Addressing drag culture and the transgender community

‘Tis the season for trick-or-treating, candy chomping and costume wearing. And if you’re not a fan of those, at the very least, you can curl up your couch and enjoy a cult classic, such as

‘Tis the season for trick-or-treating, candy chomping and costume wearing. And if you’re not a fan of those, at the very least, you can curl up your couch and enjoy a cult classic, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The movie, starring Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter, the “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” is overtly sexual in nature. The British rock comedy paints Furter as a lunatic and sex crazed mad scientist, who is still loved by audiences everywhere who watch the film religiously or don a Furter Halloween costume.

Furter is merely fictional, and the end of the film reminds us all that he is just Tim Curry in drag. That’s the thing: He’s playing a transvestite, but he’s merely a man fulfilling a role for entertainment purposes.

But we have transvestites and drag queens in the real world and here in Philadelphia. Drag kings and queens get decked out in their best attire for the annual Henry David Halloween Ball. Lisa Lisa’s Thursday night shows at Bob & Barbara’s, at 15th and South streets, are well received – and full of drag performers.

Many mistakenly think of transvestites and drag queens as synonymous terms. The fact is, transvestites cross-dress, or wear the clothing of opposite sex to fulfill some sort of gratification, which can sometimes be sexual. Drag queens are different and are typically men who dress in female clothes and put on makeup for some sort of routine. The term for females impersonating male counterparts is drag king.

Regardless, my concerns arise when people in and outside of LGBTQ culture start associating any type of cross-dressing with transgender individuals.

“There’s a difference between being a transgender person and a cross-dresser,” Director of Women’s Studies Laura Levitt said. “They are different kinds of identifications. Cross-dressing can be done by straight people and can be performative, using the performative space as a venue for trying things out.”

Not knowing the difference is mostly a matter of being misinformed, and sadly, that’s the fault of media, society and even individuals within the LGBTQ movement.

As a friend once said, the “B” and the “T” are often left out in the alphabet-soup acronym for queer culture and the battle for equality. I will continually bring this up in succeeding columns, because it’s the truth. When we leave out or neglect people from our community who aren’t fitting in with the mainstream idea of queer, we’re doing them and ourselves a great deal of injustice.

To be a transgender individual as opposed to someone who is cross-dressing as a drag queen or king or transvestite is very different.

“A drag performance is not the same thing as a transgender person working on performitivity of their gender identification in the culture, and the stakes are higher,” Levitt added.

Those stakes include but are not limited to discrimination of various forms, verbal harassment and violence being the more extreme forms.

In regards to any confusion of transgender and drag or transvestitism Ash Yezuita, a junior history and Asian studies major, says “it’s problematic because at the end of the day [cross-dressers] can take off the clothes and be done with it because they’re still a guy dressing in girls clothes and visa versa.

“But in the trans community, to sort of cross them is completely off the mark because it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m wearing girls or guys clothes, it’s my body, and it’s who I am,” he added.

It’s important to understand this difference. In spite of it all, there are some things drag culture specifically does for the LGBT community that are positive.

When I went to Bob & Barbara’s for the first time with my friends, I never expected to see such a diverse crowd, and by that, I’m referring to the equal ratio of queer to straight attendees. When Lisa Lisa began her drag show, everyone in the crowded bar was enthusiastic and eager to interact with her and her fellow drag queen performers.

My assessment is that drag culture is somewhat helpful in presenting individuals of all backgrounds with a positive message about the LGBTQ community.

Cross-dressing — whether it be for role fulfillment as in the case of transvestitism or for entertainment purposes for drag queens and kings — has its pros and cons. Stereotypes about the gay community can perpetuate and add confusion about transgender individuals.

If we can keep in mind that it’s all different and take into account that drag culture can be used to the LGBTQ community’s advantage, we can sit back and enjoy the show, whether that be Lisa Lisa’s Thursday nights performances at Bobs & Barbara’s or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Joshua Fernandez can be reached at josh@temple.edu.

