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Friday, May 24, 2013

OSU students discuss ethics of blackface, drag and definition of trans-asterisk

OSU student paper headlines ethic of drag and definition of drag Barometer May 23-24, 2013 p. 3

PHOTO: Oregon State University student newspaper discusses the ethics of drag and the definition of trans* in opinion pieces by Thomas McElhinny, "The ethics behind perpetuating stereotypes for profit," posted May 24, 2013, p. 3 and the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity are not independent or discrete binary functions discussed in opinion column by Irene Drage, "Talking Rans*: The Meaning behind the asterisk," posted Thursday, May 23, 2013, p. 3. For other background, see Irene Drage, "OSU Spring Drag Show," posted May 9, 2013 and Erin Rook, "Race drag: Debate continues over booking of blackface performer," April/May 2013 posted May 16, 2013 (a long update about the drag artist Shirley Q. Liquor newspaper story by Erin Hook, "Booking of blackface drag performer sparks concerns about racism," PQ Monthly February-March 2013, p. 6). Three months ago, North Portland leather bar The Eagle publicized an upcoming performance by blackface drag queen Shirley Q. Liquor, an "ignunt" Southern Black mother on welfare portrayed by Chuck Knipp. Accusations of racism quickly followed.

As part of my ethnographic research on humans with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity, I have learned how throughout human history the popularly used cultural definitions for LGBT people has drifted over time due to the natural tension between what sexual minorities want to ne called versus the derogatory terms used by a bully or other uneducated person. This has led to accusations by the majority that they are being forced to use "politically correct" terminology that they resent. In fact, academics are often guilty of being overly pedagogic on such matters. (Note: see the pedagogical goal of OSU administrators in list below, which amusingly I stumbled on after writing this paragraph, which of course, cemented my opinion!)

For example, during the 20th Century women's liberation and gay liberation movement a big sensitivity was over the misogynistic norm of society that assumed all gay men were "sissies or effeminate queens" and therefore similar to women who society had cast in the second-class role of being stay-at-home mothers too dumb to work in a "man's world." This is why both gay women (who used that term at the time) and gay men initially had a common goal, which was to fight discrimination against females. However, as women raised their consciousness and suffered the misogyny that even gay men were guilty of exhibiting, the reason for this coalition drifted and many women split from the gay liberation movement, insisting on being called lesbians, a historically older and more traditional identity. During the 1980s AIDS tragedy that decimated many gay male leaders, gay women successfully took the dominant role in LGBT activism for the next decade and led LGBT issues into the mainstream of society.

As a reaction to societal and misogynistic stereotypes, the early male gay rights advocates worked hard to distance themselves from what they had sadly internalized as the "offensive stereotype of effeminacy," which unfortunately was just as offensive to women, but their work did help to open minds about gay people. Unfortunately, by rejecting effeminacy they also hurt the many gay men who are actually effeminate. It has taken decades for many in society to learn that humans' sexual orientation and gender identity are not binary functions, but are both multivariate discrete and continuous functions with multiple axes (e.g. asexual, bisexual, gay, straight on one axis and the range of feminine to masculine on the other axis). I am not sure that most so-called "sissy" gay men, who are effeminate, are proud of it today judging from counting the personal ads where everyone claims to be straight-acting and masculine, but they are looking for a good top male. (The top vs. bottom dynamic has been discussed for decades and it would make a good topic for a future post.)

In my opinion, drag and blackface are culturally insensitive to some people, but I agree it is wrong to blindly react by censoring artistic performances that use either one, even if used for a profit. I also agree that being culturally insensitive just to bully or hurt others is ethically wrong, but in my experience there is no dogmatic rule that can be used in all situations to decide where the line should be drawn, especially as cultural norms drift and change over time. (see background stories by Irene Drage, "OSU Spring Drag Show," posted May 9, 2013 and Erin Rook, "Race drag: Debate continues over booking of blackface performer," April/May 2013 posted May 16, 2013)

While I praise the student writers Thomas McElhinny and Irene Drage for making many of these points, I would caution both of them to remain open-minded about how their current thinking reflects contemporary cultural norms and that these cultural norms will likely be different in the future. They will learn with experience that the difference between intelligent thinkers and really great minds is that great minds are able to anticipate and lead these norms and cultural changes rather than just understand and report them to other people.

Below is the student newspaper opinion columnist's discussion of my question on the ethics of exploiting stereotypes (I noticed the student copy editor failed to correct a major typo of mine, but I think it is still understandable):

Dear Ask an Ethicist,
Every year, OSU LGBT student organizers of the Pride Week drag show, which they successfully use to raise money from both gay and straight students, believe it is necessary to educate people on the history of drag apparently to indirectly answer the question, "Is it ethical to make money by exploiting culturally insensitive stereotypes?"

For example, "Amos 'n' Andy" is a 1950s sitcom performed by white actors in black makeup, or "blackface." Similar to drag queen artists, blackface has a rich history and is also considered an art form by many. However, companies essentially stopped selling "Amos 'n' Andy" after the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr., raised sensitivities to racial stereotypes.

Would blackface performances be OK if done by black actors? Similarly, are drag performances OK only if they are done by gay men or women?

-Thomas Kraemer
OSU Class of 1977

Thank you for your question, Thomas Kraemer. I think that you've raised an interesting set of issues here.

Before getting into your question, I would like to point out that the OSU drag show, which occurred on May 10, was a free event and one of the highlights of Pride Week. Of course, exposure, celebration and some education was carried on in the back of the drag show. Drag, or the purposeful wearing of clothing typically worn by the opposite gender, is not like blackface. Whereas performing in drag is practiced by folks of all genders and sexual orientations, black face is historically worn by white men as a privileged group acting out a set of negative stereotypes.

Drag is a subversive performance where "playing with gender" is often meant to highlight perceived differences and expectations of folks who identify as a certain gender.

Blackface perpetuates negative stereotypes of a historically and institutionally oppressed group.

Drag teases apart socially constructed gender roles. Blackface reinforces harmful racial attitudes, which result in material inequalities unbecoming of a civilized nation.

Blackface characters like Thomas D. Rice's Jim Crow, which the set of anti-racist laws following reconstruction were named after, was harmful not simply because it was played by a white man. The very perpetuation of the idea that black folks are bumbling, clumsy fools is harmful in itself.

While I could imagine an ironic portrayal of blackface, where the joke is on either people who believe in the stereotypes or that it points out how ridiculous and ignorant blackface players are, might work. The humor would be a tenuous line for anyone to try and walk, no matter their skin color.

As to your question, "Is it ethical to make money by exploiting culturally insensitive stereotypes?" In this case, through performance of one kind or another, the answer is most likely no.

Surely, one could set up a condition where there was some enormous amount of money going to an ideally good cause, however, the heart of the matter is that this good is undercut by reinforcing negative stereotypes, which dehumanize members of our community.

Thomas McElhinny is a master's student of applied ethics. The opinions expressed in his columns do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Barometer staff. McElhinny's "Ask an ethicist" column will run weekly, every Friday. He can be reached and questions can be submitted at

(Quoted from Thomas McElhinny, "The ethics behind perpetuating stereotypes for profit," posted may 24, 2013, p. 3)

Some interesting loosely related links:

Oregon State University Cultural Resource Centers :