An Open Letter to Drag

I’d like to talk about the other word.

In the wake of the big RuPaul’s Drag Race finale (I was so for Violet; I admit it – she had me at that bearded runway) I had some thoughts about the topic I wanted to share. Yes, I know I’ve experienced a commercialized version of drag and am one of those Midwestern moms the queens chuckle about. Maybe I’m not cool enough to talk about it. But I think I will anyway, because that’s my realness. If you’re interested, read on.

Some of you may know that I have been a fan of RuPaul Charles since the first time I saw him on television in the mid-nineties. (For some of us, that won’t seem very long ago and for others I suspect it will.) I followed his career, bought any magazine that featured him, and listened to, “A Little Bit of Love” constantly.

I’ve never been focused on his famous drag character. Sure, she’s stunning and classic and all that. But it’s Ru himself that has fascinated me. He’s bold, interesting, and revels in a fearless androgyny far ahead of the market’s ability to support it. He’s also entertaining, witty, and uplifting. And have you read his books? They are inspirational as well as entertaining. Ru is an amazing person.

It’s quite ironic that I enjoy drag so much. I don’t wear any makeup or heels of any height. I believe in natural beauty. And velour pants. But I do appreciate art. And to me drag is a fascinating mixture of art. It’s entertainment and sometimes comedy. It’s larger than life – and it’s bold. I can’t turn away. I particularly enjoy Pandora Boxx and Jinkx Monsoon; they are so talented. My fandom has crept into my writing – Rikian (the intersex elf) quotes RuPaul in Spireseeker, and some of you might have picked up that Cor’s mother in The Banished Craft is named Ruby. Mother Ru!

You may or may not have followed last year’s controversy (much of it clearly contrived by the media) surrounding the use of certain terms on the show RuPaul’s Drag Race. The most controversial of these being what I will refer to as the t-word: an innocent or fun word for some invoking Rocky Horror or other diversions, but to others a symbol of hatred and oppression against transgendered individuals.

The drag industry seemed torn on how to respond. Should they defend a pioneer of gender-forward entertainment in the mainstream—the main reason their own careers exist? Should they risk giving the impression they are not behind the transgendered community, a community with a horrifying rate of murder and suicide? Some even got into the debate whether drag itself is a transgendered lifestyle—an argument with cause but that I’m certain is troubling to at least some of those who have lived through hell because they can’t ever “de-drag.”

I also get Ru’s argument on the subject. I’ll paraphrase here, but basically he’s said that drag is punk and censoring it only hurts it. He said people need to grow stronger and remember words are just words. He also suggested that the stir was not being caused by every-day transgender people, but basically by attention-seeking bloggers, looking to play the victim. He made some great points.

Either way, this season the show has backed off some. Their gendered play on “e-mail” has disappeared, and I have not heard the use of the t-word. I’ve noticed other subtle changes as well.

So what’s my point? Why rehash an old conversation? Because something’s been bothering me, and I’d like to talk about it. It’s the other word. The one no one has brought up.

I don’t use this word, so I’ll call it the b-word. And it’s not just the b-word that bothers me, it’s the constant misogynistic references in the drag industry. Do I think that drag queens disrespect women? No, not generally. I just think they have become desensitized to the language and imagery that they use, just as our culture is in places to terms against races, orientation, or other characteristics.

Now, time to get ready, because today I am serving tea.

Here’s my message to queens and gender-blurring entertainers everywhere: You don’t need to degrade women (any type of women) in order to be fabulous. You can be as punk, funny, and bold as you want without laughing at vaginas, or making flippant jokes about dropping babies out of them. Those jokes can be hurtful to people on a very personal subject, and in my opinion it has nothing to do with your craft. You don’t need to call yourself the b-word or cutesy variations on the c-word. You don’t need it. Those are cheap jokes; cheap gimmicks. And you just don’t need them. They lessen your art.

I think many people misunderstand the b-word. They think maybe it means someone is emotional, even affected by hormones. Some people have twisted it to mean you’re tough. Or feminist. Or awesome. Or sassy. Or gay. But maybe they don’t understand that it’s a common term in rape and slavery – against males as well as females. They don’t know that its origins are comparing a woman to a dog in heat – reducing her to an irrational sexual object without the ability to decline. Maybe they aren’t aware that in dog breeding the man often has to hold the female dog down so she is unable to escape while the male dog has his way with her. It’s really an ugly term.

I consider myself a modern woman. I detest gender rules, and love pushing boundaries. I try to be punk. But I am not a b-word, nor would I call anyone else one, even in jest. I used to say it, years ago. But I’ve stopped. And I don’t use it in my writing. Sometimes I think it might be funny, in context. You know, “b- please!” It makes people laugh. But I talk myself out of it every time; it’s never worth it.

I’m not asking for drag to be any less punk. I’m not calling for anything to be banned. But if you don’t use the n-word, you don’t need to use the t-word, the f-word, or the b-word. Be cleverer than that. Promote drag, glamour, androgyny, or just put on a great show. Be rude or x-rated if you want. Be edgy. Wear fabulous wigs, and put them on top of other wigs. But leave the misogynistic language out of your routine. You’re better than that.

What about Ru’s message to be stronger? Women are stronger. Professional women, domestic women, transwomen, women of color, all of them. They’ve put up with a lot over the centuries, and they are stronger than they’ve ever been. As are a lot of people who have been considered lesser or different. We’re really getting there, one step at a time.

So, drag community: I’m not mad, or demanding anything, I’m asking the question. Do you really need degrading language in order to be punk? My opinion: you don’t.

Just something to think about. And RuPaul – I truly adore you, at least as much as I can from what you show the world. Don’t take any of this for shade. I’m just speaking up.

Love and respect, E.D.E. Bell

June 2015

An Open Letter to Drag