Several weeks ago I became a bit mixed up in what had a lot of potential to become a hugely embarrassing misstep on the part of CFI Ontario in their efforts to present a queer-friendly image through participation in Toronto’s pride parade. As has been written about elsewhere, such as by Zinnia Jones, CFI Ontario had the plan of marching in drag as participants in the parade.
The initial proposal for this plan explicitly, and quite insultingly, presented the idea as being supportive of the trans community, an act of solidarity against transphobia, by asking cisgender CFI members and volunteers to “step outside their comfort zones”. After the initial wave of outrage reached CFI Ontario, their first response was to simply remove any reference to trans advocacy from their proposal, which had the unfortunate effect of suggesting the trans-positive message was never really genuine in the first place, and had simply been tacked on for the sake of publicity after the fact of someone, somewhere deciding that dressing up in drag would be fun. They also issued a rather patronizing notpology in which a whole lot of cissplaining was offered to teach us trans people what drag is really all about and how we ought to feel about it.
After a lot of discussion, however, an altogether positive result was reached in which the plan was scrapped and some much more genuine apologies were offered. Although clearly a great deal of work still needs to be done in terms of hetero/cis allies being more prepared to talk and, more importantly, listen to the queer communities on whose behalf they position themselves speaking and acting, it’s a nice change of pace to have been involved in actions that ultimately prevented something hurtful and insulting from occurring, rather than having to explain these things in the wake of their consequences, with the much more abstracted goal of someone maybe learning something from it, or perhaps achieving another millimeter of collective movement in what one hopes is the right direction.
However, this does end up illuminating some icky creepy things crawling around in the blind spots many cis people have in regards to what drag is, what it isn’t, and how it does and does not relate to the broader range of transgender identities. Even drag’s inclusion under the concept of transgenderism is not something I, personally, feel completely comfortable with, but do have to reluctantly accept in order for my current working definition to be consistent. At least it’s necessary in order to avoid some really thorny territory about what is or isn’t not a significant variance from expectations about gender.
(I do kinda feel like revising my working definition, though)
CFI Ontario’s drag parade idea provides a pretty useful touchstone for exploring those misunderstandings and assumptions, and talking about how strongly drag and transsexual experiences differ. For instance, one of the most noticeable concepts on which the CFI idea hinged was the notion of “stepping outside comfort zones”, the idea that momentarily inhabiting a gender variant presentation, or a gender presentation not in accordance with your identity, would somehow approximate what it is to be trans. Comfort zones, however, can’t really be separated from the questions of safety and acceptance.
As sad as it may be, a defining aspect of trans experience, and more so the experience of coping with the realities of cissexism and transphobia, is having to learn to live with near constant risk. There is the risk of being physically attacked, of course, the risk of sexual assault, the risk of harassment, the risk of being outed, the risk of being humiliated, shamed, ridiculed, misgendered, etc. Every single time we step out the door (if we have a door to step out of), we have to work with the fact that we entering threatening, potentially hostile territory. Self-imposed isolation, a kind of not-so-irrational agoraphobia, becomes a very real way of life for many trans people who ultimately aren’t really able to cope with having to take that daily gamble.. Many of us end up resigned to the threat as an inevitability… “is this the night I finally get hurt?”
A drag performer, by contrast, engage in their performances of gender almost exclusively in the safe, sanctioned space of queer-oriented nightclubs or theaters… or the exceptionally safe space of the pride parade. The context in which the cis members of CFI were intended to show “solidarity” with trans people, who live the vast majority of our lives in overwhelmingly hostile worlds, was the safest, most queer-positive possible context, in which such casual tweaking of gender is not only tolerated but celebrated. It couldn’t possibly be further divorced from the reality of trans lives, for which no such comfort zones exist to step in or out of. It’s massively insensitive to the actual depths of what it means to live, 24/7, in all circumstances, as a gender variant individual, always under the threat of being read, exposed, humiliated, rejected, ridiculed, studied, stared at, attacked, etc., to assume that doing a little performance in a context where it is in fact part of the dominant behaviour could possibly approximate it. And given the degree to which the organizers wanted to stand by their planned performance, even after the concept had been divorced from the “trans-solidarity” gesture, it was pretty clear this wasn’t a discomfort or a sacrifice for them. It was fun. Entertainment. Performance. Just like drag always is.
Drag is, as a rule, done because it’s fun, and is done in the contexts where it will be the most fun. That casts an impossibly wide gap between what it is and means and transition which, as rewarding as it may be, is very, very rarely fun. Drag is also very much under the performer’s control. Before leaving the safety of the nightclub, the costume and make-up and falsies and binders and packers can all be taken off.
There is one thing that almost always happens at the immediate outset of an incident in which a drag queen is harassed or at risk of being assaulted. The wig comes off. What does this suggest about how violence operates in relation to gender variance? What does this suggest about how violence operates differently when the intended victim is a women than when the intended victim is a man? What does it say about gender and violence that maleness itself can be presented as a tool of intimidation, and that femaleness is so consistently treated as a weakness, a target?
I wonder, in the absurd hypothetical that a cis guy wearing drag “in solidarity” at Pride were to be harassed and threatened, how long the wig would stay on.
