It's Time for Drag Race to Move Past the Binary

RuPaul took heat for saying trans women couldn’t compete on his show—when the truth is that’s exactly what the art of drag needs.

A promo image for 'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Season 3

This article contains spoilers for the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.

Last week on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, a fake ’50s housewife named BenDeLaCreme rewrote reality in Wite-Out. Every episode, the two top contestants fight a lip-sync battle, and the victor sends one of their competitors home—by revealing a preselected tube of lipstick with the doomed queen’s name on it. This time, BenDeLaCreme painted “DeLa” on hers and then won the battle, thereby eliminating herself—because, she said, she had nothing more to prove. This left the show without its clear frontrunner, sent gay bars worldwide into gasps, and birthed the new nickname “BenDeLaChrist.”

Drag Race exists in part to provide moments like this: the perfect twist, launching as many barguments as there are ruffles in Trixie Mattel’s ugliest dress. (E.g., Is DeLa proving her nice-guy rep or disrespecting the crown?) But these moments also raise questions about the show itself. What if DeLa hadn’t won the lip sync? Would she have still quit? It’s hard to imagine, which means it’s hard to avoid the suspicion of collusion between producers and contestants, even if they deny it. On Drag Race, as on many reality-TV competitions, the rules change at a whim. The editing distorts. The eliminations aren’t fair. And still the viewers love it. Why? Because it is collaborative, artificial art, like drag itself. Treating it as simple sport, a pure and neutral competition, means you miss the magic.

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.

Fans know RuPaul to be smart and empathetic, which makes his open-and-shut take on this topic sting all the more. As criticism of his Guardian interview started to build, he started tweeting aphorisms implying that those who were angry were just venting their “ego,” echoing the condescending psychoanalysis he’s used before when addressing folks who didn’t want him to use words like tranny. But on Monday night, he relented. One tweet: “I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement.” Another: “In the 10 years we’ve been casting Drag Race, the only thing we’ve ever screened for is charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. And that will never change.”

Some change might be good, though. Over a decade, Drag Race has gone from scrappy insurgent to a flagship queer institution, open to accusations of shark-jumping and out-of-touchness. “My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender nonconforming folks doing drag,” Season 9’s winner Sasha Velour tweeted. “That’s the real world of drag, like it or not.” It’s true. Here in Boston, the regular viewing party for the show at the local drag bar was, for a time, hosted by a trans woman slinging jaded jokes. And I’ll not soon forget seeing a bearded, suit-jacketed, open-brained queen do the Cranberries’ “Zombie” after Dolores O’Riordan died. The spectacle raged with irony more complex than the boy-goes-as-girl kind RuPaul cited in The Guardian.

Incorporating performers who go beyond simply flipping the gender binary wouldn’t only be nice and inclusive. It wouldn’t only encourage more breaks from the standard Drag Race female parody that is arguably often sexist and less arguably becoming a bit samey. It would be great TV, and an execution of Drag Race’s favorite maneuver: Witing-Out what’s written down, and replacing it with something new and daring.