Transsexual drag entertainers as keepers of queer power-knowledge.

Author:Reicherzer, Stacee
Position:Essay
 
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Within both historical (Weinberg, 1972; Sears, 2001) and contemporary (Berkowitz & Belgrave, 2010; Berkowitz, Belgrave, & Halberstein, 2007; Friedman & Jones, 2011; Moreman & McIntosh, 2010; Rupp, Taylor, & Shapiro, 2010; Taylor & Rupp, 2004, 2005) social science research, a great deal of professional interest has been directed to drag queen phenomena. The research emphasis of drag queen identity has tended to examine males who choose to express an aspect of feminine gender blending, but who generally do not wish to permanently alter the sex features of their bodies or otherwise live as women. Drag queen, as a cultural and identity reference, has traditionally been used to describe experiences such as those of participants in Friedman and Jones's (2011) ethnographic study, in which "men dress in drag and perform live shows in a gay bar" (p. 84). Throughout the literature, emphasis has invariably been placed in the distinction that drag queens live and identify as men, not as women or transsexuals.

Whereas a transsexual woman participated in at least one ethnographic study of drag queen culture (Taylor & Rupp, 2004, 2005), little focus was given beyond the novelty of this transwoman's breasts in representing an identity that led Taylor and Rupp to colloquially reference her within a classification of "titty queens," (2004, p. 115) which they note is a term used by others associated with the drag community. The reference point of transsexual entertainers in Taylor and Rupp's study was somewhat useful in delineating a distinction between male drag queens and transsexual entertainers; however, no additional contextualizing took place that examined the lived experiences for this woman in negotiating spaces between her female and drag identities. In fact, as the title for the 2004 article, Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to be a Drag Queen, suggested, the authors viewed their transsexual participant as one of the many "chicks with dicks," (p.113) whom they studied.

This conceptual article was developed based on emergent results of the lead author's multiple case study of resiliency in the lives of transsexual Mexican women in which two of the participants worked as drag entertainers (citation removed for blind review). For both of these entertainers, the term drag was used to explain their expression of gender that was used solely in queer spaces. Whereas they lived as women and preferred to pass as natal females in their daily lives, drag (voluminously curled and teased hairpieces, beaded and low-cut gowns and dance costumes, theatrical make-up) symbolized their occupation in queer space, and was seen as a place of freedom and acceptance from the scrutiny they received in their daily lives. Participants revealed compelling information about their lives both in and out of drag, and about the relationships with others in the drag world. The language they used in describing themselves, while not conclusive or necessarily generalizable to other transsexual entertainers, voices a unique experience that invites further develop within professional discourse.

Background Literature

The challenge in specifying discourse on the transsexual drag entertainer is that virtually no cohesive body of literature exists to help clarify her lived experience, or the resiliency needed for navigating the challenges of her identity. She stands in apparent contradiction to distinctions that male drag queens have made that they live as men and wish to be understood as such (Friedman & Jones, 2011), and to distinctions that many transgender women have made that they are not drag queens and resent conflation of female identity with gender performance (Patton, 2009). In a review of literature, no studies were found that sought to responsibly identify and clarify language used by transsexual entertainers that they, and not an outside entity, had appropriated for themselves.

In the instances of being identified as both "titty queens" and "chicks with dicks" (Taylor & Rupp, 2004, 2005), some of the risks in not critically examining terminology placed on members of a culturally specific group become apparent. In both of these, a potentially pejorative or demeaning word for one's anatomy was incorporated. Clearly the authors made attempt to delineate differences in a way that made sense to them, based on the information they had; however, in doing so, they may have functionally recreated a system of hierarchical sex and gender within the queer space that these participants occupied.

While Taylor and Rupp's (2004/2005) research was not intended to denigrate participants' gender or sex characteristics, the impact of word choice on readers' perceptions must be considered; moreover, word choice, and the definition of discourse that this creates, may have far-reaching implications. French philosopher Michele Foucault described discourse in terms of creating meaning and defining how we think about any given subject based on the language we choose (Foucault, 1972). Consider the following example for further elucidation. Every year a number of people travel to the United States from other countries for the purpose of obtaining work, whether this be for a short term period or for the rest of their lives. Notice the difference made by an argument that includes the term undocumented worker versus illegal alien. In the former, a person's humanity is maintained; in the latter, she or he is reduced to something less than human. In instances in which those in power consider themselves to be more worthy, or the targeted person becomes dehumanized, it becomes easier to exert power with less restriction (Zimbardo, 2011). When one considers this example in the context of Taylor and Rupp's (2004, 2005) description of "titty queens" and "chicks with dicks," a hierarchical use of language and its impact on the reader's perception (whether this be on a conscious level or not) of the person or culture in question, could be thought of as potentially dangerous. Part of the risk of using this language is impacting even the way that reader's conceptions of these individuals are shaped; in other words, all thought related to the targeted persons then becomes bound by limitations created by language. The lasting effect of this on the reader's long-term beliefs about these performers is unknown.

Queer theory, as an explanation of gender and sexual identities as non-dichotomous and non-mutually exclusive (Burdge, 2007; Plummer, 2005) often remains an abstraction rather than a practice. Whereas we recognize gender as a fluid...

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