This post originally appeared on The Conversation in July, 2018. In April, 2019, Barry Humphries’ name was stripped from a Melbourne comedy festival award, following the performer’s comments about transgender people. These are the comments he made.
Australian icon Barry Humphries has been widely criticised for again making anti-trans statements. In an interview, Humphries said that being transgender is “a fashion — how many different kinds of lavatory can you have? And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers.”
Many people find Humphries’ transphobia confusing because he is most famous for playing drag character Dame Edna Everage. His comments are indeed harmful, but Humphries portraying a female character is completely separate from matters of transgender identification.
Recently Hollywood star Scarlett Johannson withdrew from a film in which she was to play a trans man due to backlash against the role not being given to a transgender actor. Transgender celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner have helped bring the subject of transgender into everyday discussions. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what being transgender means and how it relates to drag.
For instance in Celebrity Big Brother UK this year, which featured Australian drag queen Courtney Act and British journalist and trans woman India Willoughby, the latter said she dislikes drag queens. This led to many vexed conversations about the relationship between transgender people and drag.
Put simply, “transgender” refers to a personal gender identity and an authentic, lasting sense of self. In contrast, “drag” is a temporary and deliberate performance of gender.
Transgender people exist across cultures and continents, and have appeared throughout human history – though the words we currently use to describe them are relatively new.
Transgender is a term used to indicate a person has a gender identity other than the one they were assigned at birth. It is an umbrella term that covers numerous possible gender identities. Some transgender people identify as the sex “opposite” to their birth sex. Others have a gender identity that includes both masculinity and femininity (for instance, those who are genderqueer or gender fluid) and some identify as neither (those who are agender).
Being transgender is not linked to a certain sexuality. Like cisgender people (people who do identify with the gender they were assigned at birth), transgender people can be straight, gay or bisexual.
Some transgender people choose to undergo surgery and/or hormone therapy, and some do not. Like everyone else, transgender people express their gender in various and individual ways.
Although drag shows onstage have long been a popular form of entertainment, drag has recently become more prominent. This increased awareness is largely due to the worldwide success of the US reality TV show Rupaul’s Drag Race in which drag queens compete to be crowned a “drag superstar”. This show has infiltrated popular culture and raised drag’s public profile.