A few weeks ago, RuPaul's Drag Race made show history when its first contestant came out as transgender while appearing on RPDR: the fierce Monica Beverly Hillz. For a show that's often ignored, side-stepped or marginalized trans* issues, this was a major about face. When Willam left the show in Season 4, rumors spread it that was because Willam had started transitioning and "broke the rules." Willam later explained that the reason for the dismissal was that the divisive contestant had been receiving conjugal visits from their boyfriend. Contestants aren't allowed to have contact with the outside world, and this violated that clause in the Drag Race contract.
However, many felt the explanation was unsatisfactory. There was more going on here. That mistrust shows not only the lingering skepticism toward the show's trans inclusion but the divides between the trans* and drag communities. I mention it below, but Monica Roberts of Trans Griot recently took the show to task for its problematic relationship with transgender folks. Monica Beverly Hillz's coming out helps move that conversation in a more positive direction. It's an important first step.
As a fan of the show, I sat down with drag performer Precious Jewel, who identifies as transgender. I wanted to know what her thoughts on the show were, especially as someone who had tried out for the show in the past. In a blog post on We Happy Trans, Precious discusses the ways she must straddle the divides of drag and trans* in everyday life. I wanted to pick her brain about what Monica Beverly Hillz means for the drag culture. She suggested that we grab brunch at Waffles, a recently opened brunch place off Broadway in Lakeview. A new waffle joint? I was already living for this discussion.
Nico Lang: As a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, how did you react to news of Monica Beverly Hillz’s coming out? Do you think that featuring its first transgender contestant was a long time coming?
Precious Jewel: In terms of Monica Beverly Hillz coming out, I felt not only was it a groundbreaking moment for Monica and her personal journey, but a growing moment for the show as well. No other contestant has ever openly identified as transgender while competing, though several have come out after their stints on the show, like Sonique Love, Carmen Carrera and Kenya Michaels. So yes, this was a long time coming.
The episode also shows us a loving and affirming RuPaul who dotes on Monica and proclaims, "I brought you here because you are fierce," although she deftly sidesteps the actual word transgender. This shows that Ru has an understanding that at times the intersections of gender and performance meet at drag’s doorstep in an undeniable package, but that she may not yet be ready to fully come to terms with the repercussions those commonalities could have on her show. It had to be the right time for a transgender contestant to come out on Drag Race.
Ru is an extremely smart individual; not only is she glamorous but she is strategic. I think she first wanted to establish a relationship between the performance and the meaning of the term drag with her viewership in earlier seasons before she started branching out with other gender identities in later seasons. This season was framed around "goddesses" and "fishy" (or “passable”) queens; therefore, it wasn't a complete shock to me that one of them identified as female.
NL: Why is this moment important? Why do we need trans* women as our drag superstars?
PJ: Ru herself has been quoted as saying, "I've always been interested in looking under the hood of our culture and deconstructing femininity in itself." Monica's representation and presentation on the show deconstructs notions of what a stereotypical female looks like. That is the piece of Drag Race history that I am living for most.
Some of the most respected individuals in the business are transgender women as well as drag queens: Mimi Marks, Candis Cayne, Sasha Colby, and Carmen Carrera. All of those women have broken through glass ceilings. We need trans* women as drag superstars to show the world that we are no longer going to hide or question who we are or accept the slandering of our character for mainstream culture. We need trans* women as drag superstars to model that we as transgender women are more than just the victims of crude humor and murder. We are women who deserve to occupy positions of power and leadership, and we will be the ones to define our own expectations surrounding our individual gender identities.
NL: A few weeks ago, an article by Monica Roberts of Trans Griot criticized the show for its problematic relationship to the trans* community. How do you feel about critiques of the show’s trans* issues?
PJ: Ru was the closest thing I could identify with on television growing up and all through adolescence. It's almost like how you love your family even though you disagree with some of the things they do.
