Na’amen Tilahun

Rupaul and What is Unspoken

I will be using she to refer to Rupaul and other drag queens here as that is their preferred pronouns while in Drag and the pronoun used most heavily by them within in the show.

 

Talking about Drag Race means talking about Rupaul. Numerous contestants have spoken about how tightly controlled the show is, how regimented every part of it is, how committed Rupaul is to keeping things on track. She is not merely the host of the show but the driving force behind it’s creation and enduring popularity.  

 

You are sitting in front of the huge black television. Legs crossed, arms limp, mouth and eyes wide open. You spend most of your time with television, too guarded for your family, too honest for friends you sit and search TV for some reflection of yourself. You see a large black drag queen in sequins and a blonde quaff that makes her even taller cracking jokes that go over your head, innuendo you won’t get until years and years later. She draws attention on purpose, commands people to pay attention and they have no choice but to do so. She is too honest like you, but she makes people laugh with it, and you feel a connection. You watch as she interviews the Mayflower Madam and suddenly there’s an odd bubble of emotion burning in your chest, a feeling of not being alone, of knowing you can do anything.

 

Years later watching a clip of this interview online it becomes clear that both Rupaul and The Mayflower Madam (Sydney Biddle Barrows) are performing gender, selling femininity to the audience. Sydney Biddle Barrows is recasting herself as a businesswoman, avoiding the taint of judgement our society likes to mark sex workers with but in this she is aided by our society’s leeway for attractive blond white women. Rupaul on the other hand isn’t just selling a female illusion, she’s selling the highly-popular blonde bombshell illusion with a large black man at the center of it. And people were buying it! The Mayflower Madam is obviously skilled but Rupaul is a fucking expert. I remember this realization while I watching the first season of Drag Race, what I like to call the vaseline filter season – where everyone looks slightly blurry and decades younger. I sat there and watched these girls sell their own idea of femininity but they weren’t the expert salesmen that RuPaul was and the cracks of sexism and racism begin to show through.  

 

At some point you realize that Rupaul is one of the most skilled manipulators of others opinions and prejudices, it’s one of the reasons she’s able to rise so high in mainstream entertainment. It’s one of the reasons you admire her so much, she shows that brown people, queer people, people like you can carve out a spot for themselves if they’re smart enough. And all this is years before gender variance is talked about openly or widely. As time goes on you also realize Rupaul is utterly unwilling to examine her opinions or prejudices in any detail. You first become aware of this when you learn about Shirley Q. Liquor, a drag queen who performs in blackface and talks about being on welfare and having nineteen kids. You read Rupaul defending Q. Liquor’s actions and you learn just because someone is a hero to you doesn’t mean you can trust them or they give a shit about you.

 

The contestants imitate women, love and worship famous women but in this, they turn women into something other than a human being. They are idols but also somewhat unreal because of that. They constantly use the word ‘fish’ – which so many women have had used as a derogatory slur from gay men specifically – and also cunt and bitch, terms that are regularly cast as insults against women. The drag racers use them as positives sure but they don’t really have the right. It’s almost like they are re-claiming these words, the problem is those aren’t their words to reclaim. To say nothing of the show’s relationship with race – the complete blindness to cultural appropriation, the lack of any discussion of racism within the community. Manila Luzon uses a horribly racist chinese accent and gets rewarded by winning the challenge. Sharon Needles continues to use blackface in her act, even after winning, even after QPOC in her hometown of Philly have talked with her about it. Carmen Carrera was vilified by contestants and winners alike for joining the call for the show to stop using the insults ‘SheMail” and ‘tranny’ because it personally hurt her as a former contestant and transwoman. Everyone ignores that detail, the pain. In many ways fans of the show and contestants act like tea-baggers, accuse those who complain of being too sensitive, of being too politically correct. They see only their own liberation as the goal not the rest of the community’s safety as well.

 

You continue to watch the show and notice the more personal insults, you watch jokes about size and color and teeth and intelligence get thrown around with vicious aplomb and you chuckle but also you wince because you know about those insults, you know about showing a brave face and pretending it doesn’t hurt.  At the same time the contestants grow closer, they form bonds and friendships despite of the insults. You wonder about being so damaged that an insult feels like love, you wonder if this is a mirror.

 

In the recent season the eventual winner, Bob the Drag Queen, was called ratchet repeatedly, to the point where it was included in her winning song. Bob the Drag Queen has talked about the use of the word, staying careful to say away from words like racism and prejudice but trying to educate others on the origin of the term and the ways it is used to talk about brown people specifically. She was obviously aware of why this was problematic but also clearly aware that Rupaul is in control here. You just have to look at Carmen Carrerra’s complete erasure from the Drag Race legacy and the way the other drag queens will either not talk about her at all or denigrate her for standing up to Ru about her discomfort around the use of transphobic words to see the potential consequences.

 

You watch the conversations around Drag Race swirl online and you see people engage over these topics, you see people change their opinions though never Rupaul or any of the others from the show. You wonder why you still watch the show but everytime you catch an episode you remember. You remember that this is still the only place on TV that you can see queer people interacting with each other, especially queer people of color. You get to connect with some version of yourself, some member of your community that isn’t a walking/talking stereotype like 99% of the times people like you appear in fictionalized media. You get glimpses into their lives, their struggles and even though it’s edited for television to be dramatic, the words and emotions are still real  

 

And there is some hope, maybe not for RuPaul but for the contestants. This last season featured an all QPOC final three which hasn’t happened since Season three and just as importantly two of the finalists – Kim Chi and Bob The Drag Queen had no problem discussing race although they kept it subtle and didn’t talk too much on it because after all it is Ru’s show and when you play in Rupaul’s world? You play by her rules, and her rules don’t want your politics to be progressive or anything other than Rupaul’s own.

