In Defense of Drag’s Offense

Miz Cracker, offending for the gods. 

Photo by Davide Laffe.

Last week, organizers of Glasgow’s “Free Pride,” a more radical alternative to the city’s main Pride festival, sparked controversy when they announced that drag acts would be barred from performing at their annual August shindig. A post on Free Pride’s blog explained the decision:

It was felt that [drag performances] would make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable. It was felt by the group within the Trans/Non Binary Caucus that some drag performance, particularly cis drag, hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke, however transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke.

Critics upbraided Free Pride’s decree as a some-queers-are-more-equal-than-others policy. The Stranger’s Dan Savage wrote that their criteria for excluding drag acts “could be used to exclude a lot of individuals and groups from performing at—or even attending—queer pride events … until there’s no one left at pride.” And when Free Pride hastily adjusted their ban to allow trans-drag acts (i.e. trans individuals who sometimes perform in drag for work or fun), the Daily Beast published a critique including angry remarks from Facebook: “How are you going to moderate who is a trans and who is a cis drag act? Maybe they should wear identification. Such as a pink triangle … oh wait, that’s been done before.” Across the rainbow spectrum, queers decried the decision’s divisive implications for an already divided community—until Free Pride caved and lifted the ban.  

Looking at this fracas from my position as a working queen, it wasn’t the banning itself that bothered me most. The most troubling thing from my point of view was the suggestion that “good” drag shouldn’t be making a joke of (or cause discomfort around) gender and identity—that “good” drag shouldn’t offend.

This logic is a big problem, because drag’s central purpose is to do just that. At its best, drag uses irreverent, shocking humor to parody ideas of male and female, sexuality, race, and society. Drag is not just a game of dress up enjoyed by privileged, cis-gendered queers. It’s also a weapon for self-expression, dissent, and critique wielded by diverse performers including cis-queens, drag kings, female queens, trans people, and people of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and body types. When drag performers make jokes about or cause discomfort around social norms, they do so with purpose, and they are doing their art proud.   

And yet Free Pride is not alone in its doubts about drag. As the genre continues to gain mainstream attention, it has become the object of more frequent attacks, particularly in the past year. Last January, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary Cheney compared male drag performance to blackface. And when Facebook locked the accounts of queens who refused to publicly reveal their birth names last year, a question hung in the air: Are drag performers just clowns, to be easily deleted and delegitimized?

Meanwhile, on a personal level, my Outward articles on drag have been met with a fair amount of harsh criticism. Straight female friends have written to suggest that drag makes a mockery of women. And, discouragingly, LGBTQ readers have voiced concern that drag creates harmful confusion. Recently a transgender female reader sent in the following, heartbreaking question:

I’ve always found drag to be super offensive, but was never able to verbalize it until I saw your video on drag. Your drag queen claimed that the primary reason for drag is “to make straight men uncomfortable.” This is precisely what I don’t want to do, and the discomfort that drag queens cause often leads to discrimination against the transgender community, particularly those who aren’t so privileged in terms of passing. Given that drag queens substantially outnumber transgendered individuals, do drag queens consider this potential harm in sending the wrong message about gender to the population at large? 

Like Free Pride’s decision, this question centers on the idea that causing discomfort is damaging or undesirable. I’m mortified to think that my art could degrade a fellow LGBTQ person, so part of me wants to dissemble and explain that my comment was just a joke aimed at homophobes who take drag as a personal attack. But that would be dishonest. Instead, I’ll admit it: Spooking straight people—making them uncomfortable—is one of my favorite activities. Not because I’ve overlooked my potential to cause harm. But because I am focused on my potential to cause change.

The discomfort I cause as a drag queen is not intended to shore up the wall between LGBTQ people and the rest of the world, but to erode it. When I ride the subway in full makeup, I give a few dozen tourists their first genderfuck experience. When I buy groceries in a lace-front wig, my cashiers must relinquish their certainty that that kind of person doesn’t live in their neighborhood. When I startle a grade-schooler into asking his mother, “That’s not a real lady, right, Mom?” I’m starting a conversation that may not otherwise have happened. Drag has a unique capacity to make gender issues blatantly visible to those who might try to ignore them.

And when I perform for LGBTQ people, I have the same goal—to cause discomfort that blurs, rather than sharpens, the lines between the groups within our community. By sending the “wrong message about gender” or “making it into a joke” within queer spaces, I question the perceived divisions between my audience members, which include trans people, gay men, lesbians, cis-female bachelorettes, and nervous hetero boyfriends. I don’t ignore the diversity within an LGBTQ crowd; I embody it.

There are so many false assumptions between the lines of Free Pride’s now-rescinded decree. That drag is un-serious. That it’s possible to draw a clear line between cis- and trans-drag performers. That systematic exclusion can be used to create a more inclusive environment. But the most harmful idea is that drag—or any queer art form, for that matter—should be muzzled. If there are performers who use drag as a platform for creating enmity and hate, they should be condemned for doing violence to the art form. But condemning all drag performers for the sins of their peers is a ham-fisted mistake.

And in the wake of this fiasco, drag performers should learn how to advocate for themselves when accused of mocking others. Too often, I’ve heard defensive drag performers argue that drag is just harmless comedy, suggesting that women and trans people who don’t like it should just grow a thicker skin. This is the oft-condemned “you gotta take that up with your therapist, kiddo” defense adopted by RuPaul in 2012. But that defense misses the mark. Instead of downplaying drag’s power to stir outrage—insisting that drag is not that bad and that its detractors are overly sensitive—drag performers should acknowledge and embrace their art form’s gritty nature. Yes, drag hits viewers where they are most vulnerable and confused. Yes, it makes people uncomfortable. And that’s good.