I saw Paris is Burning for the first time last weekend at a queer “film experience” screening/drag party event cut from the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival because of complaints from homophobes etc. We still had the event though, just not under the auspices of the festival!
The film was a revelation, and made so much of drag make so much more sense. I have always been kinda confused by drag, and it really helped to learn about its roots in poor queer Black and Latino communities and what things mean beyond what I know filtered and diluted through current pop culture. The film and its screening in Singapore was a fierce, defiant celebration of queerness in the face of discrimination, poverty, ignorance, and in our case censorship.
I came away thinking about how unfortunate it is that a lot trans people are so alienated from drag these days when so many of the pioneers were trans, and many didn’t even that clearly differentiate themselves as gay men/drag queens/transvestites/transsexuals. There is still so much we can learn from our elders and from their traditions. But it seems that mainstream drag has now lost touch with most of its radical roots and become a thing mainly enjoyed by problematic and very cis people who think they are radical just because they watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. These people (including RuPaul himself) do not know the first thing about current trans issues and constantly complain about trans people being “uptight” about our identities when their problems are pointed out.
There is no good way for trans people to either participate or not participate in camp and outrageous gender pageantry. Trans people are endlessly stereotyped as being overly uptight and militant about our genders, because social change is never comfortable for the already-privileged. But we are simultaneously also policed if our genders are not serious and respectable (ie familiar and nonthreatening) enough. Trans people are only “real” and deserving of respect if they do not genderfuck, and are Just Like You, which is why many trans people have had to explain that they are not drag queens, and that drag has nothing to do with their identity.
In Notes on Caitlyn, or Genre Trouble: On the Continued Usefulness of Camp as Queer Method, Marissa Brostoff calls this a “politics of trans sincerity, in which the gender-nonconforming subject is celebrated as transgressive to the extent that her nonconformity can be read as serious—that is, to the extent that she rejects camp”.
Judith Butler brought camp to the forefront of queer methodological inquiry in a founding moment of queer theory, the publication of Gender Trouble in 1990. Butler elaborated the notion that camp uses parody and irony to create odd marriages between terms conventionally seen as opposed—high/low, masculine/feminine, real/fake, surface/depth—in order to subvert the social norms that govern identity. In particular, she famously argued, camp’s affiliation with drag performance empowers it to destabilize the naturalness of gender in the eye of the beholder. “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency,” Butler wrote. “[G]ender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin”. In her account, then, camp is a mode of queer political critique.
While camp is not inherently political and can be used to reinforce the status quo, it can also be a “strategy of survival in a hostile world” and “queer political critique”. As Kate Bornstein, pioneer gender outlaw, puts it, “we are freaks to a lot of the world” and the trick is to “own it”. Owning it does not have to but can mean participating in campy drag and gender performance. The distancing of trans and other gender-transgressive people from drag is a loss of power, and an appropriation by cis people.
Sidebar: In the middle of writing this post, the latest Dumb Thing That RuPaul Said hit my timeline: “RuPaul Would ‘Probably Not’ Let a Transitioning Queen on Drag Race“. In reference to trans women and bio queens: “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it”. Um. Excuse me?? It is astounding that after all that ball culture and drag has done to demonstrate the instability of “men” as a gender category, after all that trans pioneers of all kinds have done for drag… wow.