Elektra (Dominique Jackson), a powerful, tall trans woman navigating nineteen-eighties Donald Trump’s New York, uses her sculpted beauty to snag a sugar daddy who keeps her in luxury with a large weekly allowance, a penthouse suite and all the expensive gifts she can beg for. Her daddy makes it clear that he is buying what he wants; she is free to enjoy his lavishings so long as she doesn’t proceed with the gender affirming surgery that she desires so heart achingly. She, in turn, uses the money to buy herself her own reign of terror over a house of marginalised ethnic minority gay, trans and gender non-conforming people who live, as does she, for the glory to be found in the New York’s ball subculture. If this is all getting a little confusing you really need to watch the classic documentary, Paris is Burning, to glimpse the importance of ball culture for New York’s most marginalised queer and ethnic minority kids in those years. Anyway, back to Elektra. She taunts, belittles the ‘children’ of her house, using her power to practically enslave them into treating her like a queen. The money, power and shit all roll down hill.
FX’s new show Pose is a timely peek into a mostly forgotten world. The participants in these balls were all too aware that they lived for a culture of their own making because they would never be accepted by the mainstream culture that literally fashioned the streets, high rises and geography of their city. Money and whiteness were the secrets to power. White rich men could buy themselves a little transgressive sex on the side and keep their power intact and out of the hands of people unlike themselves.
The trans movement was simmering, gestating, growing on these streets, just as was Donald Trump’s empire. If we were given to reductionism we might be tempted to say that the boiling tensions of that blessed and cursed city have now, thirty years later, exploded all over the United States but that would be to ignore the extent to which these same issues were bubbling away at uneven rates elsewhere too.
It is only looking backwards that Donald Trump’s summersault into the Whitehouse off racism’s trampoline becomes the inevitable symbol for this chemical reaction of volatile ingredients: money-power, race relations, and gender and sexual dissidence. Since entering the Whitehouse Trump and his team have embarked on a drip drip campaign to cut off trans people from the rights we have gained and kick us back down into the vulnerable gutters they believe we belong.
In Trump’s New York you could buy anybody you wanted. In Trump’s Washington you can buy the instruments of state power and yet it is always racial minorities and trans and queer people under the boot.
RuPaul’s Drag Race creates a remarkable sanitised tv friendly reinterpretation of ball drag and culture. Corporate image executives from Absolut vodka graced the show season after season, representatives of money-power, checking in to make sure that they were getting what they had paid for.
In one mini-challenge, drag queen contestants had to plug an Absolut cocktail drink during an interview and the Absolut vodka image executive then sat with the show’s judges, critiquing how well they had performed their task. The drag queen contestants, many of them from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds themselves, were literally being trained into money-power servitude. If they didn’t plug that drink hard enough they risked being booted off the show too early and forgotten.
Control over the categorisation of gender and who gets to be where and do what is one of the prizes of power. The show’s premise is that drag in itself is gender radical and yet the show continually hits limits of radicalism. Kept within very careful parameters, the contestants, who were originally intended to have all been gay males — though trans reality keeps intruding from time to time — must keep drag-ging towards very specific aims of what its like to be a woman, what’s ‘fishy’, what’s feminine. In one series a contestant was castigated by the judges for wearing a stunning long flowing white goatee and then, in the very next series, a challenge was set up where all the contestants had to wear facial hair — transgressing normative ideas of what is womanly became sanctioned in that highly controlled moment as if the show is stuck between its conservative structures and a desire to be more radical than it can be.
RuPaul has infamously embroiled himself in few controversies with the trans community as his instincts seem to keep turning back again and again to exclude trans people, to exclude their voices, wishes and desires, how they wish to be spoken about and whether or not they could even audition for his show. Few would accuse RuPaul of heartlessness, indeed, Drag Race’s most endearing feature is the touching humanity that he brings to it and his ability to draw out the contestants’ vulnerabilities, their most painful stories and their yearning for redemption.
Like Elektra, RuPaul shows moments of humility and softness, sometimes listening to the trans community. But, like Elektra, he remains caught up in his little position in the big game. Though she is but a vulnerable trans women in eighties New York, she is queen in her house. In the tenth season of Drag Race, after a particularly tense showdown that verged on bullying a combative contestant, The Vixen — one of the show’s most political drag queens — RuPaul reminded us all that we were in his house and that The Vixen had disrespected him in his own house by walking away from the confrontation. RuPaul forgot to mention that his house is paid for by corporations and sponsors who keep the show apolitical.
