Disclaimer: I am not Muslim, Iranian/Persian, American or a woman, all of which are relevant to the comment and the issue. I am, however, Christian and queer/non-heterosexual, both of which are also relevant.
Note: Drag queens are referred to as they/them throughout this article to refer to them as the same person whether in or out of drag.
The episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race released on Saturday 26th April 2020, Season 12 Episode 9 “Choices 2020”, guest-starred Jeff Goldblum. He asked lots of questions that revealed he isn’t familiar with drag culture, including the very awkward amazement with Gigi Goode’s tuck. However, his controversial question that prompted media outrage and this very article was in response to Jackie Cox’ stars and stripes hijab and kaftan outfit:
“Is there something in this religion that is anti-homosexuality and anti-woman? Does that complicate the issue? I’m just raising it and thinking out loud and maybe being stupid.”
Many responses are emotional, and justifiably so, and I was angry at his semi-rhetorical question. Having slept on it and read brilliant thoughts by various Muslim and Middle Eastern people, including queer/non-heterosexual people, women and drag performers, there are many layers of racism and othering in this mentality.
Bear in mind, Goldblum was not being deliberately racist, and RuPaul has a history of problematic behaviour; this question was not addressed as problematic and a decision was made to keep it in the final version of the episode, unaddressed.
Islam vs Christianity
Islam has come up a couple of times on RuPaul’s drag race, with Season 11’s Mercedes Iman Diamond having an emotional discussion about being a gay Muslim and deciding to openly talk about it rather than hide that part of them. Christianity comes up fairly often, with some contestants having religious family who rejected them and some having strong faith. In fact, Season 10’s Monét X Change talked about leading their church choir in drag.
The difference is clear and very troubling; both religions have strong vocal subsets who are homophobic and misogynist, and plenty of gay activist, feminist believers who fight against that. The problem here is that the issues within Christianity are portrayed as with bad apple Christians who we defeat by being gay activist, feminist Christians, but Islam isn’t given that same respect.
If being a Christian drag queen isn’t a clash of ideals because of homophobia and misogyny in the church, but instead a beautiful backlash against hateful Christians, shouldn’t the response to Muslim drag queens be the same?
Islam and the Middle East
In the runway voiceover, Jackie Cox explained the message behind the stars and stripes hijab and kaftan as not only celebrating their own Persian heritage but illustrating that people who are Middle Eastern and Muslim are still Americans. Pairing the US flag with traditional clothing, with a red and white striped kaftan and a blue hijab with the 50 white stars, made this outfit not only a stand-out look but one of two political statements. In fact, it was sad to see both Cox and The Widow Von’Du in the bottom, as they were the two who took the patriotic theme as an opportunity to make bold statements. Von’Du wore a black and white dress with a perfectly spherical afro and black activism pose.
Kaftans are widespread, part of traditional clothing in Russia, Western Africa, much of the Arabic-speaking world and are even common in Jewish populations from Slavic and Arabic influence. The word hijab refers both to the type of veil or scarf and the practice of Muslim women’s modesty clothing. Head coverings are common for men as well as women in Abrahamic religions and hotter, sandier areas. The nun’s wimple, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mantillas, orthodox Judaism’s tichels and tallits are all religious examples, whereas the loose dupatta shawl is worn in India by women of various faiths and both keffiyehs and agals are common traditional Arabian men’s head coverings.
There is nothing exclusively or intrinsically Muslim about the outfit Jackie Cox wore: Goldblum’s first question was whether they are religious, to which they said no. Whilst deliberately mentioning the validity of Muslim Americans, the outfit itself was about Cox’ Iranian heritage and the combination of two nationalities and cultures. To equate all Middle Eastern tradition as Islamic is a major issue that gets overlooked.
Iran vs America
The theme of the runway was stars and stripes; the USA flag. All seven queens were celebrating the USA, colloquially referred to as America. By calling out Jackie Cox’ Middle Eastern representation as complicated due to the area’s religious homophobia and misogyny, especially in this challenge, completely ignores America’s exact same issue.
Whilst sex between people of the same gender is illegal in Iran, all extra-marital sex is illegal and gender-related medical transition is part-funded by the government. Iran was a progressive country in terms of feminism until the 70s, where a fundamentalist religious group took power and moved women’s liberation back. While there are serious problems in Iran and the Middle East, there are queer activism, gay activism and feminism movements.
The history of LGBTQ rights in America is similarly a fight for rights and against oppression by law. While same-gender marriage is now legal, getting that was a battle and there are still barriers and discrimination, with serious problems with transphobia. Just like Iran’s Islamic Revolution, there is no guarantee that the current status is permanent. Feminism is likewise a battle in America, with the President of the United States perpetuating misogynist ideals and boasting about committing sexual assault.
To question Cox celebrating their Middle Eastern and Iranian heritage as a queer/non-heterosexual person and as an American because of the area’s problems is very one-sided. After all, the entire programme’s premise was celebrating American citizenship without question as queer/non-heterosexual people despite the country’s problems.
Patriotism in RPDR
RuPaul’s Drag Race is sometimes ridiculously patriotic. For an international viewer, the connection of flags, military and national identity is intense. Where the closing song used to be “To the Moon” with the lyrics “to, to, to, to the moon!” it is now “American”, with the lyrics “I am American, American, red white and blue. […] I am American, just like you”. This episode’s stars and stripes runway theme is just the latest in a series of patriotic challenges – they’ve had two military drag challenges and filmed a patriotic message for US soldiers, had two separate “Presidential Debates” and filmed Presidential campaign ads, had a Patriotic Drag runway theme, and written verses for the RuPaul song American. That’s a lot of American patriotism without much criticism of the country.
While citizenship is not a requirement, it seems that living in the USA is; all but eight contestants have been living in the USA, with those eight from Puerto Rico, a US territory. Sometimes their heritage or previous nationality comes up, but as a second to their American-ness: African nations are treated as racial and Canada is often treated as a joke, such as Jackie Cox’ own performance in the Presidential Debate challenge.
Just as the RPDR contracts requires contestants to be positive about sponsors, it seems America must come first in terms of national identity. Other countries, when brought up, haven’t been questioned as incompatible with American identity, however.
Jeff’s Outsider Status
Regardless of Jeff Goldblum’s intentions, it was an inappropriate question and he asked it very clumsily. That inappropriateness is heightened by Goldblum being outside to the issue; he is an apparently heterosexual man in a room with women and gay men who dress like women, making him the only one in the room not directly affected by either homophobia or misogyny. He’s also a white man with a Jewish background, asking a Persian person with a Muslim background about issues in the region and faith as if they would be unaware.
He awkwardly showed himself up as entirely new to drag culture throughout the episode, with the previously mentioned fascination with tucking putting Gigi Goode, RuPaul and indeed the whole room in an awkward position of being unable to answer in much detail on an international television programme. If the question was to be asked at all, he was the last person qualified to ask it.
Us and Them
All of this boils down to the same issue as most prejudice, which is the separation of “Us” and “Them”. Here, the Us is Christian Americans, and the Them is Muslims and people from the Middle East. To ask whether they are compatible is to make one the “other” to be potentially excluded. It isn’t just what Goldblum asked, it’s the separation that his question comes from and that it fuels.
Jackie Cox was trying to make a statement of unity for a Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans, and just by asking this question the importance of that statement is clear. The fact that that question was left in the show, answered only by Cox and unaddressed as problematic by anyone in charge, completely undermines that statement of unity.