Last night's episode of RuPaul's Drag Race featured a contest many on Twitter are calling transphobic. The game, "Female or Shemale," pitted the contestants against each other in a quest to determine whether they were being shown a picture of — as RuPaul phrased it — "a biological woman or a psychological woman."
In announcing the name of the game, "female" was said in a higher-pitched tone, while "shemale" was said in a low, gruff, masculine-sounding tone. The contestants laugh as they guess whether or not the body part they're being shown belongs to a cisgender (nontrans) woman.
The show has a long history of using the term "shemale" in various plays on words, most notably during a segment called, "You've Got Shemail." In last night's game, contestants saw pictures of cisgender women Christina Aguilera, former WWE wrestler Chyna, and "Tan Mom" Patricia Krentcil, alongside photos of well-known drag queens.
"Shemale" is a word that historically refers to transgender women, most prominent in pornography. The word originated with transgender porn and doesn't have roots in "drag culture," as some have argued is the case with the word "tranny."
GLAAD's transgender media reference guide denotes two levels of terms to avoid: problematic and defamatory. "Shemale" falls under the defamatory heading, with GLAAD officials writing that the word — along with words like "tranny," "shim," and "gender-bender" — "only serves to dehumanize transgender people and should not be used."
In response to a 2013 episode of CBS's Mike & Molly, GLAAD called out the sitcom for its use of the word "shemale," among other problematic portions of the episode.
"The use of the derogatory term 'shemale' is offensive in and of itself," GLAAD said in response to the Mike and Molly episode. "Humor like this is unfortunately much more than 'just a joke.' When a minority group is repeatedly made the object of ridicule, the majority finds it much harder to see them as fellow human beings deserving of dignity and respect, which can have direct real-life consequences. In addition to being hurtful and dehumanizing, it's sentiments like the ones driving these jokes that fuel the disproportionately high levels of discrimination and violence faced by transgender women."
When asked for comment on last night's episode of RuPaul's Drag Race, GLAAD vice president of communications Rich Ferraro responded, "While some drag queens may use the term to refer to themselves, 'she-male' is too often used by others as an offensive term to denigrate and hypersexualize transgender women. Unfortunately, most Americans are still unaware that there is a difference between gay men who perform in drag and transgender women. That's why GLAAD will continue to tell the stories of trans women like CeCe McDonald, Carmen Carrera, and CrossFit athlete Chloie Jonsson."
This is far from the first time RuPaul has stoked the ire of trans people. He has famously defended his use of the word "tranny" on Drag Race and in his music, and once claimed that the only difference between a transgender woman and a drag queen was "$25,000 and a good surgeon." To date, RuPaul has not responded to The Advocate's requests to clarify his position on derogatory words used in his show.