The Importance of Representations of Trans Identity on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could untangle Rupaul’s Drag Race from my gender. I started watching the show while living alone for the first time, and it overlapped almost perfectly with my trans awakening. In one sense, this is natural. It’s hard to argue that Drag Race isn’t at the epicenter of gender deviance on television. It’s full of Assigned Male At Birth (AMAB) people subverting gender in glorious, glamorous, and (at times) sexy ways. Drag culture allowed me a way into transness. I didn’t have to admit to myself that I was a trans femme person; I could just be a femme gay man who liked Drag. That was an invaluable comfort to me and a vital piece of representation. 

However, Drag Race had always been contradictory for trans people. It effectively banned trans people for years, leading some contestants (such as season 4’s Jiggly Caliente) to delay their transitions. In addition, RuPaul himself seemed intent on alienating every possible trans fan — at one point tweeting out the flag for trains instead of the trans flag, leading people to suspect he didn’t know what the trans flag looked like — and making it very clear that he didn’t consider trans women to have a place on the show. 

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That was only four years ago. The current season of Drag Race, featuring (at least) five trans femme queens and several non-binary queens, shows how far the franchise has come.  And the show is talking about gender. Openly and without apology. Drag Race has gone from a (nominally) trans-exclusionary space to the trans-est place on mainstream television.

To say this is an important piece of representation feels like an understatement. Because what is happening on Drag Race — both this season and on several of the offshoots of the show, such as All-Stars 6, UK Season 2, and Canada Season 2 — is that gender, gender fluidity, and the nuances of identity are being talked about openly. Which, in terms of visibility, is revolutionary. Now, the general viewing public can see a whole swath of trans people who look, present, and identify differently. The typical (and cis-normative idea) of trans bodies is being broken down by the diversity of different trans people on Drag Race: a trans contestant on the Spanish version of the show went so far to say, on camera, “You don’t need hormones to be trans. You don’t need a therapist’s piece of paper that says you’re trans. You don’t need any of that.”

However, the trans-ification of Drag Race doesn’t stop there. What has become most notable about Drag Race is that it features trans people talking to one another rather than just educating cis people. Connecting via their shared experiences. And the current season had one of the best possible examples of that with the emotional coming out of contestant Jasmine Kennedie

Jasmine Kennedie featured during RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 14. (COURTESY: VH1)

While I was writing this essay, Texas governor Greg Abbott declared that, from now on, his state will consider gender-affirming healthcare to be child abuse, and Child Protective Services will investigate, separate, and prosecute any parents found to be allowing their children access to gender-affirming care. Trans children will now be taken away from their supportive parents, and those parents will be charged with a crime.

This development has made it difficult to finish this essay.

It feels…trivial? to discuss a reality television show in the current moment. It feels, I don’t know, disrespectful to the trans youth being forced to go through a puberty they shouldn’t experience and to the thousands of trans children who respond to being forced by taking their own lives. It feels wrong to talk about how far we’ve come in the context of a television show when each year breaks records for trans murders and murders that disproportionately impact Black trans women. 

My people are dying. My people are being killed. 

Jasmine Kennedie has not always been the most sympathetic character — a term used here to describe the way these three-dimensional human beings end up looking on television due in part to the contestant’s own behavior and the narrative choices of the editors — on this season of Drag Race. From her entrance line (the hilariously confident: “This is just the entrance look”), Jasmine established herself as perhaps a little overconfident, a little eager to please, more than a little young (she was 21 at the time of filming and seems it, girl).

Jasmine quickly got a difficult edit. She was presented as annoying, and over-talkative to the point that she had a whole episode-long storyline about how other queens — led by another of the trans queens, in what surely must have been the first all-trans fight on reality television that had nothing to do with love or gender — found her annoying. But throughout it all, Jasmine has been able to stay remarkably likable both on-screen and off. Rather than fight the criticism that she was over-talkative, Jasmine laughed, agreed, and learned from it. She also used the episode as an opportunity to discuss her ADHD diagnosis and the ways disability can manifest on her social media accounts.

Jasmine Kennedie in RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 14 (COURTESY: VH1)

Jasmine also got a reputation for being overly competitive — for example, in one episode, she cried when she was just safe — and had one of the most iconic moments of the season to date when she and Drag Race’s (current) first cishet male queen got into a screaming match about whether or not Jasmine was going to beat him. (She did and it wasn’t even close.) Until episode 7, Jasmine’s edit was that of a perky, slightly annoying 21-year-old with seemingly no significant baggage or trauma beyond a slightly strained relationship with their father.

