About two holiday seasons ago, I went to the show of a middle-age drag queen who is beloved in New York City, iconic. This queen has one of the quickest wits I’ve ever encountered and often speaks up for queer causes, against gentrification—all sorts of progressive points I care about. But what I remember most about that show is that every other crude crack revolved around the vagina, pregnancy, or other intimacies of female biology. I sat there cringing, acutely aware of the undertow of misogyny beneath the camp.
I thought about that drag show yesterday, when I read that the actress Rose McGowan had said, in a podcast interview with the gay writer Bret Easton Ellis, that “gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so.” They’d fought “for the right to stand on top of a float wearing an orange speedo and take molly,” she added, in a hilarious bit of reductionism.
For context, McGowan was calling out gays for boycotting fancy hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei, who recently instituted a stone-the-gays law in his country. She was arguing that gays only protest Arab countries when antigay things happen, but never step up to protest the oppression of women in those nations. McGowan herself hosted an anti-boycott party at the Beverly Hills Hotel a few months ago, and her rant to Ellis, who set her up for it by pooh-poohing the boycott himself, may have been a bit defensive. (Was she paid for hosting that party?) Which would make it easy to dismiss what she’s said, if it didn’t strike a real nerve.
Now, let me be clear, as McGowan initially was not. I don’t think every gay man is a misogynist. Plenty are acutely aware of intersectional social-justice issues, and the growing awareness of trans issues has made boundaries even less clean-cut. (Last I checked, seems like transgender boldfaces Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are out there speaking up for plain old women’s rights as much as they are for LGBT ones.) But if you’re a gay man who’s been on the scene for any length of time, you’d either be lying or a dumb-ass to say that you don’t see and hear casual (and not-so-casual) misogyny flying through the air all the time.
Can we take the wildly popular show RuPaul’s Drag Race? Again, let me be clear. That show makes me laugh my head off, and even occasionally cry; one of my best friends, the wickedly brilliant John Polly, writes for it. Yet on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the highest compliment you can pay a drag queen, to tell her she’s “real” and authentic, is to call her a “fishy bitch.” Never mind the “bitch.” “Fish” has long been gay slang for a woman, because, in the historic gay-male imagination, a vagina smells like fish. Just as Noreen Malone pointed out that it’s “fun” to say “basic bitch”—well, it’s fun to say “fishy bitch,” right? It just sounds funny! Girl, you’re one fishy bitch! When I’ve told gay male friends I hate this term, feeling like a P.C. schoolmarm, they’ve told me to lighten up, that “it doesn’t mean anything.” This, to me, feels akin to various rappers who’ve said their repeated use of the word faggot “doesn’t mean anything.” They’re not talking about homosexuals; they’re talking about guys who are stupid or weak or … whatever. Sorry, gays and rappers—if you’re part of a certain group and hearing a certain word makes you feel like you just got slapped hard in the face with, well, a big, cold fish, then it means something.
Then there’s the incredibly complicated meanings of drag itself. I love drag. I think it can be one of the most vibrant, strange, hilarious, challenging, moving forms of performance I’ve ever seen, and I love how gay men (and some lesbians … and some straight women) have used it for decades to unleash themselves and express all manner of humor, rage, sorrow, and rebellion. But at the end of the day, drag is (usually) men dressing up as women in a way that often opens the door for ridicule, exaggeration, mockery, grotesquery. Two summers ago, I remember waiting for the boat to leave Fire Island, watching a drag queen named Busted, with ratty hair and taped-up heels, stumble around with a cigarette and drink in her hands. Busted was both hilarious and disturbing, because she was a spot-on facsimile of a homeless, cracked-out hooker. That describes a lot of drag. Gay men don’t get up onstage and send up the straight men who’ve harassed or ridiculed them. They get up there and they send up women. The bigger the hair, the more outrageous the makeup, the huger the tits and ass, the more references to the vagina, the funnier it is. Many times, I’ve sat back at a drag show and watched the gay men howl like they were at a football game while the handful of women in the house stood there with tight, awkward smiles on their faces, trying to be game.
I speak only for myself, but I suspect many gay men would agree when I say that gay men’s identification with women is not a campy, draggy putdown but a complicated, combustible reality. Many of us, either rejected by or unable to relate to the straight men in our lives, have taken our entire moral and emotional cues from women—our grandmothers, our mothers, our aunts or sisters or teachers or best friends. They gave us love, albeit often complex love, when men did not, and we have utterly absorbed their tics, their points of pride and delight, their hurts and bitternesses, their sayings and gestures, their often complicated relationships to other women. To a large extent, that’s where drag comes from.
But what it’s easy to forget, and what a childhood of being trampled on because I was gay has sometimes obscured for me, is that of course I am not a woman. I’m a man. Gay men are men. You may not know the fear we carry when we walk certain places, but we still walk in a man’s body. You only have to look at the danger a transgender person places themselves in when they go from presenting as a man to a woman to know how much more vulnerable you are walking through life as a woman. And as men, we carry male privilege. If we’re white and well-educated, we carry a lot of privilege. I’ve gotten by in this city for 25 years significantly thanks to a network of other (mostly) white, well-educated gay men.
But gay men have also long relied on women for both emotional and political support. Polls have shown again and again that, especially in the red states, women are the ones who are going to vote or protest for your marriage and other rights, who are going to join you in the streets when your safety is threatened. Say what you will about Will and Grace, but I strongly believe the friendship on that show set the model for a major shift in attitudes toward gays in American hetero culture. It can be annoying; as my friend Adam says, “I hate it when girls treat me like they want me to be Stanford Blatch to their Carrie Bradshaw”—but when these friendships are real, they’re important.
And acknowledging the full humanness of a friend often means thinking about things in life that you have that they don’t, on the systemic level. Gay men, you don’t make 77 cents to a man’s dollar. You don’t have to worry, based on the state where you live, about losing access to birth control or abortion. You (generally) don’t worry about your biological clock ticking, or have to make complicated choices about how to balance childbearing and work, as many women do. Before you go all drag-queen on Rose McGowan, as many of you already have with your online reads about her plastic surgery (which she had after a disfiguring car accident), sit for a moment with what she said. Can you really find no truth in it? You may have the best damn tuck in the drag competition, you fishy bitch, but you still fully don’t know what it feels like for a girl. And neither do I.