On Passing: Can a Drag Queen Truly Understand the Trans Experience?

Do trans women like Laverne Cox share any common ground with drag performers?

Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Last month, the Transportation Security Administration drew the ire of the LGBTQ community for its treatment of Shadi Petosky, a transgender woman who says she was harassed for 40 minutes by an Orlando airport security team due to an “anomaly” in her groin area. The encounter made Petosky miss her flight, and though she was rebooked at no charge, little was done to address her emotional distress. According to the TSA’s compliance standards, “guidelines were met”; the organization has since agreed to stop referring to trans bodies as anomalous, but any further justice for Petosky will have to wait for the completion of pending civil rights cases.  

When I first read this story, I did what any dedicated queer activist would do—posted it on Facebook with a snide us-versus-them comment about straight folks’ ongoing mistreatment of LGBTQ people. And as a full-time drag queen, I felt particularly justified in my anger. I know a little something about the danger and anxiety that can come when you trouble society’s gender expectations, when your gender identity or expression registers as “anomalous” in our culture’s sorely limited imagination.  

But does my work as a drag queen really give me insight into the experiences of trans women? In the eyes of many trans activists, the answer is absolutely not. A cursory glance at the reader comments on my articles that touch on gender identity reveals dozens of trans readers concerned that I’m not qualified to talk about these topics. And the issue of passing is at the center of their frustration.

For the Oxford English Dictionary, to “pass” is to be held or accepted as a member of a group other than one’s own—as in a drag queen passing for female, or a trans woman avoiding the erroneous perception of being somehow “less real” than a cisgender woman. Of course, that definition obscures the practical aspects of what’s at stake: A person seeking to pass wants not merely to be understood in a certain way, but also to access a level of respect and protection that they would otherwise be denied.

Whether you’re a drag queen or a trans person, successfully passing as a cisgender female is the key to an easier, safer daily life, free of unwanted attention. (Of course, there are many people in the non-binary trans and drag communities who do not wish to be perceived as female, and they challenge us to stop appraising individuals by narrow definitions of gender presentation in the first place.) But for those trans women who embrace a female self-presentation, passing can mean avoiding the kind of prurient harassment that Petosky and many before her have endured. For me—stepping out in a Shake-N-Go wig yesterday—passing would have meant walking from my stoop to the nearest subway station without being followed and threatened. Though I may not aim to pass in clubs or intimate settings, I do struggle to attain a certain look that will let me escape notice on the street.

So, insofar as I know what it’s like to worry about whether other people “can tell” or not, I can identify with Petosky’s experience and stand in solidarity with her. I know what it’s like to live in a society where people are persecuted for failing to look a certain way, or to adhere to certain norms—that’s why I look at the issue of passing as a shared experience that can strengthen the empathetic bonds between drag practitioners and trans people.

But there’s a problem: When I leave the house, I’m trying to pass as a female character for a few hours. When Petosky leaves the house, she’s just trying to be herself, regardless of the judgments of others. I can avoid my troubles by switching careers. She cannot. So instead of providing a sense of common ground between trans and drag communities, the issue of passing has become another point of bitter dispute. When drag queens like myself attempt to identify with stories like Petosky’s, we are met with a collective rolling of eyes from trans activists, who wish queens would “get down off their crosses,” as self-described gender terrorist Dakota Bracciale once put it to me. There’s a sense that drag queens don’t truly understand the challenges of living in a culture obsessed with gender surveillance—or that they make those challenges worse.  

In my July article on the offensive nature of drag, I discussed a reader’s concern that drag queens encourage “discrimination against the transgender community, particularly those who aren’t so privileged in terms of passing.” The idea here is this: By dressing as women for entertainment purposes and inviting whatever attention they can get while out and about, drag queens make it hard for trans women to travel without being hassled. Plus, drag queens may further harmfully confuse the two identities in the minds of the less-educated. While I’m hesitant to take responsibility for fueling discrimination against trans people every time I go out in drag, I can’t deny that I see the reader’s point.  

Recently, I found myself in conversation with a trans woman on a long train ride through the Bronx. I loved trading stories about surviving uptown on the wrong side of normal, but when we parted ways in Harlem, I caught a look of mingled irritation and relief in her eyes. Sure, she had enjoyed the commiserating—but how could she take my feelings seriously? While we were chatting, I was dressed in my boy clothes. For me, harassment is strictly a nocturnal hazard. Stepping off the train, my companion was probably glad to take her leave of yet another queen who fancied herself a sister.

That said, I won’t deny the gender policing that drag queens experience. Those of us who can’t or won’t pass are regularly targets of probing stares, cat calls, threats, and even violence like the 2013 attack on drag performer Heidi Glüm in a D.C. pizza shop. We’re questioned at bars, restaurants—wherever other people can depend on good customer service, we know we’re taking a gamble. A bouncer or waitress frowns when we hand over our state-issued I.D., asking if we’re sure it’s really ours. Cab drivers give us trouble: “Just got sirred twice in full drag by my Uber guy,” drag starlet Aquaria recently posted. “She better watch her rating!!” From experience, I can guess that Aquaria wasn’t reacting solely to the driver’s use of male pronouns. Drivers who use the word “sir” often darken the word with malice, and sometimes speed dangerously to ensure that they’re rid of their unwanted fare as quickly as possible.

So I want to return to the idea of common ground. Yes, drag queens need to be careful when claiming to suffer the same indignities as trans people. The problems we face simply do not measure up, and any claim to the contrary is irresponsible. However, it’s equally irresponsible to pretend that drag queens don’t have a window into the hostile surveillance trans folks deal with constantly, however limited that view may be. There are boundaries between our worlds, but there are also bridges that make us ideal allies.

Last week, one experience in particular reminded me of the supportive relationship trans people and drag queens have the potential to create. After a late show, someone approached me with questions about the dangers of traveling in drag. They had begun a transitioning process, they shared, but the effects had not yet become apparent—and they wanted to know how people on the street react to someone they don’t understand. “Aren’t you nervous leaving the house like that?” they asked. “Is it worth it?” I felt suddenly grateful for the conversation. We may not have been sisters, per se, and we didn’t have to pretend to be. But for a moment we could share how much our worlds really did overlap.