That edit is a big part of what makes episode 7 feel so extraordinary. When Jasmine, in Untucked (Drag Race after-show, filmed concurrently) begins breaking down over her gender journey, it is the first time, we’ve been told that she’s even exploring gender or identity. Nothing in Jasmine’s storyline to this point had anything to do with either gender or even “self-doubt” (a common edit the show throws at trans contestants – see Season 4’s Jiggly Caliente.) This is important because it shows why Jasmine’s coming out hit so many people so strongly, myself included: here was a character we already knew revealing new detail about herself, rather than it is the essence of her character. Put another way, Jasmine Kennedie is a fierce drag queen and trans, but her gender journey doesn’t define her as either a performer or a contestant on the show. It felt like we were seeing a trans character in mainstream TV whose trans identity wasn’t their whole persona.

My laptop wallpaper for the past several months has been of an old ACT UP poster — repeated over and over again by the tile feature — declaring “With 42,000 Dead Art Is Not Enough to Take Collective Direct Action to End The AIDS Crisis”

“Art is not enough” stares me in the face as I type several thousand words about how great it is that reality TV shows that for years mocked trans people with slurs and insulting games in which contestants had to guess who was a “real” woman and who wasn’t finally consented to have us in their space.

I don’t know how to continue with this essay. I don’t know how to find the words. My people are dying. Trans children are being killed.  I can’t go on; I will go on.

Art is not enough. 

Jasmine came out holding the hand of Kerri Colby and leaning on Bosco, two other trans queens who talk openly about their gender journeys. It was a coming out to the identity group you are joining, not one you are leaving.   

Kerri Colby, Jasmine Kennedie, and Bosco in RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 14 (COURTESY: VH1)

As Drew Gregory puts it in her excellent essay for Autostraddle:

[Jasmine’s Coming Out] is far different than those other coming outs. This is far different than the tearful loneliness of being the only one, having to explain your identity to a roomful of people who may or may not understand, to a world that understands even less. The kind of representation provided by [past trans queens] shows people the possibility of transness. But moments like this show an even greater possibility — the possibility for community…  When baby trans girls watched Kylie [Sonique Love, the first contestant on Drag Race to come out as trans] come out, they knew they weren’t alone. When baby trans girls watch Jasmine come out, they know she is not alone. Within that small difference is a world of possibility. We deserve to be ourselves — we also deserve a shoulder to lean on and a hand to hold.

For me, the moment that hits hardest during Jasmine’s coming out wasn’t when she finally said the words “I am trans” (Jasmine now says this was the first time she ever said those words aloud), but just before that, when, after breaking down crying, she reached out for Kerri Colby’s hand. “I need hands,” she says, through tears. And her community is there to hold her and offer advice. 

There is a specific type of grief that you feel as a trans person. I was warned about it when I started taking hormones. There is grief for the self that you used to be; there is grief for the self you were never allowed to become; and there is grief for feeling alone. For me and many other trans people, being trans has been an extremely isolating experience. Having to constantly explain your gender and your pronouns, being asked intrusive questions about your personal and medical life, and putting up with the gendering that makes up so much of our society feels very lonely, much of the time. I often feel as if I’m on a trans island adrift in a cis sea. 

These feelings of isolation in face of oppression are a big part of why the suicide and depression rate is so high amongst trans people — specifically trans children. The counter — in addition to removing all laws and structures that oppress trans people — is that trans people need to find their own community. This is invaluable. And, of course, it’s nothing new. From the trannies who gathered at Stonewall and the Compton Cafeteria to trans support groups, trans people have been carving out a community (or, as RuPaul likes to put it, “choosing our own families”) for years. It’s just that our community is rarely shown on television. 

With Pose as a notable-if-problematic exception, most portrayals of trans people in “mainstream” art — defined, for the purpose of this piece, as art with a wide release or platform from an established media company — is of lone trans people. Tranny Tokenism, if you will. 

Ru Paul with various Drag Race contestants (COURTESY: VH1)

But Drag Race, at least for this one moment, showed us the trans community in all our glory. Before Jasmine’s coming out, Bosco talked about her experience as a nonbinary person and why she wanted to take hormones to “shift the lever.” This bluntness around hormone replacement therapy and the idea that hormones are things trans people use to control their gender, rather than hormones defining one’s gender, is unheard of in mainstream entertainment. It’s not seen on any other major reality TV show. But that’s what makes Drag Race special. (It’s also worth pointing out that Kerri Colby, who both Jasmine and Bosco credit with helping them get up the courage to transition, left in episode 8, after the producers pitted her against Jasmine and made Jasmine send her home.)

For all of their (many) flaws and failings, Drag Race continues to be one of the only places in media to highlight and celebrate AMAB people playing with their gender presentation. It celebrates gender deviance and makes it cool, punk, glamorous, and sexy. Regardless of its problems, Drag Race will always have a special place in my heart for those reasons.  

I’m angry. And I’m sad. 

I have too much grief to write. This essay is not enough. 

I can’t find the right words. Words will not be enough. 

Art is not enough.

Art is not enough.

Art is not enough.

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