What Can We Do to Make Pride Safer for Trans People?

The supposed “ban” on drag is not really about drag at all. It’s about serving ALL members of the LGBTQIA community and not forcing people to endure being triggered in a space meant for celebrating.
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The supposed “ban” on drag is not really about drag at all. It’s about serving ALL members of the LGBTQIA community and not forcing people to endure being triggered in a space meant for celebrating.

If you’re in any way affiliated with the LGBTQIA community, or just a drag queen groupie, your social media feeds likely blew up last week over the supposed banning of drag from a Pride event in Scotland.

After my inbox exploded with messages asking whether I knew that a Pride event was banning drag, I signed on to see what all the fuss was about. I assumed, perhaps naively, that some evil group of super straight homophobic villains were using their giant piles of money and corporate sponsorship sway to kick queens out of Pride. Of course, once I actually did some interweb sleuthing, I learned that I was totally wrong.

I clicked through a few of the links that I’d been sent. The headlines were certainly click-baity and made liberal use of the word “ban.” Most of the outrage I saw being shared seemed justified -- a lot of the headlines and links used wording that made it seem like there were no drag queens allowed at Glasgow Pride at all -- but I couldn’t really suss out why. The wording was so muddy but the outrage so real, it seemed like something was a little off.

Further investigation revealed that the organization issuing the ban was not, in fact, the main Glasgow Pride, but a smaller, alternative group called Free Pride Glasgow. Their mission, as outlined on their Facebook page, reads as follows:

Pride should be a protest and accessible to all. We are a group of LGBTQIA+ people with a vision to build something different. We want to "free pride"!

That actually sounds pretty rad and like something that I, a totally queer liberal with a history of anti-consumerist leanings, can get behind.

Let’s think about the root and purpose of Pride for a moment. (This will also come in handy the next time your backwards neighbor or smart-ass uncle asks, “Why isn’t there a straight Pride?”).

Pride marks a safe space where LGBTQ people are free to be themselves and to celebrate their love, their life, and their journeys. You know, the things that straight people get to do just by being considered the default norm. (Hence why we don’t have “straight pride” because that shit just kind of happens everyday).

Pride was initially born out of the revolutionary actions of individuals at the Stonewall Riot in 1969. The inciting event at Stonewall was followed by several days of demonstrations in New York and was the impetus for the formation of the first major LGBTQ civil rights organizations.

And at the heart of the action on that fateful night were lesbians, gay men, transgender individuals, drag queens, and a racially diverse community. Individuals who, plain and simple, had had enough. These were people who were sick and tired of feeling unsafe, of living in fear, of being harassed, terrorized, and forced to live life without the same rights of heterosexual people.

But as Pride has become more mainstream, some members of the community feel, rightfully so, that they are being left behind. More and more Pride parades feature corporate sponsors, “family-friendly” (code: toned down, not kinky or sexy) entertainment, and overwhelmingly serve the “G” in the acronym.* (You can see why I assumed, at the top of the article, that a homophobic Scrooge McDuck was trying to greywash everyone’s rainbows, right?)

In 2010 activist Judith Butler called attention to this very issue when she refused to accept the Civil Courage Award at Berlin Pride. At this year’s Boston Pride, a group of activists staged a sit-in to disrupt the parade and used the social media hashtag #wickedpissed to bring focus to these same issues. (The official tag of Boston Pride is #wickedproud).

So the formation of Free Pride seems like a logical and natural extension of Pride events and a return to the radical roots of Stonewall and the first Pride celebration on Christopher Street in 1970. The Free Pride organizers saw a need in the community for a non-corporate, more inclusive space, to serve less represented members of the community. That mission, in and of itself, made sense to me, personally, as a reason to forego using drag performers for entertainment.

In terms of visibility, drag queens and gay men have become almost staple figures in pop culture. It’s not unusual for a television series to cast a gay man as the lead or write compelling parts for gay male characters. And thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag queens are definitely earning cross-over status as entertainers.

Free Pride’s initial statement never used the word “ban.” Rather the organizers highlighted issues surrounding drag culture and performance that made event organizers and potential attendees feel unsafe:

It was felt by the group within the Trans/Non Binary Caucus that some drag performance, particularly cis drag, hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke, however transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke. This can particularly difficult for those who are not out and still present as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Every event production team has criteria for selecting its performers. The above simply highlights the criteria put forth by the Free Pride team.