So no matter what, Ru will always be an icon to me. Ru has made it very clear that she is not interested in discussing the semantic meanings of words like “tranny,” or for that matter, whether she is referred to as he or she, but at the end of the day I do believe in her eternal message of love, energy and life. We as a community need to do less crucifying and more identifying with the gifts that the universe has placed within each of us.
NL: In what ways do you think that RuPaul and the show can improve on its inclusion of transgender identities? And how do you feel that RuPaul herself can be more accountable to change?
PJ: I would like to see an open transgender woman cast and win the entire competition with her fierceness. Although I think Detox is serving some high gloss gender variance this season and it's looking like shes going to strut out of the competition with that crown. I think RuPaul has done a great job showing gender variance, with Ongina, Carmen and Raja, it boils down to: “How can Ru push the envelope more than she already has?”
Candis Cayne is slated to make another appearance on Drag Race later this season and I would love it if they announced her as “renowned transgender actress Candis Cayne." Visibility is a huge step in terms of being an ally for a community.
NL: As a trans* woman of color, how do you feel that your identity is embraced or marginalized in the drag community? What have your experiences been like?
PJ: Drag was the catalyst in finding the inner goddess that was longing to be free inside of me for so long. Along the way on my journey for a time I identified as Queer before I came to the discovery that I actually identified as a transgender woman. It was during this time in my life that I met many drag performers who identified as women. Through numerous discussions with those women I came to the conclusion that I could and in fact needed to live my life authentically as a woman.
In regards to my transition, the drag community has been extremely supportive, and I often get a lot of love from people I used to "twirl" with back in the day. They thank me for the work I'm doing for the community and often comment on how much happier I look now than I did when I was performing full time, wavering uncertainly and unhappily between boy and queen. Now that I am a woman, my light shines to its full effect.
NL: How do you hope to challenge perceptions of drag through telling your own story?
PJ: I’m a firm believer that we are all in drag every day. Fashion is iconography. The clothing we wear, the music we listen to, and even the face we present to the world, each of these decisions constitutes our drag persona. Through our awareness, behavior and choices, we articulate our worldview and notions of self, power and belonging, and it is overarching aura that affects those we come into contact with in our daily lives. The way I try to instigate radical change in society is by pressing this point, by turning every sidewalk into a runway, every doorway into a parting curtain on a grand proscenium stage, by living larger than life and making my difference and my presence known.
Drag does not always have to be a huge wig, heavy makeup and a man in a dress; it does not have to be exaggeration to the point of comedic oblivion. Drag can be, and is for me, a self-actualization of confidence, perseverance and universal love.
NL: You are someone who has tried out for RuPaul’s Drag Race in the past, although you have yet to be invited onto the show. Did you feel the need to cloak or conceal your identity?
PJ: When casting for last season came about I was just crossing the threshold of my transition into living full time as a woman. I had just that month even taken the step of re-taking my ID photo in female presentation. Needless to say, as I looked at the audition requirements stating that half of the audition tape must be delivered as your boy self, I definitely experienced some serious reservations.
As I did some soul-searching over the next few days though, I reached a couple conclusions. First, I truly believed that all of my hard work within the world of female impersonation deserved a place among the industry’s finest, and second, part of me also believed in the potential for spreading my message that the platform of the show provided.
So in the end, I tucked my weave up under a baseball cap and even went so far as to go back to the DMV to have my license re-issued in boy drag. I answered the requisite boy questions and played by all their rules, which wasn’t particularly difficult really. I’d been doing it most of my life. But it did feel hollow, and the experience caused me to vow that I would henceforth never compromise my authentic self for anything.
NL: Now that RuPaul’s Drag Race has taken a step toward trans* inclusion, where would you like to see that relationship go from here? What steps should they take?
PJ: Trans* women are a part of the drag community. I think in very basic ways the audition process could open itself up to include more gender variant identifications in the written and video requirements. Transgender women have stories to tell and art to share, and the world needs to know it.
Nico Lang blogs about LGBTQ life in Chicago. Want to talk about what happened on Drag Race this week? Follow Nico on Twitter or Facebook.