RuPaul’s ‘She-Mail’ Exits Drag Race
Blasted by activists for using the terms ‘she-mail’ and ‘she-male,’ the producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race have apologized for causing offence. But the drag superstar should stop using the word ‘tranny’ too.
Earlier today, Logo TV released a statement regarding popular reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race, in which they apologized for use of the word “she-male”—a transphobic slur—during a recent episode, and made it clear that the word will not be used in any of the show’s future episodes.
“We wanted to thank the community for sharing their concerns around a recent segment and the use of the term ‘she-mail’ on Drag Race,” Logo’s statement reads. “Logo has pulled the episode from all of our platforms and that challenge will not appear again. Furthermore, we are removing the ‘You've got she-mail’ intro from new episodes of the series. We did not intend to cause any offense, but in retrospect we realize that it was insensitive. We sincerely apologize.”
The segment in question comes from the show’s March 17 episode, and consisted of a game in which the show’s contestants were shown a woman’s body part, and they would have to guess whether it belonged to a “female”—that is, a cisgender, non-trans woman—or a “she-male”—someone assigned male at birth, but presenting themselves with a feminine appearance. The segment, fittingly titled “Female or She-male,” began with a higher-pitched voice saying the word “female,” and a gruff, stereotypically masculine voice saying “she-male.”
As a transgender woman, and as someone who has had slurs like “she-male” and “tranny” yelled at her, I watched, absolutely mortified.
There are a number of words people use to verbally attack, dehumanize, and other transgender women like me. Among the absolute worst is the term, “she-male,” which is typically associated with two things: pornography starring transgender actresses and the book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male by Janice Raymond, regarded by many trans people as one of the most transphobic works of all time.
RuPaul, a man who—to the best of my knowledge—has never actually publicly said that he identifies as anything other than a gay man, has long been regarded as someone beyond reproach for transphobic actions. For years, despite pleas from trans activists to stop, RuPaul has continued to flippantly use words like “she-male” (often turning it into a play on words, “she-mail”) and “tranny” on his show, and has even gone so far as to say that he believes that the these slurs, namely “tranny,” have never been used in a negative context. RuPaul has actually defended his use of the word “tranny” because he “loves the word.”
LGBT media watchdog organization GLAAD disagrees. “Many people do not realize that the word ‘tranny’ is one of the most hurtful and dehumanizing slurs that transgender people hear,” LGBT media watchdog group GLAAD said in a 2011 statement unrelated to RuPaul’s use of the term. “Most transgender people associate that word with personal experiences of violence, hatred, and derision.”
On the term “she-male,” GLAAD has issued similar condemnations. “The mistakes made in this segment should not be repeated,” GLAAD associate director of communications Nick Adams wrote. “Words are important and have tremendous power. Since 1999 we have stated in our Media Reference Guide that anti-trans slurs are defamatory: “These words only serve to dehumanize transgender people and should not be used.” The network and the show’s producers heard that from us—and from those of you who spoke up. It’s a message that GLAAD staff (trans and cis) have shared with countless LGB and straight producers, reporters, celebrities, and media executives.”
Both “tranny” and “she-male” appear in GLAAD’s transgender media reference guide under the heading “Defamatory.”
Still, today’s statement by Logo only addresses one of those terms. Left unchecked is the word “tranny,” a slur used against me on dozens of occasions. Even so, the fact that the show will be putting an end to one of those awful words should be heralded as a victory.
It’s sad that it’s taken a monumentally transphobic segment like “Female or She-male” for RuPaul’s Drag Race to even address the fact that the language they use is widely regarded among trans people as transphobic. Still, this is what trans people live with: being treated as second-class citizens, even by others in the “LGBT community.”
RuPaul is far from alone in celebrities we’d expect more from getting things so wrong. We’ve seen what politely sitting back has done for trans people. We’ve watched as trans people were removed from the 2007 Employment Non-Discrimination Act, from the 2003 New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, and we’ve been sitting back politely raising our hands for too long in hopes that people like RuPaul acknowledge our humanity, and stop contributing to a culture of verbal and physical violence through his choice of words.
No more. Transgender people have been a part of the “gay rights movement” just as long as gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Transgender people played an integral role at Stonewall, and we are due respect in our own extended community. Transgender people spoke up on this issue, and we got results.
Yes, we should approach these issues from a diplomatic point of view, but we need to become fearless. Should diplomacy fail, we cannot be afraid to have our own Howard Beale, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” moment.
I applaud Logo’s decision to remove that particular slur from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but I want them to know that this is merely a half-step. So long as their network’s biggest star continues to use another hateful slur—“tranny”—within and outside of his show, this will not be over.