With friends like these: Allies, we need you to act like allies.

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Last week, the USM Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity announced that their 16th Annual Royal Majesty Drag Competition would be held on the same day as the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). In response to an outcry from the community, the organization rescheduled the event. Jane Doe asked if she could share some of her feelings and insights on the debacle, “good intentions,” and drag culture generally.

Doe wishes to remain anonymous due to fear of backlash from the LGB and drag communities for speaking out. She is a trans woman in her twenties who lives in greater Portland.

With Friends Like These

Last week, the USM Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity announced that their 16th Annual Royal Majesty Drag Competition and Show would take place on November 20th. While this mid-late November date range is typical for the event, this year the proposed date fell exactly on the same day as the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR).

If there is a High Holy Day in the trans* community, it’s TDOR. It is a day when trans* folk and allies come together in solemn remembrance to memorialize the members of our community, known and unknown, that have been taken from us too soon, many by acts of transphobic violence. In 2015 alone, there have been at least 23 trans* people murdered in North America — that we know about. Overwhelmingly, the names we read are those of trans women of color. This is not including trans* people that have taken their own lives, and others who have been murdered and harmed in the rest of the world.

TDOR is a global memorial service. This will be the 17th consecutive year we observe the day on November 20th.

When trans* folk and allies raised concerns about the scheduling of a major drag party on the night of TDOR, the organizers were understandably contrite. Calls for dialogue about how to best move forward, however, implied that there is a solution to this problem that includes keeping the event on November 20th. For many of us, even those that have no problems with drag and drag culture, that’s simply unacceptable.

That’s when cis privilege really reared its ugly head. Some drag-supporting cis people, or those that identify with the gender that corresponds to their sex assigned at birth, accused trans* folks and allies of being divisive, disrespectful, threatening, and looking down our noses at other members of the community. We are told that we should be grateful for drag queens and kings because we owe them so much. We were repeatedly told to get over it and move on.

At one point, a particularly condescending cis drag performer asked if the murdered trans* folk we will gather to memorialize would really want us speaking out so forcefully, accusing us of throwing “hatred and disrespect.” This was all because we simply expressed  concerns with cis members of the LGB community throwing a problematic party on the night of a funeral.

A cis drag performer tried to tell trans* people what trans* victims of murder would have wanted. If you still think the problem here is a scheduling conflict, you need to check your privilege.

Drag culture has a long, storied history of violent sexism and transmisogyny. On one end, we have drag performers like Shirley Q. Liquor, an appallingly racist, sexist and transphobic drag queen who uses blackface and the character of a “welfare queen” for comedic effect. This horrific drag performer is unapologetically supported by the patron saint of modern drag culture, RuPaul Charles. On the other end, we have hundreds of seemingly benign sexist and transphobic microaggressions perpetrated by mostly cis people under the guise of fun performance art.

Drag queens have historically been the worst of the lot. Their personas are exaggerated caricatures of femininity, but the root of the joke is evident — they are men in dresses, and that is something to find funny. Women, and trans women in particular, are the punchlines in one extended bit. It is not uncommon to hear drag queens comfortably and frequently throw around words like “slut,” “b*tch,” “f*ggot,” “tr*nny,” and “c*nt.” Cis men, appropriating from the oppressed, excused as art.

Last year, after outcry of RuPaul Charles and his show starring drag queens using violently transphobic language, former Drag Race contestant Alaska Thunderf*ck posted a video that appeared to show him shooting and killing a trans woman —who was identified as a trans woman by their wig and mustache.

Even if we were to erase the history of appropriation and oppression associated with drag and drag culture, drag queens are particularly problematic in that they perpetuate the idea that trans women are the same as drag queens, and that our trans-ness is an over-the-top performance we refuse to turn off. When politicians and right-wing activists try to deny us housing, or employment, or our right to use the bathroom, we get called “drag queens” and “men in dresses.” When trans women are found murdered, they are frequently called men in dresses, purposefully misgendered by local media and police. There’s also the “trans panic defense,” a legal defense that suggests that men can be so repulsed at the thought of being romantically involved with a “he/she,” they shouldn’t be held liable for bashing or murdering them. Only one state, California, has legally banned its use.

The “man in a dress” gag has historically been used in media to belittle trans women under the guise of comedy. There is a direct through line from how gender expression is mocked by people with privilege and how cis people view and devalue trans* people.Intentional or not, drag culture feeds transphobia, and that attitude leads directly to violence and oppression against trans women.

