To the trans women who deserve so much better

CW: transphobia, violence against trans women (primarily paragraphs 5 & 13)

In 2010, season 1 of RuPaul's Drag U aired in all of its cringey glory. For me, this was one of those shows that played reruns throughout the summer that I might have mindlessly watched when nothing else was on, and since the summers were boring enough I very likely saw every episode. The show only lasted for three seasons, had what looks like a pretty low budget, and kind of flopped at capitalizing off of the early success of Drag Race. It was a make-over show for cis women by drag queens and was meant mostly to make-over their confidence rather than their appearance. It was wholesome. I believe that the show did alot of good for those women, and it probably did some measure of good for the viewers.

We have a lot of issues in this country with image. We judge people based on what they look like--ehem, racism, *cough cough*. And when we ourselves are judged for our exteriors we internalize a lot of that hatred. The color of our skin, the amount of body fat we have, our gender expression, our natural hair texture and color, on and on and on. And like most make-over shows, the ones with self-love at the heart of them, Drag U was about fixing this internalized hatred for everything about ourselves that is not white, thin, cisgender, and instead turns it into a celebration of our uniqueness. Cis women unlocked their inner drag diva! The message it gave to the down-and-out, the change it hoped to make in a person's self esteem, matters and is necessary. But what is at the crux of this show, what I see as most important, is not the direct message of loving yourself, but rather the fact that it is a message from the mouths of drag queens.

(A lot of this show was just RuPaul saying random words straight to camera in a section called "A word from RuPaul.")

The majority of the language in Drag U centers around biology. The purpose is to turn "biological women" (majority heterosexual) into drag divas, thus unlocking their true potential for love, sex, and happy, fulfilling lives. Of course not all of these women are straight and drag *could* take many different forms (even if the show goes in one, singular direction, but that's for a different blog 😒), but the general feeling that I'm left with is "take the good parts of queerness, leave the rest behind (because you can)." This is incredible privilege that is glossed over. And it being glossed over is not at the fault of RuPaul, the producers, or the queens on the show--it is the fault of the intended viewers, the "biological women" who take for granted the freedoms and culture queer folk have given them, as well as the talent and skill they bring to certain facets of American society--fashion, television, movies, music, dance, etc.

"It is not enough that these shows exist and we can all yell YAAASSS at our televisions."

I'm not saying that there is no place for a show like Drag U. We also have the reboot of Queer Eye that is giving us all emotional nights alone with our netflix accounts and our feelings. Let me just make it clear, I am such a fan of these shows. I'm a fan of all queer representation that sends a message of acceptance, that seeks to challenge our perceptions of our self worth when those perceptions are based on the marketing strategies of corporations trying to sell us the air we breathe. But I want to see us carve out a place for giving back. It is not enough that these shows exist and we can all yell YAAASSS at our televisions. It is not enough because real dangers exist for the queer community day in and day out, on and off screen. There is real transphobia in our neighborhoods and our government. There is real violence, erasure, denial of human dignity and rights happening here, now.

As of the day I am writing this, already fifteen trans women and gender non-conforming folx have been killed in the U.S. this year (that we know about). Cathalina Christina James. Gigi Pierce.  Antash'a English. Karla Patricia Flores-Pavon. Nicole Hall. Sasha Wall. Amia Tyrae. Zakaria Fry. Phylicia Mitchell.  Celine Walker.  Tonya Harvey. Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien. Viccky Gutierrez. Nino Fortson. Keisha Wells. These are just the vicitims in the United States that have made the news. It hurts me to make this list. Sitting down to write this post has been difficult. I've held these women in my mind for days, coming back to this post and these ideas and then leaving them again because it is a heavy topic to write about. I want to honor them in some small way, but I keep coming back to the thought that they should not be made into martyrs--because they should not have been killed. I think that we see queer people, particularly trans women, in the message they give us on TV and in death, but not in their humanity. They do not exist to be there for us in our struggles alone--in our acceptance of our gender expression or our exploration of sexuality--nor do they exist to be our next marketing campaign, to give us rainbow colored banks and airlines. They exist to live. their. lives. They ought to be able to live their lives, fully.

