RuPaul, the Emmy-winning host of the VH1 reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” was forced to apologize for his statements about transgender drag performers this week, an apparent reversal of his long-held belief that drag and the trans community don’t mix.
The legendary drag performer caused an uproar when he told the Guardian that he would “probably not” allow trans women to compete on “Drag Race,” because the act of transitioning “changes the whole concept of what we’re doing [as drag queens].”
“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 said. “So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”
The comments were met with criticism from fans, trans advocates and former “Drag Race” contestants alike, but RuPaul doubled down. “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics,” he wrote in a much-derided tweet on Monday.
You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics. pic.twitter.com/HkJjzXzUGm
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 5, 2018
Many of RuPaul’s critics were quick to note that the history of drag culture is inextricably tied to the trans community — even “RuPaul’s Drag Race” itself has openly celebrated trans women in the past.
“My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming folks doing drag. That’s the real world of drag, like it or not. I thinks it’s fabulous and I will fight my entire life to protect and uplift it,” wrote Sasha Velour, the reigning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” champion who bested trans performer Peppermint in the Season 9 finale.
Following the backlash, RuPaul issued an apology for the statements on Twitter. The host and executive producer promised that the only factors at play in the casting process are “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” — the show’s tongue-in-cheek criteria for success.
“Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. I understand and regret the hurt I have caused. The trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement. You are my teachers,” he wrote.
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. pic.twitter.com/0jsyt6MRvO
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 5, 2018
RuPaul’s apology tweet was accompanied by an image of a flag with green and yellow stripes, the relevance of which was initially unclear.
However, some knowledgable Twitter users identified the image as a 1953 painting by minimalist artist Ellsworth Kelly titled “Train Landscape” — which naturally some to believe RuPaul attempted to search Google for the transgender pride flag (which features blue, pink and white stripes), accidentally typed in “trains” instead of “trans,” and posted the first result without realizing he had the wrong image.
rupaul tried to look up trans flag but accidentally wrote trains flag and just saved the first result to his camera roll pic.twitter.com/30CxCeirqX
— lesbian saw black panther (@deadgrIwaIkng) March 6, 2018
This is not the first time RuPaul has made potentially exclusionary statements about drag’s relationship to the trans community.
Back in 2014 the host appeared on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast to defend his use of the derogatory term “tranny,” saying, “I can call myself a nigger, faggot, tranny all I want to, because I’ve fucking earned the right to do it. I’ve lived the life. I’ve been on the front line.”
And in a 2016 interview with Vulture, RuPaul said trans people and drag performers are “complete opposites.”
“We mock identity. They take identity very seriously. So it’s the complete opposite ends of the scale. To a layperson, it seems very similar, but it’s really not,” he said, brushing off the conversation as a “boring topic.”
So Monday’s concession and apology are a significant break from what RuPaul has said in the past, representing an apparent shift in his belief’s about the role of gender in drag performance. Whether that will play a role in the casting of “Drag Race” going forward, however, remains to be seen.