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Joshua Palmer

Joshua Palmer is an MFA candidate in non-fiction at the University of Pittsburgh where he also works for the literary journal Hot Metal Bridge. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Music from Trinity University and his writing and criticism has appeared in Spectrum Culture as well as in the Loser City Multimedia Collective. He is currently researching the cultural history of gay bathhouses in the United States as well as the ethics of abjection in music videos by Arca and Perfume Genius.

"'And the Rest Is Drag:' Queer Identity Border Wars and Gender Embodiment in RuPaul’s Drag Race Lip Syncs."
With the ascendancy of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its creator/host RuPaul Charles from underground queer cult phenomena to undeniable mainstream concerns, the vexed politics of identity and embodiment have inevitably surfaced along with the show itself—particularly in what theorists such as Gayle Rubin, Jack Halberstam, and Susan Stryker have characterized as identity border wars.

As illustrated by RuPaul’s recent comments in an interview with the Guardian suggesting that drag is exclusively the subversive domain of gay cis men (while trans people are portrayed as being burdened by rigidly fixed identities and a “militant earnestness”), the ostensible fluidity of drag is often positioned as implicitly transgressive in the face of normative gender which trans people are accused of reifying. Meanwhile, there are many, such as trans activist and commentator Zinnia Jones, who have argued that transphobia is built into the very structure of drag and that drag queens’ “temporary engagement [and] lighthearted dabbling in extravagant costumes, has done nothing to change who they actually are.” Of course, both of these positions tend to elide a great deal of difference, most notably the long history of gender variance within drag that obviates the ahistorical “man-in-a-dress” paradigm. But the stakes over the disputed borders between drag and trans are high given the massive mainstream appeal of both Drag Race as well as RuPaul as its political avatar. Moreover, this conflict is hardly new having been played out in decades past, both in trans and drag communities as well as in academic and theoretical discourses.

In this paper, I don’t seek to answer the question of “Is drag transphobic?”; rather I want to bring to light the questions subtending this anxiety. Is there a radical difference between drag and trans as identity categories, and, if so, when and under what conditions did such a difference emerge? What is at stake in valorizing gender fluidity as a transgressive virtue? How does literal stage performance affect the validity and/or authenticity of gender embodiment? Using drag ethnographies by those such as Esther Newton and Steven Schacht as well as Gayle Salamon’s work on the phenomenology of transgender embodiment, I want to explore how Drag Race lip syncs as a peculiar mode of musical and gender performance undermine reductive formulations of a) trans people as, in the words of Bernice Hausman, “the dupes of gender,” and b) drag as fraudulent gender embodiment that impinges on the validity of all gender embodiment.