At 17, I started going to Peaches Christ’s late, great Midnight Mass shows at the now-closed Bridge Theater. The Bay Area queens who performed were hilarious, crude and hugely entertaining, and each show was a carefully planned work of art, from the brutally beautiful drag queen roller derby to the Showgirls‘ glittery, choreographed dance numbers.
My friends and I learned a lot of drag vocabulary before Tyra Banks started wiggling her fingers and calling everything “fierce” on TV, long before the cries of “Yaaaaaaaaas!” and “Werk!” entered the white, mainstream national dialogue.
The word “tranny” was omnipresent and used to describe both trans women and the queens themselves. Trannyshack, a monthly drag night at The Stud, drew wall-to-wall crowds (I went once, but spent most of the time waiting to get in. My friends and I made met a kindly queen in the endless line, and she asked us to accompany her to a nearby 7-11: the staff “didn’t like big girls,” she said. )
Today, Peaches movies and pre-shows start at the more reasonable hour of 8 p.m. at The Castro Theater – a neighborhood home to sky high-real estate, a lot of white, wealthy gay men and an increasing number of hetero couples pushing baby carriages. RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants usually headline. The shows are fun and all, but they’re a far cry from the artful, weird late night Midnight Masses. And let’s be real, probably half of the weirdo queens are probably living in Oakland by now.
Last year, Trannyshack founder Heklina changed the name to T-Shack in response to growing controversy over the “t-word” –fueled, in part to its use on Drag Race, with its “You’ve got She-Mail” catch phrase, and also to increased visibility of trans people and issues.
Former contestants Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly Hillz are among the trans women who’ve spoken out against the show’s language.
But RuPaul isn’t having it.
“You know, I can call myself a n*****r, faggot, tranny all I want to, because I’ve fucking earned the right to do it. I’ve lived the life,” RuPaul told Marc Maron in an interview last summer.
“I’ve been on the front line. … And if I call my girlfriend ‘bitch,’ she knows I’m talking about it from a place of love. She knows that. But people out of school can take that same information and try to use it against me, because the ego cannot pick up the intention behind it.”
But what we say among our like-minded friends will never have the same impact as what we say on national television. Transgender people may have more visibility than ever, but that’s not saying all that much. Trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson led the gay rights movements of the 60’s, but trans women are still society’s most marginalized – despite the fact that people love to appropriate the language, looks, and culture of the ballroom scene, memorably captured in the iconic film Paris is Burning (if you’ve never seen it, do it now!)
Drag Race is a show where people consistently get real about love, rejection, family, society and gender identity. A show with trans contestants. Unlike on most reality TV competitions, Ru makes a point to treat each contestant with love, gentleness and respect- something the trans community could use far more of.
Despite Ru’s protests, we will probably hear far less of the t-word this season- and “You’ve got She-Mail” has been traded in for the “She done already done had herses.” (I don’t know.)
My favorite explanation for dropping the t-word came from Marke B, who wrote about the T-Shack name change in a 2014 SF Bay Guardian column:
“I’m just fine with dropping “tranny” to make people feel a little safer. Yes, I enjoy deliciously offensive things as much as the next whatever-I-am. But I don’t believe there’s any such thing as “the word police” (though I can imagine the fabulous uniform) — and if someone asks me to stop saying something because they’re scared, then OK.”