The infamous "Female or She-male" mini-challenge that asked competitors on a recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race to guess a person's gender based on close-ups of red carpet photos has already been apologized for and stricken from video archives. "We did not intend to cause any offense, but in retrospect we realize that it was insensitive," wrote Logo’s executives in a statement. "We sincerely apologize."
But that statement did little to quell a long-simmering debate over who has the right to define a word as a slur, and who can "reclaim" such words.
Of the many drag performers and contestants on RuPaul's Drag Race, four have since come out as transgender women. The Advocate spoke with two of them — season 3 contestant Carmen Carrera (pictured left) and season 5 contestant Monica Beverly Hillz (pictured right) — about what viewers should take away from this moment.
Both Carrera and Hillz got their big breaks on Drag Race. Hillz marked a Drag Race milestone by being the first contestant to come out during a season and has gone on to become a spokesperson against sexual violence in the LGBT community. Carrera came out as trans after her season aired and has since been signed by Elite Model Management and appeared in modeling campaigns for W magazine and more. Her success led to a guest appearance on Katie Couric’s talk show, alongside Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, (pictured right) in which they memorably explained to Couric that conversation on trans issues needs to progress beyond "private parts."
Similar to how Carrera scolded Couric for her obsession with anatomy, the reality star expressed disappointment with Drag Race’s linguistic insensitivity in its "Female or She-male" challenge, particularly in light of the show’s positive track record in humanizing the members of gay and drag culture.
"For me ['Female or She-male’] just wasn't cool," Carrera says. "RuPaul's Drag Race should know better. They have educated so many people on drag. Drag is so huge now because of RuPaul's Drag Race. … The main purpose of the show is to show that drag queens have emotion, and that drag queens are artists; they are people that you should love and admire. That's amazing — but drag is not just boys in makeup and hair. There are trans women that do drag, and I was exposed to it."
Carrera questions if the problematic segment was a "gimmick" intended to incite controversy. She doesn’t believe the Drag Race team scripted the segment out of malice or blatant hatred for transgender women — a belief shared by season 6 contestant Milk, who told The Advocate that "the show never meant any harm."
But Carrera argues that within the platform of a popular television show, an established and recognizable member of the LGBT community like RuPaul should be more careful about the words he models through his own usage. She notes that for many viewers Drag Race may be their first exposure to drag culture, and to various parts of the LGBT population in general. As a televised voice of authority on drag culture, RuPaul may inadverently be giving permission to use words to viewers who don't understand their impact on the broader LGBT populace.
"We're fighting for respect, and these cisgender [nontrans] people who are watching and learning are going to think it's OK to take any other trans person and think, Oh, are they real or are they fake?" says Carrera.
Indeed, questioning whether transgender women are "real women" is often a tactic used by those looking to invalidate their identity. Those efforts are the underpinnings of the so-called trans panic defense in cases of antitrans violence, where a perpetrator claims that they were so upset by a transgender person not disclosing their trans status that they had no choice but to become violent.
When it comes to specific terminology sometimes used in drag culture, Carrera didn’t mince words on her feelings about the word "tranny," which GLAAD’s media reference guide lists as "defamatory," noting that this term and others, such as "she-male," "he-she," "it," "shim," and "gender-bender," "only serve to dehumanize transgender people."
The word "tranny," Carrera says, "is just like saying 'faggot,' 'spic,' or the n word. It's just these words you don't speak."
Carrera is similarly emphatic when asked how she responded to claims that drag performers and others are attempting to "reclaim" the word "tranny," similarly to how some activists have reclaimed words once widely considered derogatory like "queer" or "fag."
"I feel like right now we're barely breaking through as far as people respecting us — even just as humans," Carrera says. "We're still trying to be seen as equal. These words are ignorant words, and I feel like [trans awareness is] not at a point where [anyone can say] 'Yeah, let's take back the power and use them anyway!' No."
"First, let's get respected," continues Carrera. "Let’s make sure everyone sees eye-to-eye and understands who we are as people, and then we'll talk about the words that we're comfortable with."
Fellow transgender Drag Race alumna Monica Beverly Hillz voices a similar sentiment, calling transphobic slurs rude and nonsensical. "You call a transgender woman a 'tranny' or a 'she-male,' or a 'ladyboy,'" she says. "It's kind of like going back in the day where black people used to be called the n word. That's kind of what it is to me."
"I’ve been called ‘it’ before," she adds. "I hate that word."
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