Unfortunately we are all in Trump’s house now and undoubtedly RuPaul feels that too. The sense of danger emanating now from the corridors of power makes us all break into cold sweat. Lives are at stake. Lives are already being lost. Migrant families torn apart, trans lives made precarious. We are all in Trump’s house and the shit rolls down hill. RuPaul is stuck in his house — the money-power that pays for his penthouse suite has only one demand, that he not get political. He chose that game, he chose that position but that doesn’t mean that we should follow too closely. Both Elektra and RuPaul in the end show their human sides — they are tragic figures, alienated by the way they choose to engage with money-power. When we take up a position in the money-power game, every relation is touched by that toxic poison. There is a danger that American culture will forget that there are other ways of making culture, other ways of relating to each other. Drag Race is not at all the way drag culture began.
In Pose, Elektra’s house of Abundance is contrasted with Blanca’s house, House of Evangelista. Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), also a trans woman, may not have the money but she keeps her family of vulnerable children, collected off the streets, together through love and dedication.
There are important differences between ball culture and Drag Race. There were no money prizes in the balls, unlike in the dozens of mini and maxi challenges on RuPaul’s gameshow where drag queens compete for financial scraps in a show that rakes in extraordinary amounts of money.
The balls were a response to a world that had made no place for some people. No safe place in the streets, no place in the legal economy, no place in mainstream paradigms of what we should strive for. Those marginalised people created families, created mechanisms for self-esteem, created passions and art and beauty and community, cohesiveness and movement, the basis of a very different kind of power. Ball culture showed that competition needn’t be based on greed or the private accumulation of capital. Competition can be woven through community and love and it can look a lot like cooperation when the lights pull back.
If we are to survive in Trump’s house we need to build our houses like Blanca’s House of Evangelista. We should refuse to take up a position in the money-power pyramid, refuse to wield any power over those more vulnerable than us. Money in Blanca’s house, brought in by those who did sex work or other jobs, was distributed to feed the family’s needs: food, a roof over their heads, furthering their education to pursue new dreams. We should build our houses not on money-power but on sweat and love, on a rejection of the economic principles of capitalism that have led to Trump’s America. It should be made amongst us and for us, to look out for each other, to create a community full of sources of self-esteem and support. We literally need to help each other survive right now. RuPaul’s Drag Race may be fun entertainment, but we cannot let it substitute itself for our culture. Culture needs to be made by us, outside of those halls of power. Survival culture eschews the toxic influence of money as a prime motivator and it values instead collectivity and community. Survival culture cannot fear being political and sometimes provocative though always humble towards each other: listening, caring, nurturing. We survive together or not at all. It is possible to be both defiant and humble; nurturing and fierce.
There is no shame in recognising our true position in Trump’s house, no shame in recognising that survival is our need. It does not make us powerless; their ascendance does not imply our decline. If we refuse to play their rules, refuse to place money-power at the centre of our world then something magical happens. Out from that real, raw messy culture — survival culture — comes a power, opposed to money-power, a power born of love and sweat and necessity.
To understand that power we should read our past from W.E.B Du Bois to Huey P. Newton’s survival programme, to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to the inspiring life of Marsha P. Johnson. In those moments when we turn to each other, when we make community and culture, when we get political together, we create a power that eclipses their deathlike pantomime culture endlessly playing out hate and control and manipulation and greed and narcissism. When evangelical conservatives kiss Trump’s rotten fingertips and sell their skeletons in the temple of capitalism it is time for a new evangelism, a new message, a new hope from the House of Evangelista. Blanca evangelises cohesion, care, culture and sacrifice in a tight knit community built around our base needs: food, a good secure house, education, respect and love. And to that we nod amen: that is the house we should make together.
I came out as trans while living in the wilds and am now turning my home into a free nature retreat for trans and queer people to offer a place to escape and discover a non-urban way of being in the world. Help me keep this project alive with our Patreon campaign and get yourself some cool rewards at the same time! If you like the article, clap and share!