The limited professional literature that examines lived experiences for drag queen entertainers has often under-emphasized the unique experiences had for transsexual women who work in the drag industry. Marginalizing these women’s experience by defining them as titty queens or using objectifying language such as tranny, the limiting discourse on the topic of transsexual drag entertainers does little to empower or liberate them. Based on an emergent finding from a case study that examined resiliency for transsexual Mexicanas, this conceptual article develops a construct of drag as an inclusive identity that offers both queen and transgender liberation.
Within both historical (Weinberg, 1972; Sears, 2001) and contemporary (Berkowitz & Belgrave, 2010; Berkowitz, Belgrave, & Halberstein, 2007; Friedman & Jones, 2011; Moreman & McIntosh, 2010; Rupp, Taylor, & Shapiro, 2010; Taylor & Rupp, 2004, 2005) social science research, a great deal of professional interest has been directed to drag queen phenomena. The research emphasis of drag queen identity has tended to examine males who choose to express an aspect of feminine gender blending, but who generally do not wish to permanently alter the sex features of their bodies or otherwise live as women. Drag queen, as a cultural and identity reference, has traditionally been used to describe experiences such as those of participants in Friedman and Jones‘s (2011) ethnographic study, in which “men dress in drag and perform live shows in a gay bar” (p. 84). Throughout the literature, emphasis has invariably been placed in the distinction that drag queens live and identify as men, not as women or transsexuals.
Whereas a transsexual woman participated in at least one ethnographic study of drag queen culture (Taylor & Rupp, 2004, 2005), little focus was given beyond the novelty of this transwoman’s breasts in representing an identity that led Taylor and Rupp to colloquially reference her within a classification of “titty queens,” (2004, p. 115) which they note is a term used by others associated with the drag community. The reference point of transsexual entertainers in Taylor and Rupp’s study was somewhat useful in delineating a distinction between male drag queens and transsexual entertainers; however, no additional contextualizing took place that examined the lived experiences for this woman in negotiating spaces between her female and drag identities. In fact, as the title for the 2004 article, Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to be a Drag Queen, suggested, the authors viewed their transsexual participant as one of the many “chicks with dicks,” (p.113) whom they studied.
This conceptual article was developed based on emergent results of the lead author’s multiple case study of resiliency in the lives of transsexual Mexican women in which two of the participants worked as drag entertainers (citation removed for blind review). For both of these entertainers, the term drag was used to explain their expression of gender that was used solely in queer spaces. Whereas they lived as women and preferred to pass as natal females in their daily lives, drag (voluminously curled and teased hairpieces, beaded and low-cut gowns and dance costumes, theatrical make-up) symbolized their occupation in queer space, and was seen as a place of freedom and acceptance from the scrutiny they received in their daily lives. Participants revealed compelling information about their lives both in and out of drag, and about the relationships with others in the drag world. The language they used in describing themselves, while not conclusive or necessarily generalizable to other transsexual entertainers, voices a unique experience that invites further develop within professional discourse.
The challenge in specifying discourse on the transsexual drag entertainer is that virtually no cohesive body of literature exists to help clarify her lived experience, or the resiliency needed for navigating the challenges of her identity. She stands in apparent contradiction to distinctions that male drag queens have made that they live as men and wish to be understood as such (Friedman & Jones, 2011), and to distinctions that many transgender women have made that they are not drag queens and resent conflation of female identity with gender performance (Patton, 2009). In a review of literature, no studies were found that sought to responsibly identify and clarify language used by transsexual entertainers that they, and not an outside entity, had appropriated for themselves.
In the instances of being identified as both “titty queens” and “chicks with dicks” (Taylor & Rupp, 2004, 2005), some of the risks in not critically examining terminology placed on members of a culturally specific group become apparent. In both of these, a potentially pejorative or demeaning word for one’s anatomy was incorporated. Clearly the authors made attempt to delineate differences in a way that made sense to them, based on the information they had; however, in doing so, they may have functionally recreated a system of hierarchical sex and gender within the queer space that these participants occupied.