9 Comments

  1. While it is true that there are drag performers who are not trans, I have known a lot of trans people who got their “start” doing drag. This was where they built up the confidence to appear in public in their chosen gender. I also have known a few people who used their performances to bankroll their transition. You can separate people out by arbitrary categories like crossdressers, drag performers and transgendered, but you should also realize that there is a lot of cross-pollination between those categories.

  2. Here’s my transsexual two cents. Please keep in mind I’m just one person with one point of view… Neither before, during or after transition was I ever interested in drag shows or drag culture. I’m not against it, it just doesn’t personally appeal to me. I didn’t so much cross-dress as crossover-dress, mainly because to maintain my previous denial, I didn’t even think about female dress. The author is right, though. There is some cross-pollination between drag and trans, and crossdressing for some can be a long precursor stage prior to full-on transition. My period of crossdressing lasted a year, and was a necessary part of the process of transition.

  3. According to the modern meaning of “transgender” (as in a gender variant umbrella) casual crossdressers and drag performers would come under that very broad category. I do agree there is crossover between different parts of the gender spectrum although I believe this is happening less and less because of the Internet. Many people who, in past, weren’t sure whether they were, for instance, gay men, now seem to be identifying as trans much earlier if that feels more right and appropriate for them. Many parts of the drag community (like female impersonation clubs) which tended to attract some performers with gender dysphoria are now mostly gone and the concept of “straight female impersonation” as opposed to silly, ove- the-top drag is rapidly fading away. My problem with including drag in the same category as transsexual women is that drag-queens are still fundamentally men, as are crossdressers. This has created a lot of tension within the transsexual community where many trans women feel insulted (and unsafe) being grouped with men, even if they’re men with some situationally atypical gender expression. This is one of the largest most fractious issues the trans community faces and I think it’s further exacerbated by people telling 24/7 living-in-their-identified-gender transsexuals they HAVE to be in the same community with people who are only situationally presenting and are male the rest of the time whenever they want or need to be. Not saying one group is better than the other, just very different. Thanks for the article, it brings up a lot of complex and thoughtful points.

  4. It’s more where one is on the gender continuum; even psot-operative transsexuals at one time started out cross-dressing.

    Are people really that insecure that they need to establish some sort of hierarchy of gender expression? And is there really any trans “community?” apart from our needs to give expression to our preferred gender, we don’t all share much- at times anything- in common; some are black, some are white, Asian, hispanic, some are religious, some atheist, some are politically and/or socially conservative, some liberal, some are sports fans others theater fans… you get the idea.

  5. Conversations that might capture what is in an individual’s heart and mind as to their identify and the social rights they ascribe to based on their identity turn out to be pretty darn difficult, yet it makes for great reading and conversation.

    No two of us are standing in the same shoes and able to fully appreciate another’s level of pain, commitment, or ability to be in the moment. It seems to lead us to selfishly look to promote our own agenda hoping that it will move others along leading to some level of predictable acceptance.

    Each one of us that steps up and leaves a positive impression on society makes it a bit easier for the next one of us. It’s just the way it is. Thankfully people like Joshua Fernandez give as some pause to consider how we treat each other.

  6. Hi.
    I’m a TRANSGENDER crossdresser.
    Like many and quite likely most crossdressers i’m bi-gender. I have a bi-gender identity leading to bi-gender expression.
    That makes us most assuredly Transgender.

    Of course then there’s the homophobia in parts of the crossdressing community where many try and distance themselves from GLBT and work to silence bi and gay crossdressers. For many the difference between drag and crossdressing is Gay crossdressers are drag queens and straight ones are crossdressers and FtM ones are often assumed not to exist other than on the stage (except i’m dating one so they do indeed exist). Its because of the loud voices of a few homophobic crossdressers that these false notions are widely accepted to be true. Tell that to all the Bi and Gay crossdressers I know and my FtM crossdresser partner. And of course there’s a small minority of transsexuals constantly preaching hatred of crossdressers and false negative stereotypes and de-legitimising their identity. The small minorities of bigots are allowed to split and keep seperate people with the same civil rights fights who should be allies.