I will admit that at first I was confused by some of the statement. I’ve been performing in and producing drag shows for the better part of five years. I’ve had the immense privilege to work alongside many fabulous performers - kings (like me), queens, gender benders, lady queens, and so on. While touring and producing I’ve also met my fair share of trans performers, many of whom cite drag as being part of what helped them come out or to feel comfortable in their identities. BUT, I’ve also had the displeasure of working with entertainers who throw around slurs or misogynist language, or mock people’s gender presentation. They’re happily few and far between, but they’re out there.

A backstage selfie.

A backstage selfie.

In an updated statement that amended the performance criteria to include drag performers, Free Pride wrote:

Our event aims to represent those underrepresented in our community, including but not limited to trans and non-binary people, women, People of colour, intersex people, asexual people and people with disabilities. As such we have decided to prioritise the needs of trans women to feel safe and included in our event.

I love that queens continuously open doors and push boundaries for other entertainers. I love that Drag Race earns Emmy nominations, solidifying drag as a viable, successful art form with large scale appeal. But, when drag queens like RuPaul and the Lady Bunny unapologetically use a slur like the T-word, I can easily understand how Free Pride’s policy comes into play. The flagrant use of a word, for comedic or shock purposes, that is associated with violence against transpeople, makes for an environment that is neither safe, welcoming, or community building.

On Free Pride’s Facebook page there are thousands of comments. A common theme among them is that Free Pride, as an organization, is causing division within the LGBTQ community. 

While I certainly think some of the execution regarding Free Pride’s initial announcement could have been better, I don’t think that their event or policy are at issue here. Clickbait headlines from mainstream media sources that use words like “ban” (when that was not in fact the initial wording) or that pit the needs of the trans community against the larger LGBTQ umbrella are divisive. NewNowNext’s initial coverage of the ban included screen captures of a large selection of tweets opposing the ban. With the exception of Michelle Visage, the voices amplified were of cisgender and mostly white men. The demands for the most marginalized members of our communities to not speak out, or to remain uncomfortable -- that is divisive. The persistence of some entertainers to continue to use a slur with a violent history attached to it, and to do so on large platforms -- that is divisive.

At the end of the day the supposed “ban” on drag is not really about drag at all. It’s about serving ALL members of the LGBTQIA community and not forcing people to endure being mocked or triggered in a space meant for celebrating.

We understand that many, if not all other venues celebrating pride around Glasgow will have drag performers throughout the day and so we want to provide something different. We understand that drag is multifaceted and complex, and drag acts come from all angles and in a lot of different styles and we certainly do not want to attack individual drag queens or imply that all drag is inherently transphobic or problematic. However our focus for the day will be on creating an alternative that puts minorities within our community at the heart of the event. (Emphasis mine)

I am being honest when I say that I don’t understand how anyone can argue with the mission as outlined above. Pride was born out of a need for safe spaces. Some members of our community don’t feel safe or served by mainstream Pride so they are creating their own. That’s okay.

Many drag performers I saw posting about the event felt that Glasgow Free Pride was maligning all drag performers -- kings, queens, hyper/lady queens, gender benders etc. I saw a number of posts that read: “a few bad apples ruin the bunch;” or “I’m offended that I’m being lumped into all of this...” When one is in a place of privilege (and yes, privilege exists within the strata of the marginalized), it’s easy to see a statement like that of Free Pride as being directed at you -- the individual. 

But it’s not. The decision to form the event and guide its entertainment the way the directors have is about addressing real issues in Pride and the LGBTQIA community at the systemic level.

When allies or those with more privilege enter into a conversation like the one above and start with “but not all ____” they make the conversation about themselves when it’s not. When Michelle Visage (who I am usually a huge fan of, but hey you should be able to question your role models, right?) tweets: “this is also what i mean about gay on gay issues. IF WE DON'T SUPPORT AND PROMOTE EACH OTHER, WHO WILL?! we need to lift each other UP!” she unintentionally asks some of the voices she’s talking about to shut up.

Steamrolling the real and present issues within the contemporary gay civil rights movement to focus only on the shiny positives, keeps ALL of us oppressed. We can celebrate marriage equality while understanding that real, legal discrimination still exists. We can applaud Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner’s visibility while also recognizing that trans-women are victims of violent crimes at an alarming and disproportionate rate. We can love the sassy gay best friend trope while questioning why that role never goes to a lesbian. We can ask why there’s never been a gay version of The Bachelor. We can recognize that privilege exists within our community. And for those of us with privilege, our roles as allies are to listen and amplify the voices of the people we are present to support - not drown them out.

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* In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a gender-queer individual who identifies with the all but invisible “B”.