On the Outskirts

One of the more difficult aspects of talking about transness is how many facets it can encompass. Because transness is more than just an internal sense of rightness or wrongness with your body: it catches up so much else in a whirlwind of confusion.

Take, for example, sexual identity. It is now a commonplace in queer communities--well, most queer communities--that a transgendered identity is separate from a gay or lesbian identity; that is, trans women are not "gay men who can't deal" any more than gay men want to be women. And yet: it is the rare trans person who has not had to confront issues of sexual identity as part of understanding their trans identity. A MTF trans person often has to confront the fact that many of the things that are markers of femaleness--high heels, makeup, skirts--are also markers of straight sexuality, and exactly what adopting those markers might mean for them when out in the world and attracting the attention of men. So, too, do many FTM trans people have to deal with the complicated issues of butchness in the lesbian community, and where, if anywhere, the the line between boi and boy lies.

However, an even more complicated relationship exists between the transgendered and drag worlds.

That doesn't stop many people on either side to deny it exists. "I'm not a drag queen," is the huffy refrain of many a MTF trans person, whether a transsexual or a cross dresser, either to defend the "realness" of their female identity, or to assert a heterosexual identity. "I don't want it chopped off," is the drag queen's rejoinder, an assertion of a gay identity and of a masculine body image, no matter what illusion is currently sported.

Both sides of this argument reveal the internal prejudices sadly too common to each group: the often unconfronted homophobia or at least queer queasiness of many trans people, and the misogyny of some parts of the gay community, especially in this era of washboard abs, body builders, and disdain for anything that seems soft, effeminate, or feminine.

But there is yet another angle on this. Many MTF trans people go through a very, how shall I put it, "draggy" phase at some point in their development--a time of wigs, heels, heavy makeup and short dresses. (This may be slowly changing as people begin to transition at earlier and earlier ages.) And likewise, there are some drag queens who live the majority of their lives as women, who may well have a trans identity but also a desire to remain inside the gay community, much as many FTM trans men who have previously identified as lesbians often keep their ties to that community.

Drag indeed is the crossroads of queerness, the place where gender and sexuality collide, where social expectations of both straight and queer communities clash as loudly as mauve eyeshadow with a bright orange dress. Take, for example, a recent experiment in my ongoing Field Intensive in Reality Show Studies: to wit, a rerun of RuPaul's Drag Race. In this episode, the contestants were introduced to several women who were all experts at a martial art--karate, krav maga, and boxing among others. The challenge was to take these women, all of whom had a "butch" or at least not conventionally feminine presentation and make them into a "real woman" version of the queen's drag persona.

To say this raised disturbing questions about masculinity and femininity is to be as understated as the guy at the end of the third Indiana Jones movie. The women, all by definition strong women, extremely capable, of course take on a "masculine" cast since they know how to fight and don't wear the trappings of straight femininity. And they are transformed...by gay men into mirror images of their own mirror images of "straight" femininity, along with a heaping pile of camp. There is something disturbing--perhaps only to my radical feminist self--about a man demanding that a woman walk in high heels as well as he does. Or at least it does because it is unreflective; there is an expression of superiority on the part of the queen, a conscious or unconscious needling of the women for not being able to perform femininity.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course, and my favorite drag performances have been those that use the artificiality of drag to force an awareness of the artificiality of the "feminine" constructs they imitate. And perhaps I'm expecting a bit much from the Supermodel of the World here. But that's just it: drag can't be uncomplicated, it can't pretend not to make constant commentary on all the worlds it confuses together. It remains on the outskirts of all identities, if central to none, and a fascinating nexus of everything both queer and straight.

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