    Your neat delineations are false. Gender identity and expression are a spectrum. Some crossdressers transition full time with or without some hormone treatment or surgery. Not every transsexual takes hormones or has all the surgical options they could take. One of the studies showing the brains of transsexuals having distinct differences included as a subject contributing to this conclusion someone who took no hormones and had no surgery.

    Your article ignores the Genderqueer. It ignores the bi-gender. It ignores the wide variety of Transgender individuals identities and needs.

    Your article ignores the reality and validity of people like me and my partner. It’s incorrect. There’s more diversity in Transgender than you have considered or been informed of.

  7. About 20% of trans women have no history of crossdressing. It’s not about the clothes, it’s about what’s in them.

    Many find crossdressing men invaluable sources of advice initially, when they suddenly go fulltime without knowing even how to fasten a bra. This is especially true in those places that insist on a year or even two fulltime before authorising HRT.

  8. > “There’s a difference between being a transgender person and
    > a cross-dresser,” Director of Women’s Studies Laura Levitt said.
    > “They are different kinds of identifications. Cross-dressing can
    > be done by straight people and can be performative, using the
    > performative space as a venue for trying things out.” “A drag
    > performance is not the same thing as a transgender person
    > working on performitivity of their gender identification in the
    > culture, and the stakes are higher,” Levitt added.

    Laura Levitt should keep to areas she knows. Cross dressing people are very much transgender, as it used, very controversially, as an umbrella term. Indeed the large organisations for cross-dressing males label themselves as the largest transgender groups.

    She would only be correct if she were using transgender in its basic sense, as defined by the founder of those cross-dressers’ groups, Virginia Prince, who coined it to mean someone like herself, who lived as a female but rejected processes that who have made her body female. So a transgender was a full-time cross-dresser. But I doubt that was Laura’s meaning.

    Quite who, then, she was seeking to describe as “working on performitivity of their gender identification in the culture” I cannot imagine. It certainly doesn’t match transsexual people. I would venture to suggest that she needs to work upon the performitivity of her professional identity in the culture.

    The fact is that “gender” applies to many different people in different ways, and they all have differentiated, and sometimes conflicting interests and concerns. We need to appreciate, and try to understand and allow them all the civil liberties and respect they deserve. Trying to lump several of them (a constantly varying selection too) under the term for just one of them, transgender, really just makes things worse.

    > In regards to any confusion of transgender and drag or
    > transvestitism Ash Yezuita, a junior history and Asian studies
    > major, says “it’s problematic because at the end of the day
    > [cross-dressers] can take off the clothes and be done with it
    > because they’re still a guy dressing in girls clothes and visa
    > versa. But in the trans community, to sort of cross them is
    > completely off the mark because it doesn’t matter whether or not
    > I’m wearing girls or guys clothes, it’s my body, and it’s who I
    > am,” he added.

    I’m guessing that a confusing way of saying he’s transsexual and it is bodily change that matters.

    > Cross-dressing — whether it be for role fulfillment as in the
    > case of transvestitism or for entertainment purposes for drag
    > queens and kings — has its pros and cons. Stereotypes about the
    > gay community can perpetuate and add confusion about transgender
    > individuals.

    Most of the confusion arises form misusing the term transgender. That reaches its peak when you use it to describe someone for whom a changed body means everything, as someone who rejects bodily change, by dubbing them transgender.

    But along the way people easily lose sight of the fact that if you identify as the sex opposite to that listed at your birth, and are probably being driven in that by multiple mental process in your brain working as they do in people of that sex, and so you need a body to match all that, to a degree no one else can ever begin to imagine, it isn’t crossdressing to wear the clothes of that sex. It is dressing appropriately. And the clothes forced upon you from childhood feel like drag. A real drag.

    So lets be clear, please, transsexual people do not start out as cross dressers. Ever.

  9. >So lets be clear, please, transsexual people do not start out as cross dressers. Ever

    I agree completely. I was born a woman and will always be one no matter what type of clothing I am wearing.

    As an aside, styles for both sexes are getting harder and harder to distinguish, so cross-dressing is becoming more difficult to define.

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