There has been a longstanding tension between the drag community and the transgender community. The most recent flare-up comes from RuPaul (again) for using the word "shemale" prominently in a contest on the sixth season premier episode of Drag Race.
What makes this even more awkward is that GLAAD had been promoting this episode. RuPaul has been problematic for the transgender community in the past when defending the use of the word "tranny," as well as saying that the only difference between a drag queen and a transsexual is "$25,000 and a good surgeon."
In all of these kerfuffles, though, the pushback against the transgender community is usually something along the lines of "you're being too sensitive," "you people can't take a joke," that some transgender people got a start in drag culture, or that drag culture is really a good thing because it challenges the gender binary. However, these are only the "pros."
I have to look at the issue from the perspective of an analyst and advocate trying to make headway for better policy and acceptance of transgender people who live in their target gender 24-7 -- or want to but cannot because they would lose their jobs. Thus, when trying to answer the question of whether drag culture helps or hurts the transgender community overall, I have to also take into account the "cons."
From this perspective, the equation isn't even close. Drag culture clearly hurts the transgender community because the two get conflated, and RuPaul is a big part of that problem.
The promotion of words like "tranny" and "shemale" is part of it. Ultra-right-wing anti-LGBT outlets use the word "tranny" as a smear to argue against transgender people having employment protections, serving in the military, and generally being treated as human.
When anti-LGBT people successfully block legal protections for gender identity, the folks in the drag community don't pay the price. Drag performers generally identify as cisgender and are covered by sexual orientation protections, which are far more common and much less controversial.
Beyond "tranny," though, is the word "shemale." This is used only in a pejorative sense towards transgender women. It also has real-world implications.
One of my closest friends works in an extraordinarily hostile environment, which she puts up with because she desperately needs the job. She is called "it," "shim," and "shemale." She has confessed that she's fairly certain that if she's murdered (possibly by the people she works with), "shemale" will be the last thing she hears before she gets it in the back of the head.
Again, drag culture gets to use the word, we get it in the back of the head -- at twice the rate of the rest of the LGBT community.
Drag culture in and of itself is used by the religious right as weapon to demonize the T in LGBT when they argue against employment protections or hate-crimes laws. The ad below was used by the Traditional Values Coalition to argue against ENDA. It uses both the words and imagery that drag culture seems to embrace -- to attack transgender rights (click to enlarge):
From an even bigger-picture perspective, the long-term fight isn't just about law and policy, it is about acceptance. Transgender people cannot perpetually exist as "those people who sue you" and gain some measure of acceptance.
I have heard many (cisgender) individuals argue that drag's challenge to the gender binary pushes acceptance of the transgender violation of gender boundaries. From my perspective, I see just the opposite.
Drag culture is performance art: it is an over-the-top, campy, garish caricature of stereotypes of femininity. Drag queens appear as living cartoons, and are not intended to be taken seriously.
However, the conflation of drag and transgender means that the public stereotype of transgender individuals is shaped by drag. Only 9% of the public knows a transgender person. For the other 91%, transgender people are defined by pathetic creatures like Rayon from Dallas Buyers Club, or the exaggerated caricature portrayed by drag.
Imagine trying to obtain work while fighting an uphill battle against these stereotypes.
The relationship between drag culture and the transgender community is very unbalanced, due to a disparity of power. Drag performers get to go out, have fun on a weekend, and go back to work on Monday in drab. But the drag show on Saturday is part of the reason why many transgender people living in their target gender 24-7 don't have a job to go to on Monday.
To many of us who identify as transgender, drag culture is like being legally forced to pay the bar tab of a massive party for people richer than that you weren't invited to, and didn't want to attend anyway.
This is not to argue against anyone's freedom of expression -- people have every right to do drag. However, people who support the culture need to be reminded of who is really picking up the tab in terms of legal rights and cultural acceptance.
And they definitely shouldn't be shocked when we don't seem grateful when we're forced to pay the butcher's bill.