender confirmation procedures into the Drag Race cast. “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body,” he said. “It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing.” On Twitter, he appeared to double down after backlash: “You can take performance-enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.”
He’d ignited a heated conversation about gender identity, but on the surface seemed to be talking only about rules—though in pretty incoherent fashion. Drag Race is not the Olympics, a supposedly impartial test of skill with publicly defined laws. It is RuPaul’s plaything, whose terms he has redefined time and again. And to rule out trans body modification draws a fairly arbitrary line, considering all-time-great cast members like the haughty style warrior Detox and the Cher lookalike Chad Michaels, who proudly banter about being some percentage silicone.
RuPaul’s faux-legalism came with a deeper ideology. “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture,” he told The Guardian, specifically on the topic of “bio queens,” women who perform in drag. Last year, while interviewing him for a piece about drag and Trump, I asked whether bio queens might ever be on the show. “They have the Miss Universe pageant for that,” he said.
It’s a tricky subject. The average person on the street probably defines a drag queen as a male who dresses female. Drag Race indeed does thrive on the whiplash of seeing, say, a 6-foot-4-inch ex-con from Compton transform into a courtly Aretha Franklin. When contestants share stories of coming out and of discrimination, it emphasizes how a gay guy putting on a skirt can flip a stigma into something fabulous.
But by now viewers realize that drag is about more than that, too. Contestants have occasionally dressed as other men, too—or “men,” heavily in quotation marks. One once walked the runway as out-of-drag RuPaul, looking 100 percent gender-agnostic. BenDeLaCreme won this season’s celebrity impersonation contest as Paul Lynde, the Hollywood Squares fixture of the ’60s and ’70s. The hilarity of the performance had little to do with femininity or masculinity, and everything to do with mannerisms and makeup that created something alien and wonderful. A woman, trans or even cis, could have done the same.
Trans women have, in fact, competed. Peppermint, one of the finalists for 2017’s Season 9, was trans—a fact that RuPaul in The Guardian wrote off as merely “interesting” given that she hadn’t gotten breast implants. Other fan favorites have come out as trans after being on the show, and their examples makes clear how irrelevant the identity underneath the costume can be. Take Gia Gunn, who, in Season 6 and still now on the post–Drag Race circuit, puts on an exquisite rendition of the superficial Kardashian type. When she walks around with hula-hoop purses and drawls about “fresh tilapia,” she’s executing a sendup of gender on its face. She’s female, and she’s a drag star.