The Importance of Visibility

The Shifting Definition of ‘Drag’

When drag enters the mainstream, the prevalent idea is that it’s the art of female illusion. But there’s more to that story. Drag is a powerful force that can provide an outlet of increased self-awareness and self-expression to those engaging in the act. Examining what it means to be able to break through the dichotomous two-gender, masculine or feminine, ideals that are in place within society at large.

“The body of the performer highlights the social basis of gender and sexuality and becomes a weapon to contest dominant heterosexual gender codes,” this, according to authors of Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to Be a Drag Queen.

Drag has never reached such visibility than in the early 21st Century. With reality shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, now in its ninth season, to its featured drag contestants being plucked to appear in national marketing campaigns for Magnum ice cream bars and for the multi-national coffee chain, Starbucks. The stakes to change the game have never been higher.

Though, there’s been pushback on subverting the idea of drag. RuPaul, acting as a gatekeeper of what passes from the innovative realm to the general population, has been hesitant to fully integrate cisgender females, or those labeled women from birth, on the show.

RuPaul has given flippant remarks in the past when pressed on opening the show up to more of these types of performers. And transgender contestants in the past, those that have transitioned from male to female, had to hide this part of themselves in fear of being passed over in the competition. Those queens, such as Season 3’s Carmen Carrera and Season 5’s Monica Beverly Hillz, have since been critical of the show’s use of the term ‘she-male’ and have expressed the term dehumanizes those that identity as trans.

The closest we’ve come to shaking the status quo is meeting current season contestant Peppermint. This NYC drag performer is the first openly transgender contestant in the show’s history. She went on to place second, beating out 12 other racers.

What Peppermint represents, and now her increased visibility, is truly historic. Even more so now that the show jumped from Logo, often excluded from basic cable packages, to the more well-known station, VH1, just this year. Drag race is now in more homes across America, and in turn, that means Peppermint’s journey is too.

There’s been some struggle along the way. The queen said of her experience on the show, in the final YouTube webisode of Untucked, the companion after-show to drag race, that for so long she had to build a wall between the two parts of herself. Between being a trans woman and a drag queen, which she described as “exhausting.”

“I had to hide the fact that I was trans.”

The show has lent her the ability to reconcile these two identities and tear down that bitch of a bearing wall. She’s said she was finally able to show the world the true Peppermint. This visibility is important not just for other trans women who want to be a part of the competition, but also those who feel they need a voice, especially in today’s politically divisive climate.

Peppermint’s rise comes at a time when transgender people across this country are under attack. Last year marked a particularly turbulent time and LGBT murders rose 217 percent, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Of those murdered, 68 percent identified as transgender.

A Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition study estimates trans women face a 4.3 times higher risk of being murdered compared to cis women in the U.S., and at least 87 percent of trans people murdered from 2013 to 2015 were people of color.

Peppermint is not only a trans woman, but she’s also a trans woman of color. Her visibility gives a voice to a particularly vulnerable sub-group inside an already marginalized sub-group, the ‘T’ in LGBT.

Pierretta Viktori has a lot of work ahead of her. Around her studio space are half-finished costumes and padding strewn about and at the heart of it, is a mannequin wearing a fish costume. She’s a costume designer by day and a drag performer by night. She’s in the middle of creating a tear-away look, one that starts off as Disney-Pixar’s Dory and goes into a skeleton of the beloved character. It might be a little dark, but Pierretta isn’t one to shy away from the shocking. She’s a drag queen, but she’s also a cisgender female.

Anything surrounding the drag persona, it’s she/her, out of drag it’s they/them.

Pierretta Viktori, Photo Courtesy of Facebook

As she breaks down what a loop stitch is, she mentions that one of her spools is still in “Peppermint’s color.” She’s made a few pieces for the trans competitor, specifically the dress she wore in the season 9 finale.

Pierretta is in full support of Peppermint’s rise, but thinks the show can go further.

“My view is, the best way to change someone’s mind is to prove them wrong.”

If the show is going to get contestants, regardless of their gender identity and who are undeniably talented, then something will have to give. RuPaul will eventually have to take notice and give a cisgender female(s) queen the chance to compete.

Pierretta has also made costumes for Season 8’s Acid Betty and says the drag queen shares the same sentiment. “When I was working with Acid Betty, I was telling her about it, she’s like ‘no, I think that, that’s the next step. That’s the way to make the show shocking again.’ Drag is becoming mainstream, but then people just picture drag as men.”

Pierretta says when she first started, people weren’t so kind to the idea of a cis female doing drag. Judges for an online drag contest told her she was a shoe in, later revoking their offer.

“I had two out of five judges tell me I would get on, but at the last minute they were like ‘oh no, we’re not picking any biologically female contestants because it’s not fair.’”

Though the world of reality television is changing, the NYC drag circuit can still get caught up on labels. Beyond the computer screen, she performs with a collective known as LadyQueen. She said her collective has faced verbal harassment, with them fearing it would turn physical, from fellow male drag queens who felt they just didn’t belong. “One of the other contestants, who’s male, was upset she didn’t place because apparently, she was telling her friend, ‘I’ve got rent to pay,’ as if the rest of us don’t. She goes into the dressing room and starts screaming at my friends, ‘you don’t belong here, you’re not part of this community.’”

The collective then channeled this experience into a future show with all feminists. Pierretta performed Klaus Nomi’s 1981 cover of “You Don’t Own Me.” Saying she chose this version because “it says ‘don’t say I can’t play with other boys’” and that it fit perfectly into the theme of the event. That the collective was here “saying we can do this and we’re going to show you what we got.”

So, the idea of drag is not just one of female illusion, anymore. As it leaps into the mainstream, all representations of it should follow suit. And although Pierretta knows it’ll take some time for cisgender females to take laps, she’s still rooting for Peppermint and what it could mean for the bigger picture.

“What makes me especially happy is remembering that at our final fitting, a day or two before Peppermint left for the show, she was twirling around her living room in this dress telling me that if she made it to the end, this is what she wanted to wear for the final runway. Seeing that moment actually manifest on the show made me cry, and I’m so incredibly proud to see (and I guess help contribute to) her moving on to the finale as a NYC legend who deserves the world, as the show’s first out and proud trans woman of color finalist,” Pierretta said in a Facebook post.

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