Lexicon Devil: An Exploration of Language Used on RuPaul’s Drag Race

by: Patrick Gill

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I have been an intermittent fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race since its first season.  I actually have watched this season closely, with a lot of love for Jinx Monsoon and Alaska Thunderfuck.   It’s fun, kitschy, it’s choc-a-block with laughs, and yes it has many flaws.  I will get to those soon.

With the rise of “Let’s Have a Kiki”  and a resurgence of the 1990 film Paris Is Burning it seems that drag vernacular is finding its way into larger portions of the gay community, even beyond*.  I admit to indulging –  I have self-identified playfully as a Butch Queen, I have delved into the occasional read, some of my dance moves were obviously lifted from Legendary Pepper LaBejia, I even used to live in an apartment referred to as SWISS HAUS (we liked to stay neutral on drama).  But I have  had my reservations, I steer away from terms like “fishy” and find realness to be a whole minefield of answers and analysis.

This fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race also sees the greatest increase in use of drag terms—as if there was a focus on reading, on declaring “No T, No Shade” REGULARLY , on femininity and “fishiness”  and “realness”, and working up a drag vocabulary for the audience at home to play along with.  The thing is though, it is not just drag speak, that language was also created and developed by trans* women, especially women of color;  it has been honed and crafted in drag circles, where men dress as women, but origins do exist with women—who now often bear the brunt of oppression in a gay fight for assimilation and acceptance.

This is especially worrisome given the show and RuPaul’s troubled history with transgendered women.  From songs that use the word tr**ny,  to the regular “SheMail” joke when messages are delivered ,and even past rules that disavow trans* contestants;  It should be mentioned though that contestants have come out as trans after competing, and in this season with Monica Beverly Hillz during.  Yes, RuPaul has (now) had trans* women on his show, and he definitely brings out queens of many races and ethnicities, but he is not beloved, for extensive reasons, by members of the trans* community.

Yet this use of language persists.  I understand that it is not entirely a language made by trans* women, but you would think somewhere in explanations they might come up.  Instead viewers are imbibing the talk, loving it (because the phrases are fun and catchy) and remaining none the wiser.  I am reminded of Randall Jenson writing about Summer in Boystown 2011, when racism and classism flared up and were more visible than ever.  In his self-described read of Boystown  Jenson artfully dressed down the hypocrisies of wealthier gay men fearing and castigating queer youth of color, while still maintaining an understanding for many community members:

“Cultural creativity cannot be captured, instead it must be earned. So I want to start a new rule – if you aren’t interested in being around a fag, queen or ball kid, don’t go prancing up and down Halsted Street drunk, shouting that you’re going to “kiki” with your friends at frat-boy Thursdays. Or asking what’s the latest “t” about the local bar. Or “gagging” over your suburban girlfriend’s new shoes.”

That was the section that spoke most to me.  Though I understand the drag community has given life to these terms, even created new ones, there is still a community being ignored.  And with the proliferation of this language, it’s not so much drag queens that I am concerned about.

What I am troubled by is the disconnect, that the gay community at large will use the language rooted in trans* history without recognizing whom it comes from; Worse even, that the gay community will use this piece of culture and ignore their trans* sisters and siblings or continue to vilify them.  We should know better than to deny people their history and culture, we should understand what a source of power these things can be, to not steal them not use them, even if it is done in ignorance.

I want to acknowledge that I am a white cisgendered male of a privileged background; I also have no appropriate answer for the questions I am posing or discussion I am starting; nor do I think any answer I give would be correct, I’m not a progenerator of the language being used, it isn’t  my place).  Maybe you treat this language like candy: for white and or cis-people, don’t take too much of it or you will get sick; or maybe we should act like a vegan with food– you need to know where it comes from, what’s “in it” before, and acknowledge often what you can and cannot eat/say.

That is the lexicon devil, finding out the language you use isn’t really yours.  It’s then examining how, when, or if you can use it; your intentions, your recognition  its wrestling with respect and identity and heritage.  It’s the trickiness of the tongue and admitting you need to learn, and learning, a lot of learning.  It’s having fun with language, we all should love our language, but we always must check if it is at someone’s expense.

*A straight man recently said to me “No T/Tea No Shade” at The Hideout—on a non-Chances night, the world is changed.

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