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in the Black History Month parade has a lot to do with the black community’s continued issues with homophobia and outdated notions of rigidly defined black masculinity.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.”
"I'm not the greatest actor, singer or even drag queen," RuPaul once told me. "I knew my biggest asset was my personality, but people couldn't see me just as I am. The truth is that I'm a man; the illusion is that I'm a woman. But of the two, the illusion is truer.”
I interviewed RuPaul in Chicago back in the ‘90s, when he was making headlines as the world’s first superstar drag queen. I met up with him in his downtime, when he looked like your average, handsome, freckled, bald, 6’4” brother with a 5 o’clock shadow trolling Michigan Avenue in search of a cookie fix. He was, he told me, “working a male realness drag.” For him, his female, drag-queen persona is performance art, not a 24/7 thing. If you catch him at home, he told me, you’ll find him, not in high heels and pancake, but in his boxers, remote control in one hand, beer can in the other.
I found him to be smart, funny, thoughtful, grounded. He was, simply put, a ray of sunshine.
We split up for the afternoon, so that he could make his top-secret, three-hour transformation into Miss RuPaul, queen of the giant glamazons. Later, I rode with him in his limo to his book signing. Folks of all colors—baby drag queens, moms with strollers, church ladies—were lined up outside the block, armed with books, photos and an outsized love. These were folks seeking acceptance, validation and a good laugh. RuPaul served it to them all, encouraging the wannabes (“She’s working lower lashes”) and cooing over babies. One young gay kid told me that, thanks to RuPaul, he no longer was depressed about his sexual orientation. The night was a total love-in, with RuPaul spreading his gospel of self-love and self-acceptance.
"I am representative of the black male experience," RuPaul told me then. "Because that's what I am.
"Some people say I've sold out. I turned my persona into a cartoon character so that I can appeal to more people. I wear blond hair on brown skin. I'm always happy and smiling. And I present serious issues in a palatable way.”
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.