The infamous “Female or She-male” mini-challenge that asked competitors on a recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race to guess a person’s gender based on close-ups of red carpet photos has already been apologized for and stricken from video archives. “We did not intend to cause any offense, but in retrospect we realize that it was insensitive,” wrote Logo’s executives in a statement. “We sincerely apologize.”
But that statement did little to quell a long-simmering debate over who has the right to define a word as a slur and who can “reclaim” such words.
Of the many drag performers and contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, four have since come out as transgender women. The Advocate spoke with two of them—Season 3 contestant Carmen Carrera and season 5 contestant Monica Beverly Hillz—about what viewers should take away from this moment.
Both Carrera and Hillz got their big breaks on Drag Race. Hillz marked a Drag Race milestone by being the first contestant to come out during a season and has gone on to become a spokesperson against sexual violence in the LGBT community. Carrera came out as trans after her season aired and has since been signed by Elite Model Management and appeared in modeling campaigns for W magazine and more. Her success led to a guest appearance on Katie Couric’s talk show, alongside Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, in which they memorably explained to Couric that conversation on trans issues needs to progress beyond “private parts.”
Similar to how Carrera scolded Couric for her obsession with anatomy, the reality star expressed disappointment with Drag Race’s linguistic insensitivity in its “Female or She-male” challenge, particularly in light of the show’s positive track record in humanizing the members of gay and drag culture.
“For me [‘Female or She-male’] just wasn’t cool,” Carrera says. “RuPaul’s Drag Race should know better. They have educated so many people on drag. Drag is so huge now because of RuPaul’s Drag Race… The main purpose of the show is to show that drag queens have emotion, and that drag queens are artists; they are people that you should love and admire. That’s amazing—but drag is not just boys in makeup and hair. There are trans women that do drag, and I was exposed to it.”
Carrera questions if the problematic segment was a “gimmick” intended to incite controversy. She doesn’t believe the Drag Race team scripted the segment out of malice or blatant hatred for transgender women—a belief shared by Season 6 contestant Milk, who told The Advocate that “the show never meant any harm.”
But Carrera argues that within the platform of a popular television show, an established and recognizable member of the LGBT community like RuPaul should be more careful about the words he models through his own usage. She notes that for many viewers Drag Race may be their first exposure to drag culture, and to various parts of the LGBT population in general. As a televised voice of authority on drag culture, RuPaul may inadverently be giving permission to use words to viewers who don’t understand their impact on the broader LGBT populace.
“We’re fighting for respect, and these cisgender [nontrans] people who are watching and learning are going to think it’s OK to take any other trans person and think, Oh, are they real or are they fake?” says Carrera.
Indeed, questioning whether transgender women are “real women” is often a tactic used by those looking to invalidate their identity. Those efforts are the underpinnings of the so-called trans panic defense in cases of antitrans violence, where a perpetrator claims that they were so upset by a transgender person not disclosing their trans status that they had no choice but to become violent.
When it comes to specific terminology sometimes used in drag culture, Carrera didn’t mince words on her feelings about the word “tranny,” which GLAAD’s media reference guide lists as “defamatory,” noting that this term and others, such as “she-male,” “he-she,” “it,” “shim,” and “gender-bender,” “only serve to dehumanize transgender people.”
The word “tranny,” Carrera says, “is just like saying ‘faggot,’ ‘spic,’ or the N–word. It’s just these words you don’t speak.”
Carrera is similarly emphatic when asked how she responded to claims that drag performers and others are attempting to “reclaim” the word “tranny,” similarly to how some activists have reclaimed words once widely considered derogatory like “queer” or “fag.”
“I feel like right now we’re barely breaking through as far as people respecting us—even just as humans,” Carrera says. “We’re still trying to be seen as equal. These words are ignorant words, and I feel like [trans awareness is] not at a point where [anyone can say] ‘Yeah, let’s take back the power and use them anyway!’ No.”
“First, let’s get respected,” continues Carrera. “Let’s make sure everyone sees eye-to-eye and understands who we are as people, and then we’ll talk about the words that we’re comfortable with.”
Fellow transgender Drag Race alumna Monica Beverly Hillz voices a similar sentiment, calling transphobic slurs rude and nonsensical. “You call a transgender woman a ‘tranny’ or a ‘she-male,’ or a ‘ladyboy,'” she says. “It’s kind of like going back in the day where black people used to be called the N-word. That’s kind of what it is to me.”
“I’ve been called ‘it’ before,” she adds. “I hate that word.”
Muddying the waters is the considerable overlap between trans women and drag performers. A large number of trans women once performed in drag shows, and broadly speaking, both drag performers and trans women have something in common: a variance in their relationship to gender norms.
Cisgender, male-identified drag performers often subvert what society usually expects from men. Many say they have been the subject of harassment based on their gender presentation, and some incorporate the use of slurs like “tranny” and “she-male” into their performances.
“There are some older generations that feel ownership of that word, and they can use it,” Hillz concedes. “But we’re not back in that day. We’re here in 2014, so get with the lingo we have now in 2014. We’re not back in the day anymore, where people didn’t really know what transgender meant.”
Carrera agrees, noting her frustration with those who defend the use of transphobic slurs. “I feel like a lot of people who… maybe haven’t met a trans person before, they’re the first ones to get defensive about what words they use to describe us,” Carrera explains, expressing a frustration often felt by trans people. “That’s wrong. We should be allowed to pick the words to define us. There have been a lot of words out there that people have tried to use to define us, and they’re all wrong.”