While Taylor and Rupp’s (2004/2005) research was not intended to denigrate participants’ gender or sex characteristics, the impact of word choice on readers’ perceptions must be considered; moreover, word choice, and the definition of discourse that this creates, may have far-reaching implications. French philosopher Michele Foucault described discourse in terms of creating meaning and defining how we think about any given subject based on the language we choose (Foucault, 1972). Consider the following example for further elucidation. Every year a number of people travel to the United States from other countries for the purpose of obtaining work, whether this be for a short term period or for the rest of their lives. Notice the difference made by an argument that includes the term undocumented worker versus illegal alien. In the former, a person’s humanity is maintained; in the latter, she or he is reduced to something less than human. In instances in which those in power consider themselves to be more worthy, or the targeted person becomes dehumanized, it becomes easier to exert power with less restriction (Zimbardo, 2011). When one considers this example in the context of Taylor and Rupp’s (2004, 2005) description of “titty queens” and “chicks with dicks,” a hierarchical use of language and its impact on the reader’s perception (whether this be on a conscious level or not) of the person or culture in question, could be thought of as potentially dangerous. Part of the risk of using this language is impacting even the way that reader’s conceptions of these individuals are shaped; in other words, all thought related to the targeted persons then becomes bound by limitations created by language. The lasting effect of this on the reader’s long-term beliefs about these performers is unknown.
Queer theory, as an explanation of gender and sexual identities as non-dichotomous and non-mutually exclusive (Burdge, 2007; Plummer, 2005) often remains an abstraction rather than a practice. Whereas we recognize gender as a fluid experience that can hold any range of representations that are ultimately self-defining, we lack words to contextualize the seeming incongruity of a transsexual woman in a drag community. Our focus is often on how to most appropriately represent others, in this case transsexual drag queens, in such a way that knowledge is constructed with as few externally placed strictures as possible. This question is further complicated by differences even at the individual and performer’s level. Even the language of self-description in use by performers is constructed within the framework of a society that holds negative connotations about gender performance (Berkowitz & Belgrave, 2010). Given that, it may come as no surprise that even self-descriptions may automatically, yet unintentionally, hold these connotations to be valid. If a drag performer were to name herself as a “titty queen,” our natural inclination would be to fully support the employment of this language when talking about someone from this group. This certainly makes sense for the authors as mental health professionals within the context of a counseling session for example, given the dictum to follow a client’s lead. Such professionals may find themselves in dilemmas when the language used seems to draw from a hierarchical system of which the transgender client is much less the architect than the resident.
Further sociopolitical analysis is necessary with consideration given to the stewardship of information dissemination, in this case through research. Our words have the power to influence how others think about transsexual drag queens. Power, for Foucault (1980), and ultimately queer theory, is not so much about legal possession of rights and punishment of what is not in society’s best interest. Rather, power is knowledge; power is discourse. Power is what is created by what we know or believe and how we are shaped to even consider. The control of knowledge is the governing of power and oppression. When we consider power-knowledge, as these are inseparable, and how this is deployed, it becomes increasingly clear that our roles as creators, keepers, and disseminators of knowledge are sacred.
In constructing our understanding of power-knowledge used within drag entertainment, it is necessary to consider the hierarchy that exists within that system. Is the transsexual woman seen as an interloper in a system in which all of the performers identify as drag queen, and male? Is her body feminization seen as cheating within a community of illusionist, or an effort to outdo the others in a unique brand of performative feminization? Do the changes in her body and her identity as female/feminine (to whatever degree this is a consistent aspect of lived experience) differentiate her in the eyes of other performers who are gay men? How does she name herself, not just in a laterally-marginalized power hierarchy in relation to those who demean her, but as a self-empowered and efficacious entity unto herself?
The culmination of rules of what is appropriate and acceptable within the culture of drag performance is perhaps no more readily apparent than in who is explicitly permitted to, or precluded from, participating. Two drag pageant systems in the United States, Miss Gay America (2011) and Miss Gay USofA (2011) specify the degree to which contestants may or may not use hormones or feminize their bodies. According to the stated rules for Miss Gay America, which specify that participants must be male, “The use of any type hormone is not allowed. Absolutely no breast implants, cosmetic or body enhancing implants below the neck or silicone (or any other similar type product/chemical) injections, excluding the face, will be allowed before or during the contestant’s reign Miss Gay America, 2011, Item 14). The rules for the Miss Gay USofA pageant system, like those of Miss Gay America, state that participants must be male, but also specify, “The Official Miss Gay USofA Classic and Miss Gay USofA Pageants do not discriminate against entertainers with silicone and/or hormones. The use of silicone and/or hormones will not be considered [bolded and italicized at the website] by any judge in the scoring of contestants.” Miss Gay USofA, 2011, Item 9).
