NOW state rep talks with the TransAdvocate about TERFs, trans-inclusion and civil rights
April 18, 2014
Trans people added to Violence Against Women Act
April 22, 2014

On policing RuPaul’s “free speech”

By Cristan Williams


​I think the freedom of speech and policing arguments that have popped up around RuPaul are entirely disingenuous. Nobody is stopping RuPaul Andre Charles from using these terms as much as he likes in his personal life. RuPaul Andre Charles is a human being; RuPaul is a brand that Logo sells. Logo does not want the brand they’re selling to be associated with terms people use while they kill trans women. Period.

HuffPo: "RuPaul's Drag Race and the Danger of Overpolicing Language"

HuffPo: “RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Danger of Overpolicing Language”

ALL OF US do exactly what Logo just did.  We do it in our homes, with our children and with the language standards we permit in our own businesses. Some of us refuse to buy things the Koch brothers make money off of and/or won’t shop at certain stores because they use the money you would give them for political speech that seeks to oppresses you.

WE ALL joke and say things that editors, producers, employers, etc  would never allow near their brand. That’s not censorship, that’s public relations. Equating PR with censorship is equivocation. Whether you’re a writer or a Walmart greeter, your boss won’t allow you to use certain terms because – for whatever reason – they’re loaded and if you want to equivocate, you can call that censorship. Others might call it professionalism.

Very specific in-groups who use certain in-group terms in very specific ways will continue to do so. If Logo wants a brand it’s selling to not be viewed as misogynistic, they’re probably not going to allow drag terms like “fish” or “fishy” to be associated with that brand. In the larger community, referring to women as being “fishy” has a wider disparaging context. If RuPaul wanted to associate Logo’s brand with that specific in-group term, how do you think that would work?

I absolutely reject claims of policing and censorship – IN THIS CONTEXT – as pure hyperbole. If someone is stopping you from making rude jokes, announcing that you support Sarah Palin for public office or share Reddit’s WTF pics on your own time, on your own dime, and in your own personal media then fine. That’s actual censorship.

On your own dime, using your own platform, you get to associate anything you want with your reputation – your brand – but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be consequences. Didn’t punks rock this life lesson already?

If the value of your reputation goes down because you are associated with the terms people widely use when they’re killing oppressed people, then that’s the price you’ll pay. Claiming that you’re oppressed because you think you should somehow be exempt from the rules of social currency is a bogus argument.

I’m sure RuPaul has topics and terms that he wouldn’t want associated with his brand because he knows it would harm his brand. In this case, I think he’s too biased (I’m guessing because he feels attacked) to grasp that his brand was suffering. Fortunately, he has people who could act to protect his brand even when he wouldn’t.

Yes, there are very specific contexts in which very specific groups use trannyshemale and fish. They will continue to do so. All of these terms have a wider context and meaning outside of those very specific in-group usages. It’s a mistake to assume or expect that those terms won’t retain their larger contexts when used outside of those very specific in-groups and a national branded cable TV show is absolutely outside the context of those very specific in-groups. RuPaul is RuPaul precisely because he has social currency outside the context of that very specific in-group and yes, there’s a price one pays for one’s brand reaching that level of popularity and that price, IMHO, is totally fair. We all pay that same price, to one extent or another.

If you’re still having problems, here’s xkcd with a PSA:


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Cristan Williams
Cristan Williams

Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of the transgender community. She started the first trans homeless shelter in the South and co-founded the first federally funded trans-only homeless program, pioneered affordable healthcare for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. Cristan is the editor at the social justice sites and, is a long-term member and previous chair of the City of Houston HIV Prevention Planning Group.

  • When I say that, if one thing we have discovered (Thank you RuPaul) is the depth and breadth of trans-animus I truly wasn’t kidding. The two most transphobic occurrences, for me, have come courtesy of gay men. It need not be said but I will say it that of course it doesn’t mean all gay men are transphobic but a sample of two indicates to me that they represent many more. Take a look at that link and look for CANDID66 ‘s comment: He writes:

    “Considering the last – unfortunately now removed – video attracted so much attention & resulted in many angry comments from certain – militant – transsexuals, they seem awfully quiet when it comes to this video… Guess now that the video’s down they really don’t wanna be our friends.”