It is not lost on me that shows like Queer Eye and Drag U center around a cast of cis men. There is another level of criticism to get into with that fact, but it's for another blog. But just as the cis women contestants of Drag U take inspiration from cis gay men, the drag culture we have now takes a lot from trans women. You just have to watch ten minutes of RuPaul's Drag Race, get on instagram and scroll the #realness tag, or yell YAAASSS at your television (see above) to understand the impact of queer poc history. The documentaries I can cite that shows this the best is Paris is Burning (1990).


Paris is Burning is about House culture and the Harlem Ball circuit in the 1980s. It centers around race in America and the intersections of racism and poverty, AIDS, homophobia, and transphobia. First and foremost it is a look into a culture most of us know nothing about, but that has become imbedded in our lexicon nonetheless. My first watch was filled with pure joy and excitement. Here were the folx I needed desperately to see, who had breathed life into all of my favorite things. My second watch was heavier, the implications started to sink in more.

"In a ballroom you can be anything you want."

As Drag U takes the ideas of drag and places it on cis women to offer them some kind of fulfillment, to fix whatever it is that is lacking in their lives, the folx in the balls of New York are using drag to also find fulfillment, or rather they were doing it first. In the middle of the documentary there is a section on realness. The balls have a plethora of categories, but it is the realness categories that, to me ,carry the most weight. Dorian Corey explains the Executive Realness category:

"In real life you can't get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You're not really an executive but you're looking like an executive. You're showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because can look like one, and that is like a fulfillment."

And Pepper LeBeija puts it in the context of race more clearly:

"This is white America. And when it comes to the minorities; especially black - we as a people, for the past 400 years - is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive. That is why, in the ballroom circuit, it is so obvious that if you have captured the great white way of living, or looking, or dressing, or speaking - you is a marvel."

What I saw in Drag U, and what I see at (corporate) pride celebrations and some episodes of Queer Eye, and what I see especially in the cis hetero womens body positivity movement, is a co-opting of the realness categories of this ballroom culture that simultaneously ignores the people who gave birth to it. The term realness did not come from sass, it came from a long history of oppression and discrimination and an intense desire to bridge the ocean sized gulf between what is acceptable in our society and our authentic selves. Yes, some of the people interviewed in Paris is Burning aredrag queens, but several of them are trans women even if it is not explicitly stated or the language used is not what we would use today. The ball circuit is just as much wrapped up in trans lives as it is for gay men (and I would argue it is perhaps more so). Corey references these women when she says "When they're undetectable and they can walk out of that ballroom into the sunlight and onto the subway and get home, and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies- those are the femme realness queens."

(Venus Xtravaganza, seconds before the most famous line of the whole damn documentary, just go watch it already.) 

Venus Xtravaganza is one of the trans women interviewed in the documentary. She was a sex worker who competed in the balls for the House of Xtravaganza. I have not been able to stop thinking about her. The documentary frames her story in a particularly difficult way to accept. She is immediately captivating. She offers insight into sex work that continues to resonate today in light of FOSTA/SESTA, and she gives us the most famous line of the documentary--"you're just an overgrown orangutan." But the last we see of her, hair blowing in the evening New York air, a bright smile, is voiced over by tragedy. This is what I can't get over.

Because here is what happens at the end of Paris is Burning: they all fucking die. Venus Xtravaganza (23) is murdered. Angie Xtravaganza (27), Dorian Corey (56), and Willi Ninja (45) die from AIDS related illnesses. Pepper LeBeija (58) and Kim Pendavis (20s) died from heart attacks. Octavia Saint Laurent (45) from cancer.

"It is detestable that we continue to take what we want from trans women when we want it and turn away from them when it gets dark."

This is not to discredit the harm negative body image has on our wellbeing whether cis or trans, but in the context of this violence and death, it is detestable that we continue to take what we want from trans women when we want it and turn away from them when it gets dark. FOSTA/SESTA directly harms and kills trans women. POLICE/ICE directly harm and kill trans women. DONALD FUCKING TRUMP directly harms and kills trans women. We need to reverse these disasters of policies, and defund and abolish the systems that are involved in the violence and harbor a complete disregard for true justice. They deserve nothing less than a full fight because they have given us everything.

Venus Xtravaganza, you will never know what you have done for me, and I desperately hope that all of us that have taken something from your death can learn to do better soon. You didn't deserve to become our martyr. No more should have to die for us to finally get it through our heads.