RuPaul’s Drag Race is billed as a cutthroat competition for drag queens, but since its 2009 debut, the show also carved out a unique lane for itself on the reality TV scene as a bastion of sexual identity for members of the LGBT community, fostering a safe space for gender acceptance, diversity, and expression.
Of the 115 people who’ve vied for the title of America’s Drag Superstar, several (including Carmen Carrera, Gia Gunn, and Sonique) revealed their transgender status after their respective seasons concluded, but only two have competed as an openly trans women: season 5’s Monica Beverly Hillz and season 9’s Peppermint, who fronted a milestone moment for Drag Race when she came out to her sisters in the work room during Friday night’s episode.
“She’s always been there,” Peppermint tells EW of her true identity, noting the dynamism and freedom of the drag world allowed her to come into her own. “I just had limited choices when it came to safe ways for expressing myself as a woman. [As a kid] it wasn’t possible for me to do that on the football team or in karate. Those were not safe spaces, but the world of drag was… It felt the closest to right.”
She continues: “I was able to experiment with the type of woman I wanted to be. I always knew I didn’t want to be a campy queen… I just wanted to be a beautiful woman, and that was always my goal with my drag; it wasn’t until much later that I put two and two together and realized why I wanted to protect the integrity of myself as a drag queen: that was my interpretation of me as a woman.”
RELATED: 10 Pop Culture Coming Out Stories
Thus, moving to New York City allowed Peppermint to further her career as a performer as she settled fully into feminine selfhood. The LGBT community, however, wasn’t completely ready to embrace her — especially established queens on the city’s robust drag circuit, one of whom the 37-year-old says told her she’d never make it on her chosen career path because she was transgender. “That was clearly a signal that people weren’t ready to accept me as both,” Peppermint says. “Drawing those lines is less about me and more about the person drawing the line.”
Read on for EW’s full Q&A with the Peppermint, in which she discusses Survivor contestant Zeke Smith’s controversial outing, her time on Drag Race, and ways cisgender people can foster a feeling of acceptance for trans people in their lives.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As you said on the show, the world of drag wasn’t always so accepting of you being a transgender person, right?
PEPPERMINT: There was one very well known queen in New York who asked me if I was transitioning. She told me she supported me, but in the same breath told me I would be doomed to never work again in this job that I love so much. That scared me. There have been other people who’ve asked me, “Wait a minute, are you trans or are you a drag queen? You need to tell me which one.” That was clearly a signal that people weren’t ready to accept me as both.
Why do you think there’s such a willingness to draw lines like that among a community that’s been striving for acceptance, collectively, for so long?
Drawing those lines is less about me and more about the person drawing the line…We violate gender expressions and gender rules and traditions all the time. Men wear pink shirts, women wear pants… Since people have to constantly repair it and police it and clarify it and clean it up, people feel like it’s their duty. We learn that at a very young age, when parents snatch something away from us and say, “That’s for boys, that’s for girls.” That’s the same thing as asking someone to define themselves as a drag queen or a trans person, in my opinion.
Does having the world essentially knowing your status now make you feel free, in a way?
Coming out for anyone lifts a weight off your shoulders… coming out on the show to the girls was something I couldn’t wait to do, but I didn’t want to do it upfront. I wanted to let my drag speak for itself first, and then see how people received it. [Because of my experience with that established queen in New York], I didn’t know what I was going to encounter with the other queens on Drag Race. Once I was able to have these conversations with the girls, I felt wonderful; I felt loved and accepted. I felt like we were having a very important conversation, not because it was spawned by me, but having this conversation is important to have for drag queens, for Drag Race, for television, and ultimately for our country.
Are you fearful of living in the country, though, now that our leader hasn’t actively worked to protect the LGBT community from regressive attitudes?
No, but I’m definitely more aware. I remember the ‘90s, I was born in the ‘70s, so I was definitely around when being gay was something taboo and against the norm. I was beaten up because people didn’t know I was trans in high school, they just thought I was gay. The basketball team beat me up, and the coach lied for them. As an employee at the school, he told the police and the principal that the boys were in basketball practice, so they couldn’t have possibly [touched me]. He vouched for them. I could see there was a system working against me, but I had the ability to flourish, and it was difficult.
Still, I think we can make it through. We have the AIDS crisis, which obviously we’re still dealing with, but at the height of its time we made it through; we made it through times when it was illegal just to be dancing together in a gay bar… we made it through so much that I have to have faith that we’ll make it through this.
How do you feel about what happened to Zeke on Survivor?
I have mixed emotions about it. I watched [Jeff Varner out him], and I was in tears for Zeke. I was embarrassed, and I felt a flood of emotions come back — many of them negative, and it spoke to my own experience… I was devastated for Zeke. I think he handled it beautifully… Still, everyone has a right to come out on their own terms. What surprised me is everyone on the show around the council circle agreed that it was wrong that Zeke was outed. My question is: Do they really know why it’s wrong? Some people think it’s wrong to out someone because it’s shameful to be out or trans… When we talk about why it’s wrong to out someone, it’s about safety. It’s about people not losing their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods; it’s about not being beaten up on the street. A lot of these things are related to society and how society treats us in the first pace, so if we were living in a time and in an environment that felt safe for someone like Zeke to already be out on the show by his own accord, then maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big deal.
For me, the goal is for trans and gender nonconforming people to exist without feeling like we’re going to be in danger. Part of the responsibility for creating that climate is on cisgendered people who don’t have experience with trans people. They need to help us create safe spaces!
What can cisgendered people do to facilitate that change?
They can do their research and take initiative when someone who’s trans comes into their lives. They should ask respectful questions… I think they should talk about it with their friends and family. If you love someone who’s trans, talk about it. Share it. Bring them to your family dinner, take them to the movies, hang out with them in your everyday life. Blend them into your life the same way you integrate everyone else. That’s the first step.
RuPaul’s Drag Race airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on VH1.