RuPaul and O.J. Have Nothing in Common

Slam Simpson and Dennis Rodman, if you must, but a black man in drag is no disgrace to black history.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Far be it from me to parse the motivations of the California schoolteachers who presented portraits of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul during a Black History Month parade. Perhaps they were well-meaning, albeit misguided, in their efforts. Probably not. At any rate, there’s been (predictably) a great hue and cry from those charging that the contributions of black folks were being mocked.

I’d be the last person to defend O.J. (I’m convinced that he did it) or Dennis Rodman (clearly he’s got, shall we say, issues).

But I will, however, defend RuPaul, drag diva/author/singer/actor and host of Logo TV’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. Why lump him in the same category as a convicted felon and a fallen basketball star who’s pled no contest to domestic abuse? Sporting stilettos and a blond wig while possessing no small quantities of testosterone does not prevent one from qualifying for black hero status.

Drag does not equal disgrace.

The outcry over RuPaul’s inclusion in the Black History Month parade has a lot to do with the black community’s continued issues with homophobia and outdated notions of rigidly defined black masculinity. As The Root’s Natalie Hopkinson noted in her excellent dissection of the Sidney Poitier syndrome, our yearning for “positive imagery” means that, more often than not, we like to see our heroes wrapped in neatly inoffensive packages, superheroes “slaying racial stereotypes.” An Amazon armed with tucking panties, corsets and platinum lace-front wigs doesn’t fit neatly into our pre-assigned notions of race and gender.

“I’m not convinced this was an accident. Three white teachers pick Simpson, Rodman, and RuPaul … arguably the three worst picks for black personalities, for their Black History showcase? Not buying it … sounds like they’re smearing the whole practice of the history month,” wrote one Los Angeles Times reader.

Seriously? RuPaul, one of the “worst picks for black personalities”? Someone who is a “smear” on Black History Month? We’re talking about someone who took his hardscrabble beginnings—emotionally abusive mother, high school dropout, tormented as a kid for being gay, homeless—and transcended it, creating a one-drag-queen industry of books (two), hit records, movie roles and a reality TV show where homage is paid to what RuPaul calls the “creative, courageous souls who do drag.”