OPINION: Drag Shouldn’t Be Blamed for Police Insensitivity

A significant part of LGBTQ culture isn't solely to blame for police miscategorizing trans crime victims.

A drag show in the Gayborhood.

Over the past week, news of the Pennsylvania State Police miscategorizing victims of anti-transgender crimes as engaging in male or female “portrayal” has sparked controversy in the LGBTQ community.

The dismissal of someone’s gender identity as a “portrayal” – rather than who they actually are – is problematic for numerous reasons. However, a new scapegoat being thrown into the discussion of the hard time police are having properly identifying trans victims is quite surprising: Some people are suggesting that drag culture is to blame.

Nationally, there has been a very subtle tension between those who perform drag and those who are transgender. On both sides, there have been insults across the board to discredit authenticity. Some who have performed drag have poorly misgendered transpeople, while some trans individuals have insulted the drag art form as a cartoonish depiction of transpeople and/or various genders.

“Drag hurts the trans community, and the most vulnerable part of the community, trans women,” said Julie Chovanes, a local transwoman and attorney, in an email. “To say there is another ‘dimension’ is to have some gay drag queen talking about how he loves trans women and drag doesn’t hurt them, just like in the old days people could say blackface doesn’t hurt black people.”

Drag can be considered offensive when taken out of context, but LGBTQ insensitivity can’t be easily dismissed as a result. For one, blackface and drag aren’t the same thing. Historically, blackface was a racist cultural embrace that excluded black members from the actual industry that practiced it. Hollywood back then didn’t care much for having integrated theaters and images on the screen, so they just portrayed those roles instead.

Drag, on the other hand, is far less oppressive in nature. One can perform in drag as a form of gender expression without having to take away the visibility and inclusion of another individual. Sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity are three separate things. Drag allows an intersection of various gender portrayals and identities to be artistically expressed without hindering others.

The art form is meant to be liberating and creative, especially for a community that has often had to suppress its gender fluidity throughout history. Personally, my queer identity in gender expression has always allowed me to feel comfortable in exploring various ways understanding myself. I have performed in drag shows for charity events as a way to tap into personalities and identities that I never felt comfortable expressing in heteronormative patriarchal spaces.

And perhaps therein lies the problem – police perhaps have yet to understand the difference between drag and transgender identities, because drag has culturally been more mainstream. But that doesn’t mean that drag should be abandoned from our culture or blamed for the ignorance of others. That would almost be as if someone felt that hip-hop music should be banned because some cops associated young black men as criminals based on the cultural misperceptions of it.

Calling for the end of drag comforts the oppressor, not the oppressed. It shifts the blame game on those who are trying to understand themselves rather than those who are stubborn to change. Positive forms of creativity shouldn’t stiffen because old institutions are rigid to adjust.

Instead, we should push local law enforcement to understand that drag isn’t an identity, but an art form. LGBTQ sensitivity training needs to be a mandatory priority for all local police departments statewide. More scrutiny and work should be invested in uncovering one’s identity, rather than dismissing it as simply a “portrayal.” For such performances occur on stages, not in life-and-death situations.