For a reality competition show that’s all about celebrating queerness, RuPaul’s Drag Race hasn’t always been welcoming to transgender drag queens. In 2018, RuPaul, possibly the most well-known drag queen in the world, came under fire for saying in an interview with The Guardian that he would probably not allow biological women or transgender women on the show.
“Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it,” said RuPaul. “Because at its core, it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”The Guardian
At the time of the interview, nine regular seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race had already aired, with a few spinoff franchises happening. Peppermint, a drag queen who competed in Season 9, came out as transgender on the show itself. RuPaul justified Peppermint’s participation in the show by saying the New York drag queen hasn’t undergone gender-affirming surgery yet.
In the same above interview with The Guardian, he explained, “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.”
These comments were hurtful to the trans community, without whom drag—and RuPaul’s Drag Race—wouldn’t be as mainstream as it is today. Many popular drag queens on the show and beyond credit transgender folks for their art. Sasha Velour, the winner of Peppermint’s season, tweeted in response to RuPaul’s comments, “My drag was born in a community full of trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming folks doing drag. That’s the real world of drag, like it or not. I think [sic] it’s fabulous and I will fight my entire life to protect and uplift it.”
RuPaul eventually apologized for his comments about trans competitors on Drag Race and credited the trans community as heroes of the “shared LGBTQ movement.” Since then, RuPaul’s Drag Race has also featured several openly trans drag queens, even a trans man and a cisgender woman. Many former competitors have also come out as transgender since their time on the show. On that note, here are some of the RuPaul’s Drag Race drag queens waving the transgender flag:
Kylie Sonique Love (Season 2 & All Stars 6)
Many former contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race have since come out as transgender, and a few have bravely done so on the show. During the reunion episode of season 2, Sonique revealed to her castmates and RuPaul that she’s always been “a girl trapped in a boy’s body” and that she was in the process of transitioning.
Eleven years after that groundbreaking moment, Sonique returned as Kylie Sonique Love to compete in All Stars Season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race—and win the crown and scepter. Kylie’s win was monumental for trans acceptance and visibility on a show that was initially resistant to allowing transgender contestants. She became the first transgender winner of any RuPaul’s Drag Race season.
Monica Beverly Hillz (Season 5)
Kylie came out during the reunion, which is filmed after the competition, but Monica Beverly Hillz disclosed her gender identity on the main judging stage of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
All throughout the fifth season, it was clear that Monica was struggling with not just the pressure of the competition but something internal and private. The judges picked up on her disconnection, which caused Monica to break open and say, “I’m not just a drag queen. I’m a transgendered woman.” At that point of Drag Race, Monica became the first active transgender contestant.
While it was a significant moment in the herstory of the show, it was also heartbreaking to witness Monica’s struggles with her gender identity at the time of filming. However, she opened up about her ‘tortured’ path to coming out on such a large platform while continuing to advocate for trans women, specifically trans women of color, to be represented in Drag Race and in the larger drag community.
Peppermint (Season 9)
By season 9, RuPaul hasn’t yet made his comments about not allowing trans contestants on his show. But given that in almost a decade of the reality series, none of the drag queens were openly transgender, it was pretty clear where RuPaul stood.
So when Peppermint revealed to her sisters that she identified as a woman, it reminded the Drag Race audience, and RuPaul himself, that transgender individuals have their place in drag, too. “It was actually through my drag that I realized my transness. I’m trans. I’m a trans woman,” Peppermint said in an episode.
In an interview after the show, she explained that she wanted to get to know her castmates first before she could feel safe in disclosing her gender identity. “There’s a lot of people who think drag queens are not trans and shouldn’t be. And there’s a lot of trans people who think that drag queens have no place in the trans community.”
Since season 9, Peppermint has embraced her womanhood and undergone gender reassignment surgery. More importantly, she’s educating her audience on trans rights using her platform and GLAAD as a member of the board of directors. She recently spoke to MSNBC about the proposed ban on drag performances in many parts of the country, which puts LGBTQ entertainers at an economic disadvantage and at a risk to their overall well-being and safety.
Gottmik (Season 13)
For twelve seasons and a few spin-offs, RuPaul’s Drag Race always used the catchphrase, “Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win.” In Season 13, RuPaul changed the iconic line into, “Racers, start your engines and may the best drag queen win.” (It also used the term She-Mail, later changed to Ru-Mail, which is a derogatory term used against trans women. But thanks to Carmen Carrera, a Season 2 contestant and trans activist, the producers have stopped using it.)
Changing catchphrases and lingo is seen as a way to be more inclusive to trans and non-binary contestants, especially for a season that, for the first time in Drag Race herstory, included a transgender man. Gottmik, a celebrity makeup artist and LA-based queen, was born a girl. He underwent gender reassignment surgery so he could live his authentic self as a man who does hyperfeminine drag. In drag, Gottmik uses she/her pronouns and he/him outside of it.
Gottmik being cast in RuPaul’s Drag Race signified the boundaries of gender and identity that the show is willing to push. Finally, the series is ready to embrace and celebrate different kinds of queerness—not just men who like to dress up as hyperfeminine women, which is the original, antiquated version of Drag Race.
Kerri Colby (Season 14)
Season 14 marked the installment of RuPaul’s Drag Race that included the highest number of transgender queens. Not all of them were out at the time of filming, but Kerri Colby walked into the Werk Room proudly wearing the colors of the trans flag.
Kerri belongs to the house of Colby and is a drag daughter of Sasha Colby, who competed in Season 15 of Drag Race and was crowned the winner. Sasha is also a proud trans woman, so it’s no wonder that Kerri radiates the same confidence and security that her drag mother does.
Even though Kerri didn’t make it to the finale, her participation in the season has been influential in the identity of her castmates. Jasmine Kennedie came out to her sisters in an Untucked episode. Later on, she stated, “Seeing Kerri, seeing how confident she is in who she is, it just further affirmed what I’ve been feeling my whole life.”
Kornbread Jeté, who was already friends with Kerri before coming on the show together, said that the Colby drag queen helped her in her own journey through transness. A fellow contestant, Bosco, credited Kerri and Kornbread’s presence for providing her with the clarity she needed to come out as trans. In the drag community where, as Peppermint said, transgender folks are not always welcome, having a sister like Kerri Colby could provide more than clarity but a lifeline.
Transgender drag queens have always been part of the bedrock of drag as an art form and a community. To be excluded from a platform like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which claims to protect, support, and celebrate all kinds of queerness, is an injustice to the trans community. Thankfully, RuPaul’s Drag Race is evolving, and its mainstream presence is helping our understanding of how valuable it is for transgender drag queens and entertainers to have a platform that can amplify their voices.