I probably don’t agree with RuPaul on much – certainly not what constitutes an interesting set list. Yet as a former habitue of Madame JoJo’s I do think that he’s grasped an important point here. No, women cannot be drag queens – which means that trans-women cannot be either. The entire point of the modern fable being that trans-women really are women, therefore they obviously cannot be drag queens.
But this week, RuPaul sent a different message. He told the Guardian he would “probably not” let a trans woman on the program, adding: “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body.” His remarks sparked an uproar from drag queens, trans performers and LGBT rights activists who were particularly upset that RuPaul spouted the harmful notion that physical characteristics determine gender identity.
No, let’s not disappear down that rat hole of physical characteristics determining gender identity. The point is rather that the phrase, “drag queen,” has a meaning. It’s a bloke, dressed as a very sparkly woman, belting out torch songs, possibly badly.
A drag queen is a drag queen, as a transvestite is a transvestite, a hetero hetero and so on. None of which mean that same thing at all. The prop forward in a ballgown belting out “Over the Rainbow” is a drag queen. Judy Garland doing it, however sparkly the dress, ain’t. The maleness of the person doing the action being a crucial part of that definition.
This does not mean that women cannot wear ballgowns and belt out “Over the Rainbow,” most certainly not. Liza Minnelli’s made a career out of such torch songs. But Liza Minnelli, despite being the inspiration for innumerable drag queens, is not a drag queen for she’s not male.
Which is why trans-women are also not drag queens. That very trans nature means that they’re Minnellis, not men in ballgowns. For that is their very claim, isn’t it? That they are no longer now male?
Which does lead to an interesting thought, could a trans-man be a drag queen? Well, male in the modern dispensation, ballgown, torch song, I guess so. But given that essential meaning of being male under the frock a trans-woman cannot be, not in the modern meaning, can they?