Carrera contends that when trans people take issue with a slur’s usage in popular or LGB culture, they are asserting themselves and standing up for their rights, and she’s frustrated that those outside the trans community are protecting language that many trans people find offensive.
“We’re the ones trying to clear things up and give you knowledge about who we are,” she says. “It’s been so twisted around by the media and for entertainment purposes, and … not every trans person is an entertainer. Trans people just want to be. We should be allowed to be ourselves, and to pick words that define who we are.”
But some of those who use the word, including RuPaul, argue that their use if the slur isn’t coming from a place of ill intent or hatred. When RuPaul last publicly addressed his opinion on the word “tranny,” in a 2012 interview with the The Huffington Post, he strongly defended its use.
Discussing out singer Lance Bass’s then-recent apology for uttering the word on national television, RuPaul balked. “Unfortunately in our culture one person can write a letter to the network and they shut something down,” he said, foreshadowing the end of his own segment. “It’s unfortunate. But I love the word ‘tranny.’ And no one has ever said the word ‘tranny’ in a derogatory sense. In fact, you have to go to the intent of the person saying it. Of course Lance Bass, his intent would never be to be derogatory. Never. So, you know, that’s really ridiculous. And I hate the fact that he’s apologized. I wish he would have said, ‘F you, you tranny jerk!'”
And while RuPaul is a cisgender gay man, there are trans people who agree with him that ending use of these words oversteps boundaries of reason. Our Lady J, a transgender singer, songwriter, and pianist, recently came to the defense of RuPaul’s Drag Race in an op-ed in the The Huffington Post.
“When I first transitioned, I proudly identified as a ‘tranny,’ until people within the trans community told me the word was offensive to them,” J wrote. “I complied but quickly realized that while striving to be accepted by the hetero-dominated world, the upper echelons of the trans community were trying to sweep the fringe under the rug by censoring the language with which they identify.”
While acknowledging that such words are sometimes used against trans people, J argues that words like “tranny,” “she-male,” and “sissy” are often employed by gender-nonconforming artists, sex workers, and others generally pushed to the “fringe of our queer community.” J frames the use of such words as psychologically healthy and playful, in the same way that children use play to better understand the world around them. “Yes, we all have wounds,” J concludes. “But let’s stop projecting them onto our allies.”
Carrera, however, disagrees that problematic language should be given a pass when used by allies.
“I feel like it’s extremely dismissive when people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it,'” Carrera says. “It [makes me think] Oh, well, you’re a douche. Instead of trying to stay stuck in our ways with speaking and coming across ignorant, people should be concerned about how they come across and are perceived by each other, because we all have to coexist. I still have to live with these people, and these people have to live with me being here. We might as well just get along.”
The two women shared similar stories about their encounters with transphobic slurs in the gay and drag worlds, and Hillz recounted how these terms can foreshadow violence.
“I had an episode a couple weeks ago where I was attacked at a club,” explains Hillz. “In a gay club, performing, and I was attacked. Even in our own community, you don’t feel safe. I was called… a ‘crazy tranny,’ a ‘tranny mess,’ and other words were thrown at me. You don’t even feel safe sometimes in your own gay community. It’s just crazy.”
But both recognized that oftentimes the use of these words stems from a place of ignorance.
“Gay men [will say], ‘Oh, you’re a tranny now!'” continues Hillz. “And I’m like, ‘No, honey, I’m not a tranny. I’m a transgender woman.’ [A lot of drag performers will say], ‘Oh, girl, you’re a tranny. Oh, girl, you’re this.’ And to me, it’s like, oh my God, you’re performing, you should know your drag history… For you to be opening your mouth and calling somebody a tranny…’ I just hate that word.”
“I started in drag,” Carrera explains. “That’s how I learned about trans women… Backstage at this club I used to work at… the trans woman entertainer of the evening was always seen as the goddess in the show. Everybody backstage wanted to be that person, to be the favorite. Instead of… making sure their performance was the best in their genre of drag, they would crack jokes, like, ‘Oh, you wish you were a woman,’ or ‘Oh, tranny, whatever.’ It was kind of joking, but a little serious at the same time. [But] outside of that world, ‘tranny’ is a bully word.”
“Now, I know that backstage that word wasn’t being used to bully,” Carrera acknowledges. “Or maybe it was—it’s a little confusing. At the end of the day, it’s a bully word. It’s not a nice word. It’s not meant to give you power. It’s not meant to say, ‘Yes, you’re transgender and you rock, and I’m going to call you tranny for short, because transgender is too long for me.’ That’s absolutely not how the word started.”
Still, in Carrera’s opinion, none of it is coming from a place of hate.
“I don’t think [use of slurs] is necessarily meant to hurt us,” she says. “It’s ignorance.”
“It’s a lack of education and a lack of respect, and I think it has little bit to do with how some gay men have been treated over the years,” Carrera elaborates. “I feel like we’re the next in line in the fight for respect. And gay people have done it for so long—they’re standing on their own two feet, and making things happen. I feel like whatever negativity came from that fight, I feel like they’re throwing it at us sometimes.”
Recognizing that language evolves and that some people are frustrated with the seemingly shifting guidelines on what words are and aren’t appropriate to use when discussing trans people, Carrera offers a simple solution.
“All you have to use is he and she,” Carrera says. “If you don’t want to be worried about using the right word, then how about just use the right pronoun? Let’s bring it back to elementary-school grammar.”