The first movie character that I identified with was Chi-Chi Rodriguez, a sassy, banjee Puerto Rican drag queen who John Leguizamo played in the 1995 cult classic “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!”
As a child, I felt like Chi-Chi and I shared the same soul. We just wanted to be loved and affirmed and to perform for the world. But in the movie, it’s not clear whether Chi-Chi is a gay man or a trans woman. We only see Chi-Chi and fellow drag queens Vida and Noxeema eat, sleep and live as women. “Drag queen” is their only identity.
But in real life, the identity beneath the costumes and makeup makes a difference. That was evident in the backlash RuPaul received this week after the Guardian asked him whether he would accept someone who had begun transitioning to a transgender woman as a contestant on his hit VH1 show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” RuPaul responded, “Probably not.”
But RuPaul already has accepted transgender women on his show, including me.
By the time I was cast as a contestant on Season 5 of the show, I had been presenting as a woman and performing as a drag queen for years. But I often felt terrible for hating my body, and while I identified as a woman to myself, I mostly coped in secret. When I tried to speak to others about my feelings, I often was told that I was just an effeminate gay guy who made a pretty drag queen.
On the show, I thought I could just squash my internal feelings of being a woman, but RuPaul and the judges could tell I wasn’t being true to myself. When they questioned me, I broke down and cried, sharing that I was actually a transgender woman. It was one of the most vulnerable, scary moments of my life.
My path to that moment was a tortured one. Growing up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago in the 1980s, I was soft and effeminate as a child. Men often preyed on and hurt me, but no one ever knew, because little boys weren’t supposed to talk about this kind of stuff that men did to them.
When I was about 11 years old, my aunt adopted me and helped save my life. She encouraged me to join our local community bachata dance troupe. I quickly became a confident and overly dramatic dancer, and my troupe would battle other dance troupes in our hood. Think “Bring It On” meets “West Side Story” with a fierce salsa music track playing.
It was years later, while I was dancing at Rancho Luna nightclub, that I met a seasoned queen — a sickening diva who was loving but also didn’t take crap from anyone. At first, I was confused why a “real” woman was performing as a drag queen, but I soon learned that she was transgender. I had never met anyone like her, and I was blown away by how unclockable — or passable for a woman — she was.
She was one of the first people to talk to me about being transgender and explain how it’s different from being a gay man. She helped me access street hormones, like many trans girls who didn’t have insurance or money. While medically unregulated, the hormones began providing some basic changes to my body, voice, hair and face that allowed me to present more feminine and be perceived by others as a woman.
By looking more “real,” I was safer and received less homophobic harassment while navigating daily life. But it also made me more desirable as a drag queen at clubs. When we appear more feminine, customers consider us more beautiful, bar staff take better care of us and managers book us more. Audiences tip us more frequently and with bigger bills.
As a result, there’s a lot of pressure on drag queens to turn to street hormones and “pump parties,” where non-surgical-grade silicone and other materials are injected to achieve feminine curves. While some male performers realize they identify as women and begin to transition, others continue to identify as cisgender gay men. This issue has divided friends in the drag world. Some gay men may feel betrayed or left behind by their close friends who started off as cisgender but later transitioned.
Five years ago, a close drag friend of mine said he was considering getting breasts. This friend identified as a cisgender gay man but noted that, if someone was going to tip them while performing a Beyoncé number, “real” breasts might earn tips in $20 bills instead of $1s.
When your living is largely based on the tipping generosity of your patrons and their perception of how flawless your feminine illusion is, it makes sense that some cisgender gay men feel compelled to have invasive medical procedures that modify their bodies in ways typically done by trans women. Of course, this often comes with horrible side effects. I have known queens to receive silicone injections in their butts, hips and face that were mixed with Fix-A-Flat, glue or cement that hardens and grays over time. I have seen drag performers come back from surgeries performed by back alley doctors who gave them new breasts in the shape of squares with no cleavage. I have had to help a close trans girlfriend save her new silicone hip, pushing it back into place with a rolling pin after it collapsed down her leg.
It’s in this reality — one where both cisgender gay men and trans women in the drag world feel pressure to surgically change their bodies — that RuPaul said he would limit his contestants to those who hadn’t begun transitioning. I am grateful for the opportunity that I was given when I was cast on “Drag Race,” but I don’t agree that drag should only be for cisgender gay men.
Trans women are not only equitable competitors on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but trans women of color specifically have helped shape and elevate audiences’ highest expectations for drag queens and nightlife performers. Trans women of color have put their bodies on the line. They threw some of the first bricks at Stonewall to demand for our rights and snatched national titles in the drag pageantry scene. They have uniquely coveted spots in the sacred art of femme queen performances in black and Latinx LGBTQ ballroom culture.
Trans women should be allowed to compete on RuPaul’s show no matter where they are in their transition journey, just as RuPaul has allowed cisgender gay men to do for years. Trust me, for trans women, we are just trying to be our most authentic selves.
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