    Just as the TERFS have proven to be far beyond worthy of discussion, beyond remorse and hope, completely convinced that trans females=rapists, so too have many gay men become convinced that trans females= she****s. This presumably gay male, exhibiting conduct unbecoming of a fellow human being, expresses his dismay that a video mocking trans females worthy of public execution, which should NEVER have posted, has apparently been blocked from public view.

    How quickly gay males forget that no civil rights group has surpassed the gay rights movement in militancy, ever, and yet in the worst possible exhibit of hypocrisy when we trans females vehemently stand up for the human right not to be publicly vilified, mock-executed, disparaged—victims of trans animus from none other than gay drag queen female impostors, we are deemed to be “militant.” How dare this Sad Sack excuse of a decent human being, who happens to be gay, delude himself into believing for but a nanosecond even that had the RP Drag disaster (Season 76) depicted a mock execution of a gay male from the hands of a transgender person, that Gay American wouldn’t already be marching in the streets, epitomizing the very meaning of “militant”.

    To those gay males who exhibit the worse of hypocrisy and forget that California is a safe haven while much of America still is not, and who wish to discount us as real sex-changed transgender females that you truly get upset for standing up for the right to be dignified as members of the same human species I find no more fitting idiom that applies than this: I, Dee, say “go to hell”…..and don’t come back.

  • Lincoln

    Jon Stewart said something on the Daily Show yesterday that called it for me in a simple, yet effective way: There’s free speech and consequence free speech. People often get those ideas confused.

  • Beware of trans women who are gay icons.

    • Dee Omally

      Beware of trans women who are gay icons [with a drag history].

  • Todd

    I appreciate your economical perspective on the issue of how this situation is addressed and thank you for sharing it. I would just like you to define what is censorship and policing is for you. You detail what it is not in the article. For me, public relations appeals to targeted demographic audiences and uses the vernacular those audiences prefer over what they do not, so when this shifts redaction occurs, especially as the audience enlarges and words’ multivalent meanings become troublesome. Suppression of verbal forms and prevention of their usage by request of other demographics is censorship. From what I read, you are conflating a company’s branding through editorial selection, which is public relations, with censorship (the removal of the episode from the season). As for bogus arguments, I think a politics of knowledge creation through an idea of impermeable in-group linguistic forms along with personal experience only just serves to hide opinions from criticism because none of these in-groups live in a social vacuum where language is “owned.” And personal/private versus public is a binary that serves to reinforce certain structural forms of power between groups. As for free speech, it wasn’t violated. The government carried out no legal action for anyone involved in the debate. It’s competing social narratives seeking not to be erased.

    • I feel your definition of censorship oppresses those groups with different views of the concept.

      It seeks to insure that power structures can never be challenged as they are merely competing social narratives with no power differentials.

      The Kochs, the KKK, the NSA are equally as valid as Martin Luther King.

      And the actions of the NSA to control speech are equivalent to those of someone complaining of hate speech.

      I’m sure it’s an internally consistent system; but much like libertarianism of the AR variety a limited philosophy divorced from actual lived experience.

      And best appreciated by teenagers and those desperate to support the insupportable.

  • emmalove


    Thats all.

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  • alexis martinez

    This article exemplifies what William Shakespeare meant when he wrote “much ado about nothing” !.. The Rue Paul Drag Race is the public face of a small segment of the transgender community. As a reality show it has been a decent peak at what is commonplace in the drag world. While I have tremendous admiration and respect for Ms. Williams, I feel her criticism it overblown. The use of words I consider highly offensive as anti WOMEN…bitch, whore,whoe, fish etc… are so common in the trans community that sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by a bunch of old school dock workers. Rue Paul did not create this language , nor did he foster the culture that spawned this language. This show only reflects a culture that already exists. I find it disingenuous to be critical of the show when the a sizable segment of trans community uses all these so called trans misogynistic words. You may argue that freedom entitles us freedom to utter any words in PRIVATE conservation. On a routine day…On an L train in the Center on Halsted in Boystown, at my work place the TransLife Center the girls are constantly “reading” one another. Rue Paul is just putting it out raw…and that clashes with some of the established trans activist community that want to present a squeaky clean “Leave it to Beaver” image to the masses. Personally, I don’t like drag shows for a variety of reasons but I fully support Rue Paul as a pioneer… Instead of going after the show maybe it would be far more beneficial to OUR community if we stood up during our PRIVATE conversations and insisted that WE not use those offensive terms.

