Friday, May 12, 2017

Can ‘Drag Queen’ be a Stage of Transgender Transition?

Written by  Dr. Eva Hersh, MD

Dear Dr. Eva,

I am an older person and a longtime member and observer of the gay scene. As I’m sure you know, cross-dressing (men dressing as women) has been part of gay life at least since the Victorian era. And since that time, cross-dressers have varied along a spectrum from part-time to full-time. For example, there have always been young gay male prostitutes who dress as female for work but dress and behave like gay men the rest of the time. At least since the 1800s there have been drag queens, men with the ability to transform themselves with clothes and make-up into beautiful women. Drag queens would dress as women for performances and to go out at night, but never for work or for routine day-to-day activities. Drag queens were often very interesting, intelligent men– I dated several, long-term. Then in the past couple of decades, we have seen a new type of full-time cross-dresser, known as transwomen.

It’s my understanding from speaking with some transwomen that they think of themselves as female, which is different from gay prostitutes and drag queens, who think of themselves as men. Feminine men, maybe, but still men. Transwomen seem to think of themselves as completely different from, and better than, drag queens. Yet, I have known both drag queens and “shemale” prostitutes who have taken hormones, gotten surgery, and ended up living full-time as women and referring to themselves exclusively as female. However, when I asked a friend, formerly a drag queen, who is now a trans woman, if her time as a drag queen was the beginning of her transition, she got very offended. She told me that the fact that she had transitioned to living full-time as female should make it obvious that she never really was a drag queen, just a confused trans woman. To me this attitude seems like a shame, and unnecessarily dismissive of the value of drag queens. I liked my friend as a drag queen just as much as I like her now as a transwoman. There was no way to know from anything my friend said or did when she was a drag queen that she would later transition to living as a woman full time.

It seems that the current thinking is that while being a transwoman is a legitimate lifestyle, being a drag queen is still something to be ashamed of. That might be expected among straight people but I hate to see it among us gays. For some people, being a drag queen or a cross-dressing prostitute can be a stage on the path to transition to life as a woman. Am I wrong about this? If I am right why does it cause such trouble when I say it? Does there always have to be some group (in this case drag queens) within the gay community that the rest of us can look down on?

Old Guy, Still Thinking

Dear Old Guy,

I get your point, absolutely. I also think I can give you some ideas about how to discuss these issues without making people so angry.

• “Shemale” is a term used exclusively in the sex work industry. Referring to a transwoman as shemale is a sure way to make her furious.

• Like most LGBT people today, trans persons do not like to hear their lives referred to as “lifestyles.” A “lifestyle” is something you may choose to do for a while and then drop, like the jock/gym lifestyle, the hippie lifestyle, or the college lifestyle. Like being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, being someone whose body has never fully matched up with their self-image is a permanent condition. Calling any facet of LGBT life, a “lifestyle” tends to trivialize people’s actual lives.

• A transwoman dressed in women’s clothes is not cross-dressing. Cross-dressing happens when a person wears the clothes of the gender that they do not feel they belong to.

Anybody who, like you or me, has been observing LBGT life for the last 15 or 20 years likely has seen some people come from the sex-work subculture and from the drag queen subculture to transition living as a transwoman. If those same people were adolescents today, they might be able to find the necessary psychological and medical care and social support to transition directly rather than having to explore their femininity first as a drag queen or a sex worker. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that many transwomen have needed to use sex work to pay for their gender affirming surgery. Sex work for that purpose is not a sign of being less than authentic as a transwoman – it is a sign of how desperate the need to transition can be. Now that gender transition hormones and surgeries are covered by most insurance including medical assistance, hopefully that method of funding surgery can become a thing of the past.

Human beings like to categorize things (and people) into neat boxes with clear labels and boundaries. Actual people are more complicated than that. The essential difference between transwomen and men who dress as women part time (for whatever reason) is not that trans women dress full-time and others dress part time. The difference is that trans women view themselves and experience themselves as women and not as men. However, that self-recognition doesn’t always happen at a young age and may not happen all at once. That’s why today’s transwoman can be yesterday’s drag queen. What is important is to understand how a person currently regards themself and currently wants to be treated, and not insist that they stay in a stage that no longer fits.

Eva Hersh is a Baltimore family physician. Send your comments and questions to her by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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