J Nelson Aviance
[A transgression is] … an action that involves the limit, that narrow zone of a line where [the transgression] displays the flash of its passage, but perhaps also its entire trajectory, even its origin … the play of limits and transgression seems to be regulated by a simple obstinacy: transgression incessantly crosses and recrosses a line that closes up behind it in [an ephemeral wave], and thus it is made to return once more right to the horizon of the uncrossable…. (Michel Foucault, from “A Preface to Transgression,” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, Vol. 2 of Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984)
Transgression of societal gender norms is nothing recent or new. Neither is a succinct category of people who transgress societal gender norms. Transgression is important to society. It shows us boundaries even as it crosses them. It allows us to reflect on where things have been and where they might go. But as Foucault goes on to say:
Transgression does not seek to oppose one thing or another…. [I]t does not transform the other side of the mirror…. [I]ts role is to measure the excessive distance that it opens at the heart of the limit and to trace the flashing that causes the limit to arise…. [N]o content can bind it, since, by definition, no limit can possibly restrict it.
Drag is an art form that parodies, comments and transgresses societal expectations about gender. Drag, and particularly RuPaul, have recently come under attack. I’m not interested in addressing or defending the controversy over RuPaul’s Drag Race. However, comments have been made about drag artists that describe them as cisgender gay men and assert that these men can take off the drag and return to their cis lives. These statements not only serve to devalue the experiences and struggles of men who perform in drag but also pejoratively assign them to the same category as conservative, heterosexual white men. They erase the voices of those who suffer violence and persecution because of their involvement in the drag community. Yet drag and cross dressing have been a part of Western European culture for centuries and have made important contributions to the advancement of LGBT civil rights.
Men dressing as normatively feminized women is not a recent phenomenon. Men dressed in women’s clothes, either as entertainment or as personal gender expression, in the gay brothels of 17th- and 18th-century London. A famous anecdote from the autobiography of the 16th-century Italian painter and libertine Benvenuto Cellini describes dressing one of his young male models as a woman and taking him to a party. Men played female roles on the stage in England and the papal states until late into the early modern period. Sometimes these performances were purposeful transgressions. We only have to note the character types of the skirt roles in Italian opera to see their subversive natures. More recently, gay brothels, bathhouses and bars provided safe spaces for drag, as well as cross dressers and other forms of gender expression. The Stonewall riots were purportedly started by drag queens in protest of police harassment. The ball scene, chronicled in Paris Is Burning and How Do I Look?, has provided space for a huge variety of creative expressions of gender, and for trans women of color. Drag queens still play important roles in the LGBT community as leaders and activists; note the recent attention garnered by the Irish drag performer Panti Bliss. Drag artists have entertained and fascinated public imagination for decades, if not centuries. By doing so they have crossed limits of gender expression and identity and greatly participated in advancing acceptance of LGBT people in Western European and Euro-centric societies.
The idea that they entertain and then return home to their cisgender lives is problematized by the fact that many drag performers are marked as subversively gendered even out of drag. In 2006 the legendary drag performer Kevin Aviance suffered a devastating beating while out of drag. Some queens are regularly harassed, beaten and worse. Furthermore, some physically transform in order to be more feminine, thereby further marking themselves as non-normatively gendered. Recent examples of this from RuPaul’s Drag Race include Detox iCunt and Chad Michaels. Their markedness certainly removes them from the category of “normatively gendered.” Also, other drag performers, including RuPaul, describe childhoods marked by experimentation with makeup, women’s clothes and shoes, and female impersonation. That isn’t anything close to the normatively gendered behavior of young boys, especially at the time. The ball scene, which arose around drag culture, has provided safe spaces for LGBT kids for decades. It has been an avenue particularly useful for community members to educate LGBT youth about safe sex and the risks of violence.