 

There are cracks though and hints of more and those are enough to keep me going, until another show decides people like me are worthy of broadcast.


I Have a Dream…about Beyonce

Of all the dreams I have

the hardest to dispel are the waking ones,

a jumble of fantasy and hope

leaves me blinking false promises out of my eyes for hours,

For example:

Part 1 – The Meeting

You’re finally in New York, nervous about your first public

reading in this town, the audience a mass of white as far

as you can see, yours the only brown face – or a lone

raisin in a sea of milk as mother used to say, the poem

about how changing coasts changes nothing and racist,

homophobic fucks are everywhere, confused faces and

lukewarm applause greet your thunderous ending which

compares New York to Scarsdale; underneath the limp-

palmed response is a beat, resonating in your chest,

someone stomping their heels to the beat of the poem,

the bright sound ends with the rest of the “applause” but

you’re already pushing through the crowd of people

deliberately awkwardly not meeting your gaze so they

don’t have to comment, you don’t care, you only want to

find the beat that made your chest pound, the corner

where it emerged is an empty circle of space as if

whoever was there had too much presence, too much

spirit, the clustered hipster rejects too afraid to fill it, the

shape of your lone fan lingers in the perfumed air and

awkwardness of those remaining; in the center of the

circle is a lone strand of blond hair curling in on itself

and a tuft of black chinchilla fur, you put both holy artifacts

in your pocket and leave the bar feeling you won, the city

does not seem as sad with these totems against your skin,

at the next reading the same thing and at the next the same,

always the rhythmic stomp, always too late to find them,

always some clue left behind, the top of the bedroom

dresser has become an altar, an umbre of blonde hair

shades from bleach-the-fuck-out-of-your-scalp to JLO,

furs from chinchillas to foxes and minks to arctic wolves

are laid out in a delicious murdered animal patchwork.

Every night is a prayer offered

Part 2 – The Apartment

When Queen Bey mentions someone’s name it is a

canonization, a pop-media saint declared, forget

jesus she is the god of flawless…or photoshop

depending who you ask, when she tweeted your name,

when she posted the video, it elevated you, the calls from

friends who forgot you years ago and exes who broke

your heart, they all want to take you out to lunch, dinner,

brunch, sex, anything to access her through you, the only

call you return is Queen Bey herself, when meeting you
present her with a wiglet

made from the strands of hair

she left behind, she offers you an apartment and

patronage, leave it to Queen Bey to bring that shit back,

so now you’re set, a nice condo where you look down

on people, faucets that run cristal, hot and cold closeted

rappers at the door day and night, just wanting to

“collaborate” on getting their dick inside of you, no

need to worry about money or  shelter or drugs cause

any friend of Queen Bey gets it at no cost, all you have

to do is write, the lifestyle to which you want to become

accustomed is yours, when you perform the audience

is full of stars, sunglasses and nodding heads, none

of your friends show up anymore, cause they’re jealous,

it doesn’t matter anyway, Queen Bey has brought your

ass up to the east side and as mama always said it

doesn’t matter who you step on on your way to the

top as long as you don’t plan on coming back down

Part 3 – Shatter

You are on the phone with Bey-Bey every night,

she is your sister, friend and patron, and this

has caused a problem, one you could not have

foreseen, you can now only write about Bey-Bey,

in becoming everything that you know she

becomes all you can write, the matching gold

tones of her skin and hair, are the only way you

describe the sun, the rumbling purr of her voice

is thunder and music and voices, her constant

calm even when everyone else in an elevator

is losing their shit is a trait of every character,

every story is set in Houston, every main

character is a singer with a cheating daddy

and secret siblings.  you hide this for a little

while, rely on work you did earlier but you

can’t hide it  forever, the way getting to close to

the sun has burned your talent to ash

Part 4 – Gutter

You end up in the gutter, Beyonce won’t take

your calls anymore, mostly cause she’s changed

her number, your former friends won’t mostly
because you no longer have their numbers,

Beyonce has stopped talking about you so

those multitude of fans and hangers-on are gone,

you are alone and bursting with ideas, you write

everywhere on cement walls with the old nub of

a grease pencil, you suck dirty bum cock and

spit out the semen in your palm, scrawl around

his relaxed, loose body with it, you break open

old cans of paint and pound messages into the

sidewalk, across flags, the whole city of New

York is your piece of paper and paint, blood, shit

and filth is your ink, you write about fame and the city,

about scrounging for food and drugs, you write

your history on the bones of the city, not just the

last year but your entire journey, you hope it might

lead you back to before but this is the

real world and your art is no magic wand.

Part 5 – Redemption

You are known again,
for the crazy things you paint

around the city,

you avoid the spotlight,

avoid a name

or a gender

or a shape,
you are just you turned inside

out and it’s all you want to be

but every once in awhile

you catch the perfect flair of a blond weave,

or an artful turn of leg

and you know

she is watching and would

take you back,

you also realize that time

in your life is over,

so you turn away

 

This fantasy, this is what I want, the rise and the inevitable fall, the high-rise condo and the gutter, the power and blindness to my own fall.


 

Na’amen Gobert Tilahun writes stuff that has appeared in io9.com, Queers Dig Time Lords, Full of Crows, The Big Click, Eleven Eleven, faggot dinosaur, Shipwreck and more. Huis debut novel, The Root was released in June 2016 and was named an ALA Rainbow List Top Ten book for 2017. You can find him talking shit on twitter @Naamenism