As at least 45 years’ professional discourse on transsexual related issues has taught, (American Counseling Association, 2009; American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Benjamin, 1999; Carroll, Gilroy, & Ryan, 2002; World Professional Association of Transgender Health, 2011) that although not all identify as female, transsexual women specifically do not identify as men. Regardless of how she might wish to identify or be acknowledged, the juxtaposition of her work as an entertainer, along with her feminized body the transsexual drag entertainer presents, has seemed to present a conundrum. Fry (2012) noted that queer theory holds that gender, indeed all identity characteristics, are necessarily performative in nature. Furthermore, he explored how Butler noted that gender is played out and practiced, revised according to needs that may apply to one’s internal experience of sexual drive, societal expectations, pleasures, and other factors. When we consider drag performance as an extension of gender performance, the potentially liberating effects of being able to try on new behaviors, perhaps even an entirely constructed persona, become apparent.
Emerging Results from the Study
In conducting the case study (Reicherzer & Spillman, 2012), the lead author worked with two participants who routinely performed as drag entertainers- “Amanda,” who did so recreationally, and “Diana,” who performed vocationally. Significantly, both of these women named their drag identities as distinct gender expressions that allowed themselves to experience and claim aspects of identity that were outside of the more traditional female gender roles in which they lived as passing transsexual women. Expounding on two major themes that emerged from the case study, “Improvisational Talent”( Reicherzer & Spillman, p.25) and” Integrating Womanhood with a Transsexual Identity” (Reicherzer & Spillman, p.26), we will demonstrate the function that drag played in these women’s lives. From here, we will develop an argument for an expanded view of drag as it reflects a location in which both gay men and transsexual women may choose to represent both performative and liberatory aspects of identity.
Amanda, a 38 year-old Mexican-American transsexual woman, had lived as a partnered gay male for three years before being introduced to drag through a gay male drag queen who would later become Amanda’s first “drag mother.” In beginning casual work in drag shows, Amanda noted that she was complimented on her beauty and appreciated for her grace in ways that she had never previously experienced. She had begun to identify drag as “something I’ve been missing all my life,” and continued to do shows over several years. Through the help of a transsexual drag mentor, Amanda began to identify that she felt more natural in drag: “when I was dressed up and doing the shows and being out there and people talking to me as [Amanda]…as my female persona…I was a lot happier….” Through these insights, she began exploring her identity more deeply, eventually beginning estrogen therapy and transitioning to living her life as a woman. At the time of the study, Amanda’s drag persona continued to present an opportunity for release from daily lived financial struggles and other middle class stressors, as well as provided greater gender freedom than her conservative day job or the society in which she lived allowed:
[Amanda] on stage just doesn’t care…she likes wearing skimpy outfits…you know, she wants that sexiness to come out…and she’s not worried about being classy on-stage cause that’s all it is…it’s just a performance. What you see on-stage isn’t what you’re gonna get everyday.
Amanda did not perform vocationally, and had won a crown for a regional pageant. This was, however, an area of contention for one of the competing queens who challenged why a “tranny” should be competing in the pageant, stating that, “this is a pageant in a gay bar for gay men!” to the pageant owners. Nonetheless, Amanda competed and won the title, although she expressed a continuing sense of unease when she visited the other contestants’ home bar.
Amanda’s identity development as a woman was also a cause for concern by her drag mother, “Cassandra,” who lived as a gay male in his life outside of drag. As Cassandra explained, “we’d done drag together for years- and I’d brought her into it. When she started talking about transitioning, it really worried me. I asked ‘are you sure?’ It just didn’t make sense to me because I love drag, but I don’t want to live in it. It just seemed like she was making life harder for herself.” As Amanda developed further in her transgender identity, Cassandra reported, “I see now how happy she is- it’s who she’s supposed to be. I just wish she wasn’t always naked on stage” (laughing).
