This October, Human Dignity Coalition of Bend will present their 9th annual Drag Show fundraiser. Shortly after last year's fundraiser, I wrote Jenni Peskin, Director of HDC, arguing that the "drag" theme was inappropriate, and asked that her organization discontinue that theme. Clearly my argument had no effect. What follows is the text of my letter to Ms. Peskin:
Dear Ms. Peskin;
I read online that Human Dignity Coalition recently hosted their annual Drag Show fundraiser - I support the mission of HDC, and sincerely hope your organization is able to secure adequate operating capital in these difficult economic times. I am writing today, however, to ask that HDC discontinue the "drag" theme in future fundraisers; I believe transgenders, particularly male-to-female transsexuals, are adversely affected by the stereotypes conjured-up by drag performance, especially when these stereotypes appear to be sanctioned by organizations such as HDC.
As the bewildering complex of atypical gender identity conditions has entered the public consciousness in recent years, the broad definition of the term "transgender" and its affiliation with gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues has led to a great deal of confusion about what a "transgendered" person actually is. Current convention regards nearly anyone who displays appearance or dress that does not conform to their birth sex as transgender. In the case of natal males, this definition includes cross-dressers, female impersonators, and drag queens, most of whom, gay or straight, generally identify as male, and for whom dressing as female is a vocation, social pastime, or is a source of erotic pleasure. The definition also includes male-to-female transsexuals (MtF's), who identify as female, wish to be regarded as female, may live full-time in mainstream society as female, and may have fully transitioned physically to female. It is worth noting that transitioning requires extensive counseling, medications, electrolysis, and surgery. In contrast to playing dress-up with the boys, transition is a costly, emotionally wrenching and socially perilous one-way journey.
While drag performance projects an image that is an accurate portrayal of drag queens themselves, or perhaps their alter-egos, by conventional standards this is neither an acceptable nor successful model for day-to-day living. Meanwhile, a male-to-female transsexual trying to survive in mainstream society is burdened with harmful and inaccurate stereotypes not of her making, stereotypes which negatively affect her social life, employment, family, and sense of self, safety, and well-being.
In the not-too-distant past, MtF transsexuals were exploited and scorned within the gay-lesbian hierarchy; considered little more than disposable sex workers by and for gay men, and viewed as pathetic gay concubines by lesbians. The sad reality is that for many transsexuals the only work available was, and for many still is, as sex workers for the "gay scene." In light of this history, the fact that drag performance today is largely a gay phenomenon is especially troubling. Drag performance echoes the past notion of MtF's as libidinous whores of their gay patrons, and reinforces the current notion that they are chattel of gay politics. Though commonly portrayed as such, gender identity issues are not the domain of gay culture or gay politics, and past affiliation through exploitation does not give license to mock, intentionally or otherwise, those who are among the most marginalized members of our society. HDC's tacit endorsement of drag as an acceptable expression of gay culture suggests an embarrassing degree of insensitivity to issues effecting male to female transsexuals, and adds legitimacy to the perception of MtF's as sex-obsessed concubines.
Most MtF's are sensitive to the perception that their gender dysphoria is merely the manifestation of a sexual fetish, a widespread misconception supported by drag caricatures based on the erotic construct of males transformed into sexually aggressive females. One prominent "researcher", whose work is based largely on subjects from the drag nightclub scene, invented the term "autogynephilia" to describe his assertion that most male-to-female transsexuals are otherwise normal males whose "sexual target" has somehow been inverted - that is, their primary sexual attraction is to the concept of themselves as females. Though perhaps a plausible analysis applicable to drag culture, "autogynephilia" is not an especially relevant or flattering portrayal of someone who identifies as female from a place deep within her soul, apart from sexuality. Recently, a seventeen-year-old male-to-female transsexual took her life after being mercilessly harassed in an online forum for being an "autogynephile".
Suicide is not an isolated phenomenon. A comprehensive Massachusetts Department of Public Health study published last summer found the incidence of suicidal ideation among heterosexual, gay/lesbian and bisexual subjects to be 2.3%, 4.4%, and 7.4%, respectively; among transgenders the incidence was 30.8%. The data are well-supported by other research, and if these numbers are proportional to known suicide rates in the general population, the implications are alarming. The numbers in the Massachusetts study represent an undeniable degree of human suffering, and while drag may be an enjoyable, erotic, and entertaining aspect of the "gay scene", it only compounds the emotional distress of transgenders by mocking their gender dysphoria and stigmatizing those who choose the difficult path of transition.
While drag performance may be viewed by HDC and other gay rights organizations as supportive of transgender issues, this is the logical equivalent of arguing that the blackface minstrel acts common in the first half of the twentieth century were supportive of racial equality.
Transgender people in our society are at extreme risk, suffering from high levels of unemployment, social isolation, inferior health care, domestic and societal violence and catastrophic suicide rates. They are given a seat at the back of the bus when it is politically expedient to do so, then thrown in front of the bus for the entertainment of its first-class passengers. If transgender people are deserving of the dignity your organization espouses, it is time HDC found a more dignified manner to raise funds rather than continuing to do so at the expense of an already tragically maligned segment of our society.
Lisa Deanne Carlson
The response I received from Ms. Peskin was dismissive. I am now asking the community to consider my argument in opposition to the HDC Drag Fundraiser, and to please NOT attend this event. I do not suggest that anyone discontinue their support of Human Dignity Coalition, only that you choose a different way to express that support.
Thanks for your time, blessings to all.