Aside from the questions of violence and risk, safety and comfort zones, where and when unusual gender things are or aren’t perceived as socially acceptable, one of the things that has long bothered me about drag, and represents an equally vast gap between it and other kinds of trans experiences, is the fundamentally different way gender is treated and perceived, especially in regards to the motives. In drag, gender roles are almost always exaggerated, distorted, and turned into campy, ridiculous caricatures, for the sake of making everything more, well, fun. One of the things about this that is probably just as empowering for those who enjoy it as it is trivializing and offensive for others is how these exaggerations serve to mock and satirize gender roles.
Drag often presents itself as if to say, “Look! All those big, nasty genders that have limited and bound you don’t really have any real power! They’re silly. They’re just costumes. Gender is just a joke! Don’t you see?” …and while I’m very aware of how liberating this can be for many people, the truth is that gender is not always a joke. For some people it is, at risk of putting too fine a point on it, deadly serious. Not all of us have the opportunity of divorcing ourselves from those harsh realities to find it all that funny, and it seems that the whole set-up demands the luxury of being able to take gender somewhat for granted…something that is very much a cis privilege. It’s much harder to laugh at your gender when you’ve had to fight so hard and sacrifice so much in order to possess it.
In there lies a hint at a difficult, paradoxical, complex and yet very important question: is drag only possible in the context of cis privilege, or something fairly close to it? Is drag a fundamentally cisgender phenomenon?
When asked, I’ve always maintained that concepts like an “LGBT community”, “queer community” or “trans community” were validated and sustained despite the enormous differences between various individual identities in those groups as being basically political coalitions. They make sense due to a shared oppression, and shared political necessity to respond. But when virtually every aspect of the oppression and marginalization that affects trans people does not operate in relation to drag, does the concepts inclusion still make sense? Do drag performers, in any meaningful sense at all, even broadly, share the same risks, the same marginalization, the same experience of oppression, or share the political needs, as the trans community?
Arguably, cross-dressing for the purposes of entertainment, drag, was never actually marginalized or subjugated. There have always been contexts in theatre and performance in which cross-dressing, usually for the sake of comedy and camp and fun, just as it exists in our current cultural climate, was socially sanctioned.
Maybe entertainment-drag has always existed as a socially-sanctioned means for a cisgender culture to explore and exorcise its anxieties about gender. I can’t help but think of how often cross-dressing has been historically sanctioned in the context of Carnivale… a festival of bright colours, costumes, parades and general hedonism not even remotely unlike the contemporary phenomenon of Pride.
But nonetheless there’s a history of drag that extends outside the context of entertainment that has come to encompass it. At certain points in North American history, as well as ongoing in many other parts of the world, the boundaries between what was drag, what was transsexual, what was transgender, what was cross-dressing, and what was sexual kink were much, much more blurry and indistinct. These contexts seem to exist whenever or wherever access to medical transition, and tolerance of transsexuality and transgenderism, is limited or unavailable.
Maybe in those contexts, the possibility for transgender/transsexual communities to form on their own terms, to pursue the various identities or medical treatments or legal decisions that would distinguish a transsexual from anyone else, and to pursue and assert such an identity as distinct from those merely dressing as the opposite sex, was so limited or remote that assimilating under the protective umbrella of the forms of gender transgression that are socially-sanctioned, as in entertainment, theatre, drag… that was the best possible response. Survival demanded the cooperation, even if the actual motivations and understandings of self may have vastly differed from individual to individual.
Not at all unlike, perhaps, how many trans people initially explore their feelings and identities in the still far more socially-acceptable domain of drag (yes…gay men who are drag queens have far more acceptance and privilege than trans women… and not only due to the maintained ability to remove the wig) or butch (likewise) before realizing the necessity of transition.
Which is not to say that people living in such contexts have all been secretly thinking of themselves as different but just weren’t allowed to say so. Gender is always a social and cultural thing, and can only ever manifest in relation to the concepts that are available. We work with what we have to build and understand who we are.
All of these differences and complications have led to a not inconsiderable amount of tension and resentment. While drag continues to be the most accepted and most visible form of “cross-sex” behaviour, cis people, from the outside looking in, rarely have enough education about these nuances, or any nuances about gender variance at all, and end up not being aware that there’s much, if any, meaningful distinction between drag and trans. This ignorance about the complexity of these issues is very much exemplified by a group of cis people deciding it would be a gesture of “trans solidarity” to dress up in drag for a pride parade, consulting “actual queer people” (were any of them trans?) and a “real drag queen” (define real?) to ensure that the idea was on the level. Drag performers, like the often staggeringly insensitive RuPaul, are often then called upon to speak on behalf of transsexual people, or on issues that exlusively effect other transgender identities and experiences, and those cis performers then provide extremely cis-friendly answers, blinded by cis privilege, that are all too readily uncritically accepted by a cis audience.
It’s a bit of a problem.
Please, cis people… it’s not just enough to know that drag queens and trans women are two different things. If you want to think yourself capable of speaking to trans issues, if you want to think you’re able to “help” without actually consulting us (which is actually kind of always a bad idea), you really need to also understand why and how those are two different things… and what that means for those living on either side of that gap.