Today is a gay holiday. Why? It’s the (TWO AND A HALF HOUR!!!) premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3! It’s a big deal. Hug a gay person that you know.
Anyway, while my highly anticipated recap won’t be out until Monday, the New York Times has become the official hype machine of the show. Last week they released their Sunday Styles section “Golden Age Of Drag” story and, this week, they’re pushing the New York Times Magazine profile of the hostess with the mostest, RuPaul Andre Charles.
The profile is one of the best done on the famed queen and his show. It sweeps through his mother’s having a fortune teller explain that her child would be a star moving to his courtship with a rancher-turned-his-husband into how new queens teach him to change and, of course, meandering around the show’s struggle to include transgender voices. This last item has long been the show’s downfall and represents an issue of age with the show’s leadership and, frankly, a gap in cultural and generational queerness.
That was the biggest takeaway for me in the story. The moment is underscored by a near throwaway paragraph that many will likely miss, one in which the story’s author Jenna Wortham gets the context of this gap firsthand. Take a peek. This follows a paragraph the explains the entire (stupid, on RuPaul’s behalf) “She-Male” debacle of yesteryear.
The controversy speaks to how quickly the culture has changed over the past 10 years. When I was on the phone with Lady Bunny, I used the word “queer.” Bunny let out an exasperated sigh. “Oh, God, do I have to say it, too, now?” During her youth, which is still recent history, “queer” was a slur — what “they’d say right before they bashed you in the head,” she reminded me. The boundary-pushers of Charles and Bunny’s time reveled in making a mockery of identity politics and political correctness; ours is defined by sharpening categories as a means to demand inclusion and recognition. (Facebook now has more than 50 options for listing gender identity, including pangender and agender.)
Interesting, right? I’ve had friends and people I know note how it’s absurd that the word “queer” – or “q slur,” for those who refuse to say it – is ridiculous but it’s a very real thing, alluding not only to generational matters but to issues of class and queer privilege.
Not to toot my own horn (Toot toot.) but I did a big story on this phenomena last year for ATTN: which, although poorly packaged and buried under trendy whatever, chronicled the contemporary standing of the word. It should be obvious but, for older generations of LGBTQ+ persons, the word “queer” is akin to the “n word,” something that Lady Bunny highlights so clearly: it was the word you heard before “they bashed you in the head.” I interviewed a few older gay persons myself to have this conversation firsthand.
Moreover, only certain people – young or old – can afford to own the word. As Dr. Monica Stephens’ Geography Of Hate – a map of slurs used on Twitter – shows, queer is still a word very much used to deny and denigrate LGBTQ+ people. This brings us to the groups who are able to refer to themselves as “queer”: people in the LGBTQ+ community who have some sort of power. A bit of brief framing on this from the ATTN: story with help from American University Anthropology professor, Dr. William Leap.
Using “queer” represents entitlement. “It reflects divisions,” Leap said, alluding to privileges associated with “access to protection” that persons of different educational, racial, class, gender, and cultural groups are not always afforded. Others cite concerns that the use of “queer” is a way for heterosexuals to buy into being LGBT.
It’s tricky, obviously. This little throwaway moment in the Drag Race article may have seen overblown on the part of Lady Bunny but it’s very real. We, as city people who look or pass for white and live in certain areas and wear types of things with such-and-such support networks, can afford to say it because we have a “power” that some do not. It’s a privilege to be “queer,” even in 2018. The word remains a catchall for what is spoken before the head of a gender or sexual outsider is bashed in.
It’s an unfortunate truth. Perhaps that’s a small storyline that Drag Race will include. Probably not but I can dream.