When James McDonald found himself attracted to Courtney Act, star of the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, he realised this TV show is blazing a brave new trail for everybody.
In my last Outmost piece, I mentioned that I find gay people to be among the most liberated. Unfortunately, this still cannot be argued in a legal sense – one need only look to Uganda, Russia, here in Ireland and even the attempts by politicians like Michelle Bachmann to legalise LGBT discrimination in the United States. But we do have the potential for personal liberation that is currently unmatched by most.
Throughout history, men in positions of power have shored up their authority by linking the masculine qualities they claim to possess with the traits they claim are necessary to govern society. In this way, it has been possible to permanently subordinate women and men who fell short of their celebrated model. The dominant understanding of manliness is embedded into the fabric of society – it is taught and reinforced from birth. It is, however, impossible to achieve completely. The power in such a system is that it forces men to constantly strive towards it, to measure themselves against the image of what a man ought to be.
In this way, it is extremely stifling. We are taught that a man is muscular and athletic, but what if you’re lanky and awkward? Such individuals are made to feel less manly and are encouraged to focus their efforts towards ‘fixing’ their shortcomings. The energy to try and emulate some distant model of a man could, instead, be spent on a goal actually desired. We have the Victorians to thank for the current understanding of gender as being composed of absolute opposites – of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ being fixed entities – and arguably for the development of a homosexual identity as a result of the trial of Oscar Wilde. Since then, a man is everything that a woman is not. To be emotional, or weak, or pretty is to be ‘effeminate’ and, somehow, less of a man.
As gay men, we reject this. Not bound by the strict constraints on masculinity that power-hungry heterosexual men have reinforced for centuries, we are free to skip across the gender divide and incorporate ‘feminine’ qualities and aspirations with which we feel we identify. We’ve been told that we’re unmanly, or at times even that we aren’t men. Yet in embracing ourselves and staying true to ourselves, we are no longer crippled by fear of emasculation. On the contrary, I think it takes a real man to shut his ears and walk his own path.
While our rejection of presumed gender traits is subversive in that it undermines attempts to keep us subordinate, there’s a part of our community taking things even further. Drag straddles the gender divide, blurring the supposed distinction between male and female. Yet as it becomes more mainstream, it threatens to shatter the gender dichotomy completely. Yes, I’m referring to mother Ru and the unstoppable phenomenon that is RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Last month, the internationally acclaimed show returned for its sixth season on the heels of the announcement of a confirmed seventh season and a second all-stars competition. UK Netflix recently added the first five seasons but even that isn’t enough for the show’s borderline-cultish following. Leeds-based Vada Magazine has started an online petition to bring RuPaul to the UK. Packed with lip-syncing, fashion, an incredible amount of makeup, witty humour we all wish we were capable of, and oh so much shade, the show is endless fun. Yet beneath the guise of entertainment, there is a much deeper significance.
Drag can mean many things. Bringing together girls from such a wide background, it becomes clear how many different ways there are to approach drag. On the show, pronouns are interchangeable. Some always feel like they’re men, with drag their artistic outlet. Others truly feel like they become women when they undergo their transformation. Some feel like woman even when outside of drag, with the art becoming their escape from an identity with which they don’t agree. Drag is a step on the path to transsexual surgery for some, while others would never dream of it. Some enjoy sleeping with other queens in drag, while a number of contestants on the show have voiced their ‘disgust’ for it.
What is ‘male’ and ‘female’? Is it something static, biological? Or is it simply an act we put on, a performance? ‘We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.’ We have been conditioned to put on, to adopt the outward appearance of the gender we’re assigned at birth. Therefore, this oft repeated saying of RuPaul’s (just one of very, very many) is more than simply a statement about drag; it’s about the very idea of gender.
This season has shared with the world Courtney Act, a queen who positively destroys any supposed gender distinctions. As a man, Shane Jenek (pictured left), she’s a pretty-boy – fit, blonde and Aussie – but most definitely a man. But as a woman, she is a downright bombshell without the tiniest hint of masculinity. In the second episode she talked about how many straight guys she’s managed to take home, and other contestants have vocalised their desire for her both in and out of drag. As I sat watching her whip her hair back during a pillow fight surrounded by scantily clad male-models, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. A woman. I found myself more attracted to a woman than the Scruff Pit Crew Boys.
Like all of us, I have been raised to view not only myself and the people around me as gendered, but to understand my very attraction as being gendered as well. I’m a gay man and, therefore, I’m attracted to other men. But I saw something desirable in Courtney Act, who was visually a woman.
Attraction is not bound by archaic divisions and categories. Sexuality is beautiful in its richness and diversity. We may not appreciate all the variations, but as RuPaul has taught me, it may just be because we’ve not yet opened our eyes to it. As gay men, we’ve shirked off the most immediate societal constraints. With such progress, we have the ability to look around and realise how much freer we can be. Why limit ourselves – our identity, our expression, our attraction – to man-made barriers designed centuries ago to keep us downtrodden?
In this month’s issue of GT magazine, RuPaul says ‘us gay folks have always been WAY ahead of the curve.’ However, we’re blazing a trail not only for ourselves, but for everybody. Dismantling gender’s stifling oppressiveness will help everyone embrace who it is they’re meant to be, to live the lives best suited to their happiness. Change isn’t easy, especially when up against the entrenched ‘values’ of patriarchal society, but as Ru says, ‘things are changing very fast.’
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