The case of Diana, a 38 year-old transsexual drag entertainer whose professional accolades included many crowns and titles, illustrates drag’s function as a place of connecting with different aspects of identity and in validating a sense of gender freedom. Diana discovered drag at the age of 18 when she entered into a contest at a local bar. As she described, drag “rescued” her in creating a space where she felt accepted and appreciated in contrast to her repressive high school experience. She began taking estrogen early in her drag career, and as she explained, “That is when I started accepting myself.” She successfully navigated the drag circuit, moving on to win state and regional beauty pageants. At the time of the study, she had lived as a woman for 20 years. In her present life, she experienced societal scrutiny as a plus-sized Mexican woman in a predominantly White and patriarchal central Texas city. She found the drag bar a location where she was able to be appreciated differently: “I try to teach to people in shows, whether I’m helping or I’m talking about it, is that I’m not ashamed of my size, I’m not ashamed of my race, I’m not ashamed of my age.”
In our work together, Diana was observably different in and out of drag. As a woman in daily life out of drag, Diana was warm, open, and approachable; and, during interviews, vulnerable and genuine in expressing herself. In drag, she demonstrated through her “bold character illusion,” a persona possessing both strength and leadership. Her drag persona, Diana Devor (alias for the participant’s stage-name) extolled patrons at her shows to participate in a local AIDS walk or bring toys to the bar for her toy drive. Diana recognized that, whereas in her past, her drag persona had functioned as a shield, in her present life at the time of the study, “I’ve just determined and realized that I am the one who gives the character the strength.” The character, in turn, allowed Diana an opportunity to represent her gender more freely and in a less conditional matrix than the one of her daily living in which her gender and race were sources of discrimination.
Importantly, in the region where Diana and Amanda entertained, many of the performers were transsexual. For Diana, space shared with other transsexual entertainers or drag queens was seen as “a sisterhood: I don’t care if you live as a woman, a man, if your bald, or big, or whatever. We’re all sisters.” Diana had been living as a woman and performing in drag for several years, and, perhaps because of her status as a local headliner, did not encounter what she identified as resistance from other drag performers.
Both Amanda and Diana identified that people were frequently confused by them as transsexual entertainers, and both stated that they’d been asked, “Are you a man or a woman? What are you?” Diana’s response, “a human being,” demonstrated her agency and power-knowledge of herself. Continuing on, she explained, “I’m just doing my own thing and being creative. I live my life as I want to, but I love dressing up and doing make-up. Drag helps me live out of a part of myself. It’s not really about being a man or woman anymore in drag- it’s like a fantasy gender. Anyone can be whatever they want to be in drag.
Examining these participant’s experiences, we (both the participants and authors) concluded that each of these women’s identities was intersected and bifurcated by drag as a performative space in which unique aspects of her being were played out and more fully articulated. Rather than existing as an exclusive space in which men play out an aspect of gender blending, the drag identity was found to be a larger and more inclusive sociopolitical and cultural location for gender queerness in which many aspects of a transsexual woman’s identity could be articulated. The drag personae allowed resistance from the cultural strictures about who each needed to be as a woman.
For Diana, the drag community (including patrons, bar and support staff, etc.) was a place for her to discover a liberating aspect from within herself—this was both drag and gender, as for her the two mutually informed each other, but did not define each other. In a way, the liberator was the power-knowledge that she gained from an experience in which she felt that she could try on new behaviors and aspects of character. The bar and drag community served as a source of power-knowledge dissemination. In turn, the cycle of power-knowledge further developed when she spread this knowledge through her actions as a performer, a philanthropist, and a mentor. Diana exhibited her awareness of this impact when she stated, “I try to teach to people in shows….”
