I think it says something about the US that our first famous drag queen—not Milton Berle in a dress, but a true drag queen—does not use a drag name and doesn’t care about pronouns. (And does not, from what I can tell, understand the issues of the trans community, which I know is a serious problem that some people have with him.) Just as I’ve always been relatively unsurprised that our first black President has no slave ancestry. We prefer our landmarks relatively uncontroversial. RuPaul has for decades now danced on the border of acceptable in the US, though by doing so, he’s yanking that border into places we might not have expected in the early ’90s.
RuPaul is actually his real name; apparently, the “Ru” refers to roux. His mother was from Louisiana. In the early ’80s, he moved from his native San Diego to Atlanta to study the performing arts and started his media career by appearing on a local public access show. In fact, he appears in the B-52s video “Love Shack,” resplendent in an afro and a two-piece white ensemble. (Twenty-six years ago this month, I danced to that video with a group of kids from Athens, Georgia, one of whom told me to always remember that fact—because that’s where the band is from.) By the early ’90s, he was a club staple in New York. In 1993, RuPaul recorded the album Supermodel of the World, spawning the unexpected hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work).” RuPaul became the first model for the MAC Viva Glam line, a cosmetics line that donates its proceeds to HIV/AIDS research and helping battle the link between poverty and the disease.
I first saw him in the “Love Shack” video, probably, and I was familiar with “Supermodel (You Better Work).” My first experience with him in a broader venue, though, was his appearance as Miss Rachel Tensions in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. This was at roughly the same time as his appearance in The Brady Bunch. Suddenly, everyone knew who RuPaul was. He was even on an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, for heaven’s sake, which I have not seen but which must be truly bizarre. He’s on an episode of Bubble Guppies, a show my son Simon watches sometimes that I can’t stand, as “RuPearl.” Of course. And he goes back and forth between being credited as RuPaul and RuPaul Charles.
Currently, there is RuPaul’s Drag Race, which I must admit I don’t watch but which has gotten him in some trouble because he has, let’s be real, a ’90s attitude toward gender and sexuality. It’s hard to realize it sometimes, but he’s 58. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that being older makes you more conservative, but I do think it’s true that views that were progressive when you were young become conservative as you age. I myself have always used “them” as a third-person singular for a person of unknown gender—as in, “someone left their backpack under my desk.” It took me longer to come around to “them” to mean “I do not identify on a gender binary.” My five-year-old got the hang of that faster than I did. RuPaul’s views on gender are shaped by being the age he is and growing up in the communities he did. He needs to progress, and I don’t deny that, even when I say I can understand why he thinks the way he does.
It genuinely amazes me that his first film role was “Bodega Woman” in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, given Spike Lee has not himself always had the most progressive attitudes toward gender and sexuality. But I think in many ways RuPaul’s best role is in But I’m a Cheerleader, where he plays the ex-gay Mike, who is supposed to be setting a good example to the teens under his care as they “become straight” but is struggling with his own attraction to Rock (Eddie Cibrian), who clearly knows how difficult he’s making things for Mike and revels in it. Though at the time, I was mostly startled by seeing RuPaul dressed as a man.
I’ve already told you a lot about RuPaul, but there’s one last thing we have to talk about, and that’s intersectionalism. RuPaul is a 6’4″ black man, and the fact that he wears heels sometimes that make him considerably closer to seven feet tall doesn’t mean he doesn’t also deal with issues of race. Which is at least part of the joke behind his appearance in a sequinned Confederate flag dress, really. He’s dealt with discrimination—Entertainment Weekly refused to review one of his albums and instead suggested that he contribute toward a comedy piece, which he did not do—and it’s difficult to tell, sometimes, how much of it is because of the drag queen thing and how much is because of the black thing. That is one place he’s not uncontroversial, because by being a black man who is also gay, he’s at the intersection of two of the biggest issues in American society. For that alone, he and people like him deserve recognition.