When we talk about the ‘new normal’, we are often talking about life after lockdown. This flippant phrase, however, hides a problematic truth in plain sight: we live in a world which is controlled by norms. Those norms are set by the dominant and powerful and, throughout history, they have been used to oppress and marginalise those who do not fit the norm. Norms are increasingly shifting, though, as Drag Race contestant Gottmik shows. What better time than LGBT history month which, this year, is exploring Body, Mind, and Spirit, to explore the ways in which gendered bodily norms are gradually becoming a thing of the past.
In Drag Race season 16, episode 6, Gottmik, the first transmale competitor, wore very little other than a little black doll dress covering her genitals.* The look was iconic precisely because of the way in which it subverted all sorts of ideas about gender and bodies, but I will come back to that later. As is often the case on Drag Race, mean comments by another contestant dragged Gottmik’s moment down into a whirlpool of controversy. Nina Bo’nina Brown commented that “Of course, Gottmik can wear this and still have curves – oh we know why.”
Nina’s comments completely miss the gender-queering that makes Gottmik’s look so iconic. Nina implies that the goal of drag is to have curves and so to look stereotypically female or feminine. As a slim, toned transman taking testosterone, Gottmik’s body combines curves and muscles and does not fit stereotypical expectations of male or female bodies. In other words – it’s not about a man trying to look like a woman, it’s about transforming and destabilising those bodily norms altogether.
When I saw the image of Gottmik’s look on social media I almost cried. Why? Well, I’m certainly not a drag race fan but this image matters. This was the first time that I had ever seen someone like me nearly naked on TV. Gottmik’s drag tells my story, and the story of so many other trans people who rarely see people who mirror their story back to them in the media. It’s not just about seeing ourselves, though, it’s about how the world sees us. The world sees bodies as stereotypically male or female. Media, culture, society and individual people are used to images of people who have penises, muscles and flat chests or vulvas, curves, and full breasts. These images and assumptions are toxic, not only for trans people, but also for cis people who don’t fit society’s expectations of the so-called ‘perfect’ body. If the images of bodies that we see every day are starting to change, then that is something to celebrate.
It would be problematic to idolise Gottmik as a solitary role model. Her body is but one type of body. There are other drag artists that I would also recommend that you explore, including Shea Couleé and Darienne Lake and many more. The little black dress is itself, after all, an image that reflects and calls out societal misogyny, racism, and fatphobia. We need images like the one that Gottmik powerfully created for us as well as images of Black, Asian, Latinx, fat, disabled, intersex and genderqueer bodies to be shared and discussed in order to change our automatic assumptions about what people should or do look like. All bodies are important, but some are more visible than others. It is about time that that starts to change!
Many of the responses to Nina’s transphobic comments have focussed on the private nature of the body – suggesting that Gottmik’s trans embodiment is none of Nina’s, or our, business. The thing is, Gottmik is a performer who chooses to make her body our business by using it to entertain and to challenge. This is a valid and important aspect of Gottmik’s embodiment. Other trans people experience embodiment differently and value privacy. Both are valid and important ways of being human. But, in today’s world, there are bodies that are public and it is important that the expected normativity of those bodies is challenged.
In the church, we have often focussed on embodiment as being private, or none of anybody’s business. We shy away from conversations about bodies and nudity, seeing them as impolite, or possibly even a safeguarding risk. I have been involved in three LGBT History Month services this year, and have wrestled with the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ theme each time, carefully navigating lines around what supposedly can and can’t be said in church.
This isn’t only a problem for cis and heterosexual Christians. LGBTQ+ Christian campaigners have often needed to focus on the importance of privacy regarding our bodies and our sex lives in order to highlight how problematic the church’s obsession with who sleeps with who is. And we are right to do so. A person’s private life is their private life and it should be an individual’s choice what aspects of that they choose to share with others. A person’s body or what they choose to do with it should certainly never be controlled by ecclesial ‘authorities’. The fact that it still is, in many churches, is simply wrong.
The fact is, though, that as long as the church only talks about LGBTQ+ bodies as problematic, and never talks about embodied diversity openly, honestly, and with joyous celebration, the church will continue to promote normative embodiment and to deny the image of God in LGBTQ+ bodies, fat bodies, Black and Brown bodies, and disabled bodies. Until the church starts to talk more, and better, about bodies it will be complicit in abuse. Until the church starts to talk more, and better, about bodies it will be unable to fully embody Christ in the world.
Time and time again, I have experienced assumptions about my body in churches. Assumptions that either suggest that I see my body as a problem, or that I have or want a stereotypically male body, or that I am still female because of chromosomes or genitalia. Often, these assumptions are voiced in public, sometimes even to a national audience. My body, because of my openness in speaking and writing, is – like Gottmik’s – a public body. And I celebrate my created and recreated, transformed and transforming, wonderfully queer, trans body. The question is, can church cope with this new normal?
*Note: Gottmik (she/her) is the drag persona of Kade Gottlieb (he/him), who is a transman.