What Gender Pronoun Should You Use When Referring To A Drag Queen?
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tl;dr answer: It depends and it matters.
Watching the two much-awaited Dave Chappelle stand-up specials released on Netflix last month, following a decade-long absence, left me with a bit of a nasty taste in my mouth. I was waiting for them as eagerly as anyone who grew up watching Killin Them Softly, but I walked away a disappointed. It was one of those "don't meet your heroes" moments.
I won’t go into the details of what I think didn’t work (mainly that vast swathes of it were unfunny), but the bits involving LGBTQ ‘characters’ and the language around them were really what took me out of it.
I don’t know if Dave Chappelle is homophobic or transphobic, but he is certainly ignorant. Anti-PC warriors and the angry & aggressively heterosexual populace of Kekistan held the set up as some sort of transgressive reclaiming of unPC culture. The halcyon days before we had to care about minority rights or how people perceived themselves.
Besides the inherently irritating notion that black men should just cross-dress to get out of being beaten up (while trans people of color actually suffer a disproportionate amount of violence, sexual and otherwise), it just seemed that Chappelle was out of touch. He wasn’t saying anything interesting. He wasn't deconstructing some big structural problem through humor. He was just making out-of-touch dad jokes.
Let me be clear, I don’t think these subjects are untouchable, I just think if you’re going to touch them, being a grumpy old dude who doesn’t get how far we’ve come isn’t an enlightening way to do it.
Chappelle expresses — to rapturous applause and laughter —frustration that he has to keep up with shifts in pronouns. I never understood why such a minor inconvenience (learning what pronoun to use) was so life-shattering to people. It takes exactly as long to understand with a quick Google search as anything else you're looking up on a particular day.
So that brings me to my recent binge-watching of RuPaul’s Drag Race with my wife. I have been on the receiving end of deathdrop gifs, Jujubee and Alaska inside jokes and invitations to Sashay Away from a lot of my predominantly gay friends over the last couple of years, so I decided it was time to jump in.
And what can I say, I am hooked. There is something utterly fascinating about the show and the queens, and while it occasionally gets loud (very loud) there is an undercurrent of sweetness throughout.
And that got me to thinking about the right pronoun to use when referring to a queen. As I was listening to the lastest episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour I got the response I was half-expecting: it depends (based on their consulting of GLAAD). The rule of thumb is you use male pronouns when they’re out of drag, and female pronouns when they’re in drag (which explains catchphrases like “Gentlemen start your engines, and may the best woman win”). But then you have nuances. For example, Season 6’s Gia Gunn recently came out of trans, so in her case you’d use female pronouns. Same applies to Season 9's Peppermint, the first openly transgender woman to compete on the show.
In a Slate Culture Gabfest episode right after the election of Donald Trump, Bryan Lowder talks about drag as a cultural form he finds solace in. He recalls a trip to a gay bar right after the election, where he sought out a drag show as a form of catharsis. He talks about the effervescent ecstasy intertwined with carnivalesque melancholy that you find in watching drag, about its historical importance as a cultural expression of resistance at the heart of queer history.
Lowder goes on to say that drag is the visual representation of the fragility and effort it takes to be a person in the world. It takes hours to get ready, to put on the make-up and it can be destroyed by a kiss. That’s why queens air kiss, it is not affectation, it is preservation.
So don’t be a douche like Chappelle. It might take you a minute to figure out the right pronoun to use when talking to or about a queen. Or someone trans. Or anyone, for that matter. You can look it up on your phone (you probably look up things far less important 10 times a day), or even better: you can talk to the person. Ask them — human to human — what pronoun you can use to make them feel represented, seen and understood. It is really the least we can do for each other.