    • “The Rue Paul Drag Race is the public face of a small segment of the transgender community.”

      Maybe so, but the reality is that “face” is actually a brand that Logo sells to make money.

      “The use of words I consider highly offensive as anti WOMEN…bitch, whore,whoe, fish etc… are so common in the trans community that sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by a bunch of old school dock workers.”

      Yes; there are both trans and cis women who talk about other trans and cis women is this way because they are part of an in-group wherein that is the norm. There are in-groups where cis women are constantly “reading” one another. What makes them an in-group with their own normative language is that they do not, in fact, represent the wider community.

      “Rue Paul is just putting it out raw…and that clashes with some of the established trans activist community that want to present a squeaky clean “Leave it to Beaver” image to the masses.”

      I think arguing that misconstrues the problem folks have voiced. Asserting that people are upset because he’s not willing to promote a “squeaky clean ‘Leave it to Beaver’ image to the masses” misses the point entirely and moreover, misrepresents the response to Ru’s behavior. I would encourage you to thoughtfully read what folks are saying because – while I’ve seen this strawman argument used several times to describe the motivation of the dissenters by those who want them to go away – I’ve not yet come across it as the drive behind the decent.

      What I’ve read is that there’s been years of frustration around this issue because Ru has consistently dismissed concerns. What I have read is that context matters and that there’s a difference between a national branded cable show and one’s backyard show girl/drag scene. What I’ve seen is frustration over what some view as GLAAD’s long-term double standards. What I’ve seen is frustration over mansplaining, dismissals of concerns and the exercise and explicit promotion of cisprivilege. None of that has anything to do with some imagined need to present a squeaky clean image to the world. If that was so, how would you account for the willingness to rock the boat and hash all of this out in public?

      • Yes, exactly.

        I’m always perplexed by the false equivalency disengenuosly foisted as this being a discussion over language between two equal community groups between themselves.

        RPDR is the product of a corporation – Viacom – with $24billion in assets. This tiny division -LOGO – reaches into 52million households.

        Your counter above says below 4,000 views. None of us are media stars, none of us are paid – all of us are effected by this Fortune 100 corp run by a multi billionaire having his buffoonish hirling slur us for cash.

        We live with those consequences every day. And when we speak up to say – hey – this is who we really are. Stop lying about us and spreading those stereotypes to the general public – putting our lives and livelihoods at risk!

        We’re told we’re beating up the very disadvantaged community member – Sumner Redstone.

        Mr. Charles is just a corporate sock puppet.

        If we changed Viacom’s mind with our 3,000 page views – the arguments had to have been pretty convincing.

        And Mr. Charles behavior something so offensive, even the profit motive was repulsed by it.

        Because ultimately – it’s not HIS freedom of speech. He’s got a hand up his butt. It’s Viacom’s.

        And Viacom said hell no to that trans misogynistic shit.

        Even a conservative corporation got it and Mr. Charles – their sock puppet is still clueless. Or knowingly complicit in his behavior. Is anyone really that stupid?

    • Dee Omally

      George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As is often the case, something that is wrong is not readily apparent. Despite other ramblings, the furor here is the use of one word: “she-male/she-mail” which is synonymous with “he-she”, “it”, “other than male/other than female”, “gender hybrid”, “freak”, “caricature” (which my mom calls me in Spanish which hurts bad). Sure, Ru Paul and others consider it “much ado about nothing.” For the rest of us, it is “much ado about everything”, including personal safety. Having lost a job over trans discrimination, the pain and blow to self-esteem was hardly “much ado about nothing”. If it were but only me, perhaps it would be “nothing”. I, however am well represented in this area by many other trans persons, most alive but far too many deceased. Our losses have NOTHING to do with qualifications but EVERYTHING to do with our trans history.

      The Ru Paul Drag race, apparently is just that: a well put-together show about drag: “a small segment of the transgender community.” Drag and cross-dressing involve a temporary gender change, one that involves cosmetic and costume changes for drag performance. This is not the “small segment” Cristan, I and many others represent or are referring to. That “small segment” gets to remove the fake wig, cosmetics, and costume and really and truly are gender hybrids, or as RuPaul states “she-males”. Their world off of the stage is a gay, male world which is exciting, but not our world.

