RuPaul’s Drag Race and its iconic host have caught a fair share of shade over some questionable language choices: most notably, each show’s “You’ve got she-mail!” announcement and “Tranny Chaser,” the track from Champion, Ru’s 2009 album. A couple weeks ago, RPDR contestants were asked to guess the identities of mystery celebs as either “female or shemale.” Shown images of body parts, they were prompted to, as Ru put it, decide if said person was “a biological woman or a psychological woman.”
I was pissed. “Tranny” and “shemale” are terms that our trans sisters and brothers have mostly rejected as slurs. Yet, in a kitchen on Ellsworth Street full of white homosexual men, I found myself more and more weirded out that the others weren’t even lightly offended. They waved it off: “Drag is politically incorrect.” But what that sounded like to me was a refusal to accept trans concerns as our own. That upset me. Just because a 53-year-old living legend of drag lets his show’s writers and record producers get away with using what’re widely considered offensive words in our community doesn’t mean we should just giggle and turn our heads.
My protestations found a home with Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox, recently at the University of Pennsylvania to deliver the keynote address as part of QPenn, a campus-wide celebration of Penn’s queer community. I asked her, essentially, how do we combat that bullshit? It’s kind of like the eternal question: How do we stand up to inappropriate uses of language by our friends, co-workers and bosses?
“We’ve come to understand now that the t-word is offensive, so we choose not to say it,” Cox said. Even more so, she noted, the term “shemale” has been long anchored to sex work and porn. “It is not appropriate to refer to a woman who is not in the sex industry [as a shemale], and it’s important for me to be respectful. Some folks equate drag with being trans. There needs to be more critical consciousness.” Basically, she concurred that the objection was worthy of my continued boycott of RPDR, suggesting that viewers need to decide “whether or not they want to patronize a show that uses that language.”
Cox’s Penn keynote was incredibly uplifting and rousing—and it was obvious she’d done her homework. She cited influential thinkers, writers and activists of the past: Sojourner Truth (“Ain’t I a woman?”), Dr. Cornel West (“Justice is what love looks like in public”), bell hooks, Judith Butler (“Good ol’ Judy B”) and Simone de Beauvoir (“One is not born a woman but becomes one”). She talked about “spooking” and “clocking.” And she shared stories outlining the more than a handful of times when strangers have screamed “That’s a man!” at her in public or even kicked her—and gotten away with it.
Cox once caught a fellow subway train passenger in New York staring at her, so she said something to the effect of “What are you looking at?” “I think you should die,” the woman replied calmly, with conviction. Carefully recalling the incident—and with unexpected compassion for her harasser—Cox managed to turn a painful moment into a core belief she illustrated beautifully: “Hurt people hurt people.”
Remaining optimistic and downright positive is a miraculous choice this lady’s made, one that goes back to how an 8-year-old Cox, living in Mobile, Ala., was criticized for her non-male behaviors and called a faggot by kids who probably didn’t even know why they were using the “f-word.”
“They said I acted like a girl, which means all kinds of things, because women act all kinds of ways,” she said. “Where do 3- to 5-year-olds learn these words? If we are really serious about ending bullying our children, we have to create spaces of gender self-determination.”
Cox explained, through telling her tale, the manner in which gender policing and ethnic slurs have made her evolution to the woman she’s become particularly challenging. Still, she has abiding faith—in not only some kind of God, but in the goodness innate in the human spirit—that complex women like herself aren’t destined for lives of despair and abuse. That faith was underscored in the night’s attendance—a sold-out house of at least 400—and Q&A session, in which Cox’s inspiring narrative was met with either a simple thank-you or a carefully thought-out question about her life.
What might be unknown to many of those at QPenn is that trans Americans are 41 percent more likely to attempt suicide, as opposed to the 1 percent of the general public, and that, as Cox put it, it’s possible the majority of queer anxiety and transphobia has to do primarily with gender fears—of men who have feminine characteristics or women who have masculine tendencies.
The evening’s special guest was able to articulate their struggle quite clearly before she departed for the night. “Pronouns matter,” Cox said. “I challenge each and every one of you tonight to have those difficult conversations. But to have them with love and empathy.”