by: Randall Jenson
Last week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race promised to be the “most shocking episode ever.” Viewers learned, after watching two drag queens compete in the “lip sync for your life” elimination round, that neither contestant would be disqualified. Instead, one of the other Season 4 contestants, Willam, was disqualified for breaking the rules. As host RuPaul explained, “It has come to my attention that you have broken the rules, rules that are in place to protect the fairness of this competition. Your actions have consequences, and I’m afraid you leave me no choice.” The show offered no explanation, and the Internet has been buzzing with tweets, blogs, and status updates on the peculiar nature of this queen’s departure.
While it’s been advertised that we’ll have to wait for this season’s reunion special of RuPaul’s Drag Race to find out exactly what went down, this hasn’t stopped fans from creating speculative theories. Whether it was promiscuity, drugs, or behavior, Willam’s departure can be used as catalyst for a larger discussion on tensions between the worlds of gay men in drag and female transgender performers. I’m not too concerned about why Willam was eliminated, but I am concerned about certain types of justifications use to explain his dismissal, specifically speculation regarding the use of estrogen or hormone therapy.
To help you locate me in this discussion, I should point out that for the past three years, I’ve documented the lives of 10 self-identified effeminate gay men for a documentary series called 50Faggots. I’ve spent a lot of time entrenched in the worlds of individual nightlife personalities and drag queens, as well as having gone out many times in drag myself as a gay man. I believe there is an ongoing undercurrent of different privileges, benefits, and consequences for both gay drag queens and trans female impersonators when individuals perform in specific nightlife venues. In the controlled, television space of RuPaul’s Drag Race, there is an expectation that these performers should identify as gay men, and that has allowed for certain assumptions about what differentiates a gay man from a transgender woman. There seems to be a certain level of criticism attached to the speculation that if Willam was taking estrogen or hormones, then a) he could not identify as a gay man any longer, and b) this would somehow be cheating and giving him an “advantage” over the other contestants.
Well, let’s address this. I have a hard time understanding why the idea of estrogen use would be threatening to being a gay man, when in fact, personal identity is a delicate balance of choice, personal representation, and lived experiences. I believe some gay men can take estrogen or be on hormone therapy and still identify as men, just as some trans folks choose not to take hormones at all or refuse body-modification surgery. It would also be ironic if this were the real reason for William’s departure when fake breast plates, body modification, and plastic surgery have been openly used by many gay men who commit their careers to drag.
RuPaul’s Drag Race takes influence from mainstream pop culture and provides an undeniable contribution to queer culture and, more specifically, gay male culture. This is the reality show that’s unofficially credited with saving the Logo network. The soundbites thrown out on the show, appropriated from urban ball vernacular, have become everyday language to many gay men. We’ve all learned how to be fabulous and, at times, overly cliché versions of fierce. But perhaps an influence that we should be most critical of is the way gender and “drag” are still controlled. The show judges appropriate, controlled standards for what constitutes authentic drag and reward many queens for the highest levels of passing and “realness” they can individually achieve. As gay men, we’re still expected to enjoy a very rigid idea of femininity and what a woman should look like.
I most enjoy drag at the moments when gender and talent intersect in subversive ways through performance. I’m not interested in watching gay men attempt to reinforce basic, sometimes misogynistic stereotypes regarding women and gender. I’d like to push past the justification that Willam cheated through presumed estrogen injections and encourage our conversations to be more fluid on personal choice and representation. One of my 50Faggots Season 1 participants, New-York-City-based drag queen Epiphany, put it this way:
I think that drag shows you how foolish that caricature is, and that’s why it plays such an interesting role in our society. And I’ve had girls before say to me — and I hate when girls say this — “Oh my God, you’re more of a woman than I could ever be!” Well, I’m like, “If you honestly believe that, then all is lost.”
Note: This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post and has been reposted with permission. You can find the original here.
Randall Jenson is the Executive Director of SocialScope Productions, a Chicago-based non-profit production company creating LGBTQ and gender-related documentaries. SocialScope’s primary project is the 50Faggots online series, which began in 2005 as Jensen’s first documentary. The series debuted in May 2010 and has already traveled to over 14 U.S. cities, including headlining the 2011 MBLGTACC Conference. Since seventeen years old, Jenson has received national awards for leadership and his work with young LGBTQ people, homeless and at-risk youth, addressing the juvenile legal system and media’s impact on queer lives. He was featured as a speaker at the National ACLU Membership Conference in Washington D.C. in 2003, on The Oprah Show’s “Growing Up Gay” episode in 2006, and awarded the “Youth Impact Award” by the National Youth Advocacy Coalition in 2007. His research creating 50Faggots was recognized by the Association for Queer Anthropology as “outstanding anthropological work.”