This structural disrespect of trans* people isn’t limited to drag performers. Earlier this year, local LGBT advocacy group EqualityMaine held a fundraiser that gave participants a chance to win tickets to a local RuPaul’s Drag Race event. What’s worse, they knew how problematic some would find the fundraiser and still went ahead with it. At the bottom of the solicitation was this addendum:

“Please note: We are aware that some members of our community are not fans of RuPaul or the Drag Race show. Please know that we respect you. We also know that there are others whom are avid fans. Our goal is to offer this special opportunity for those who’d like to attend.”

Well, it’s good to know we’re respected. It’s hard to not feel like an afterthought.

Drag is violent and oppressive. It is, by definition and nature, sexist and transphobic. Those who suggest that culture, fun and good intentions serve as adequate justification for continuing to engage in behavior that perpetuates a culture of violence are veering uncomfortably close to “Heritage Not Hate” territory.

On Friday, the organizers of the USM drag show agreed to not hold the event on the TDOR. This was an important decision that speaks to the good nature of those involved. Throughout this incident, I never questioned the intentions of anyone involved in the event — the organizers, the performers, the participants — but good intentions alone can only get you so far. Allyship is about listening, learning, responsiveness, and supporting impacted communities.

The foundation of problematic allyship is well-meaning ignorance.

What I take issue with is the disrespectful and dismissive attitudes of entitled cis people that refuse to acknowledge the problems with drag culture and confront the consequences of their actions — all the while claiming to be trans* allies.

The job of an ally is not to declare how much you’ve done for a community. It is not to tell members of a community you do not belong to how they should feel about your actions and intentions. It is not about publicly patting yourself on the back for your open-mindedness.

The job of an ally is to listen to the voices of the oppressed and learn. It is to amplify their voices when it comes to issues affecting their community. It is to change behavior when we say there’s a problem.

Allies, there’s a problem.

You do not get to decide how we feel about what you choose to do. You do not get to decide for us how to best mourn the people we’ve lost. You do not get to tell us to shut up and still call yourself an ally.

It’s not just this particular conflict, and it’s not just the excused sexism and transphobia in the drag community. The root of this problem is the uneasy place we trans* people occupy in the wider LGBT community and movement.

Many smarter people than I have written eloquently about the place we occupy within our purported home community, and whether or not we should stay united. Our issues have are often overlooked, pushed to the side, delayed, delayed, delayed, and our existence under the LGBT umbrella has been called into question by more than one heteronormative homosexual. This deep divide came to a head in 2007 when then-Rep. Barney Frank, the lead sponsor of the bill to provide workplace protections for LGBT-people and an out gay man, unceremoniously stripped protections for transgender workers in an attempt to gain more votes. Trans* people were cast aside for momentary political gain — all with the backing of the largest LGBT advocacy group in America, the Human Rights Campaign. This is a move Mr. Frank was still defending as recently as last year.

With friends like these.

So when cis gay men accuse trans women of tearing our community apart for sticking up for ourselves, I feel compelled to ask — “what community?”

Papi Edwards. Lamia Beard. Ty Underwood. Yazmin Vash Payne. Taja DeJesus. Penny Proud. Bri Golec. Kristina Gomez Reinwald. Sumaya Ysl. Keyshia Blige. Vanessa Santillan. Mya Hall. London Chanel. Mercedes Williamson. Jasmine Collins. Ashton O’Hara. India Clarke. K.C. Haggard. Amber Monroe. Shade Scholar. Kandis Capri. Elisha Walker. Tamara Dominguez.

These are some of the names of the people we will be memorializing this year.

It’s not my place to speculate about what they may have wanted us to do in their memory, but every trans* person I know fights every single day for a life of dignity and respect. We fight for jobs, for housing, and against social oppression. We fight to be recognized, to have our very identities respected. We fight against violence and ridicule. We fight to survive.

We shouldn’t have to fight our friends for a modicum of respect.

Let this conflict be the reckoning the LGBT community in Maine needs. No person that claims to be a trans* ally can continue to support drag culture in good conscience. No organization that claims to support trans* rights can continue to sponsor drag events. No community that claims to be inclusive can continue to support oppressive behavior against some of its own.

Allies, we need you to act like allies. Let’s end the sexist and transphobic practice of drag so that we may move forward — together.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.