      So far so good, until we look at it from the perspective of the public for whom the show is targeted, a public who has known us in past history as the “she-males” RuPaul refers to. These are employers, coworkers, family, pastors, medical workers, attorneys: all who can assist or impede those of us who are not transgender, but were transgender, now male or females. This is the public that must be educated accurately as to the legitimacy of a sex/gender transition, an objective not one that is shared by the gay community. This is the public that can make life a living hell.

      Understandably, some will defend RuPaul not matter what and this is understandable, although illogical. Everyone knows cuss words and disparaging words, learned during our teens. It’s not the use of words that is being policed. It’s the PROMOTION of words that becomes the problem. If the public knew that drag represented a “small segment”, or stated otherwise “cross-dressing” performers that are “technically” transgender and not the rest of us then who cares. Truth is they think ALL of us are males PRETENDING to be female, or as RuPaul so eloquently states “she-males”. RuPaul deserves every bit of criticism for lacking discernment and empathy to see that promoting “she-male” was condemning us to a repetition of the past, a past that believes “once male always male”.

  • Leslie

    I have many friends that are performers in the drag community, none of which are straight. However, very few of them are trans either. I have overheard some of them talking about RuPaul’s disparaging comments against the trans community on his show; which I have yet to see. Not having a job for the better part of ten years kind of prevented me from having luxury items like cable TV and such. I have a job, NOW. But, I still don’t have cable. Maybe later….

  • Nuala

    Well said.

    As for the whole Jayne County run-in with Facebook, after reading several articles regarding the story and seeing her own postings of what she said, I saw nothing to indicate that it was specifically the “T” or the “S” slurs which caused her to get herself banned. In retrospect, it was far more likely to have been her use of the “F” slur in the string of words (the one that Ru slammed Amanda Bynes for not that long ago) which was picked up and banned by Facebook’s computers. If someone has an article which does specify that, I’d like to read it.

    As pointed out, there’s a whole world of difference between a few close friends who belong to a specific community, who use slurs while privately joking back and forth, and someone broadcasting them to an audience via the media.

    All we ask is a little respect.

  • Sauza

    Thank you! I love this so much.

  • Dee Omally

    y…y…y…yes! Stated otherwise…..a show that included a guessing game called “straight or fag” would have been no less egregiously malevolent, despite its seemingly innocuous use within inside circles..

  • entirely disingenuous?

    Hey, feel free to complain about RuPaul all you like – I certainly do! – and if you want to promote a boycott or picket the show or offer flaming denunciations of the guy, fine!

    … but at a certain point, and for me that’s just about where someone starts policing the language on Jayne County’s Facebook posts because 1) they can and 2) Facebook owns genuine social networking as a “natural monopoly” and 3) Facebook Inc. is an unholy amalgam of “individual rights” under the 14th Amendment and absolutely heedless corporate greed that processes complaints using automated processes supplemented by underpaid “supervisors” of “community standards” to enforce the “rules of social currency” … which “rules” by their standards exclude images related to… breast-feeding?!!!

    Wow, I must dissent!

    After all, I was, and am, an OG punk rocker, and even though Believe It or Not! Jayne’s style has almost certainly led to some… ah, “misapprehensions” of what I personally am about right here in TinyTown – Ithaca, NY – I do believe that if PUNK ROCK stands for anything, it stands for resistance to the “right” of corporate communications monopolies to regulate speech.

    But hey, with respect to RuPaul? jesus!


    – bonzie anne –

    Bonze Anne Rose Blayk f/k/a “Kevin Eric Saunders a/k/a bonze blayk”
    – co-founder of the Angry Samoans

    PS: One word: Comcast.

    • Dee Omally

      which is why I use Farcebook very, very little. These media giants, flush with a gazillion followers, forget their humble beginnings. They set the bait, draw you in, and quickly and stealthily begin to violate personal privacy. Their ego becomes too big even for them….. It is so super obvious that they would take a DNA sample if they could….and show the results to the world. At least webmail we all know is “postcard” mail….absolutely no privacy but Farcebook pretends to have “privacy” in place, which it will, then suddenly withdraw it…much without a user’s knowledge.