Language is imprecise—a blunt instrument for conveying one’s thought. Ultimately, though, the thought sharing process is one of disseminating power-knowledge. As advocates for marginalized communities and conduits for social change (Competencies for Counseling with Trangender Clients, 2009, H.11) it is our responsibility to act in ways that promote the well-being of these individuals; in part, we may do this by dispelling societally-held negative stereotypes or viewpoints through the dissemination of knowledge. This ethical standard should hold true for those across disciplines. For the authors, all of this comes in the context of the application of multicultural competencies in counseling and research, which dictate that the client is an expert in her or his experience, and should have the freedom to name her or his own experience (Arredondo, Toporek, Brown, Jones, Locke, Sanchez, & Stadler, 1996). The challenge, though, is in our acts as conveyers of people’s stories, we may be creating or perpetuating unintentional woe. Due consideration of the impact of our power-knowledge on shaping academics’ and clinicians’ implicit and language-bound perceptions of individuals from these communities is imperative. An additional ethical concern presented by the aforementioned challenges is what should be done when limiting discourse is identified within a marginalized community. Certainly, when oppressive external forces are present in a counseling client’s life, a counselor has a responsibility to help the client first name and clarify the problem (Arredondo, et al, 1996). If a client is acting as a pawn in her or his own oppression, how is the subject best approached? Does the same standard apply to researchers?
As drag performance seems to be of great psychological import, based on the statements from the transsexual and drag performers, research should be conducted to further explore how drag performance functions as a resource. Additional consideration should be given to the impact of drag performance attendance as a mutually-empowering experience for patrons and venue staff, as well.
For Social Service and Mental Health Practitioners
Drag performance, the bars and venues in which these performances take place, and the people that populate them serve as a community of resistance, commonly understood to be a group of people with shared values or culture who support each other in opposition to oppressive forces. Given participant statements describing their experiences related to drag performance and the community built around it such as, feeling “rescued” and “I was a lot happier…. [I want] that sexiness to come out…. [I am] not worried about being classy on-stage cause that’s all it is…it’s just a performance,” a more appropriate term might be what we term as a space of gender liberation. A unifying theme of the participants in this research was a shared sense of liberation that they would not have otherwise experienced.
Mental health and social service professionals run the risk of not employing drag performance as an allied resource of client empowerment. Fear of promoting potentially detrimental influences, like alcohol consumption, in a client’s life could keep a counselor from fully exploring how this community might serve as a liberating force for an at-risk client, namely those who are transgender, transsexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay, or otherwise queer-identified. Not only are the performers liberated in the process of drag performance, the audience may find it mutually-empowering as well. To participate in a shared space in which others are free to express themselves and try on new behaviors or discover parts of themselves in an environment of supported freedom from many of the constraints experienced in daily life can be extremely powerful.
The support of a community of gender liberation can serve as a resource for the client; it can, in this way, be seen as supportive of a professional’s work. At times, though, there may be cause for a client to disengage from this community. In instances of newly-attained sobriety, temptations may prove too great to continue to perform or attend (drag performance tends to take place in venues in which alcohol is consumed). Mental health and social service professionals should prepare to support this transition with the awareness that the loss of this resource may, in turn, be an additional stressor. For some who are particularly isolated in their experiences, this may prove to be yet another risk to their sobriety as well. Vigilance, processing, and identification of healthier outlets are essential components of an action plan to respond to this potentiality.
Finally, clinicians should acknowledge the power of language to shape not only their views on clients, but even how the client has come to know her or his place in the world. There may be times when one has placed unnecessary, unintentional strictures on who she or he could become. This may manifest, at worst, as internalized and/or externalizing transphobia, homophobia, and the like. One way of responding to these limitations is to examine the role of self-definition and how the client has come to see herself or himself within the context of socially oppressive forces, and that these forces may be invisible and insidious in how we talk about one another.
Those who work with queer populations should advocate for spaces of genderliberation. In this, we support persons who are without voice or whose voices contain the language that has been dictated by the dominant culture, whatever dominance might mean in any given context. Our responsibility in this is multimodal. We must be aware of oppressive and marginalizing forces that constrain both our thinking and the thinking of those from oppressed groups. We employ this awareness in the identification of these elements within the lives of those whom we serve. We can then work with queer persons to help co-construct language that is liberating.
The experiences of transsexual drag entertainers represent the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization. As such, it is our duty as servers of this community, indeed all marginalized communities, to give voice. As more transsexual women, both in and out of the drag community, as well as drag kings, transsexual men, gender queer persons, and others in the queer community give voice to their experiences, we look to ourselves and others as agents of power-knowledge.
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