“Legendary queen from NYC… P-E-P-P-E-R-bitch, you know the rest!”
The first out trans star to appear on Drag Race, Peppermint was the runner-up we were all rooting for. With a fierce look and an ever fiercer attitude to match, we meet the icon to talk about self-discovery, the positive sexualisation of trans men and women, and the truth behind Project Peppermint.
Being the first trans woman ever to appear on the cover of Gay Times is a history-making achievement that Peppermint takes very seriously. “It’s such an honour,” says the RuPaul’s Drag Race star. “This is historic for the magazine and the community, and it’s interesting that since the trans movement is emerging in a way that it hasn’t before, there’s so many opportunities for historic moments to happen for everyone. I’m incredibly happy to participate in this great one.”
Having also made history as the first trans Drag Race contestant to be vocal about her status from the get-go and one of only two (alongside Monica Beverly Hillz who came out mid-run in the middle of the fifth series) to openly compete on the show rather than identifying as trans later, Peppermint adds: “Even little stuff like the first time you hire a trans person - that’s a historic moment. There’s moments happening all around and we must celebrate these.”
Her story is a cheering one. She’s spoken before about how New York drag queens weren’t always accepting of having a trans woman in their midst when she first moved there, with some of them asking “Are you trans or are you a drag queen?” as if the two were mutually exclusive. Having boldly stood her ground, she became a fabulous fixture on the Manhattan drag circuit and sashayed her way to second place on last year’s ninth season of Drag Race, impressing with her lip-syncing skills, nailing her Britney Spears impersonation and roasting Michelle Visage to roars from Ru and audience alike. (Sample line: “Not since Destiny’s Child has there been a Michelle so famous for riding somebody else’s coattails.”)
Now a bastion for the trans community, she points out that queer unity needs to be a two-way street. Trans people, she asserts, have been at the forefront in the fight for LGBTQ rights and were vocal supporters of marriage equality.
“Gay folk knew and still know they can rely on trans folk to be there in the crowd and be part of the gathered voices that make us stronger,” Peppermint says, adding provocatively that when the trans community is under siege, gay men don’t always rally round as they should. “When I had the chance to march or protest for HIV and AIDS or marriage equality or gay pride in general I would see my male and female trans friends there.” She sighs. “But when there would be a vile murder of a trans person or a moment recognising that a trans person was now missing from the community, it’s almost always trans women of colour stood in the rain.”
Happy to be referred as Peppermint or Pep, she’s very flirtatious, declaring: “You have to get on your knees every single time you even think of me, let alone speak to me.” But she’s serious about her mission. When she signed on for Drag Race she knew she’d be seen as a spokesperson for trans women doing drag and a trans woman of colour at that. “It was a lot of personal pressure but I knew that there was an opportunity for people to connect with my story. I was cautious because I didn’t know if they’d accept an out trans queen and was worried I’d be rejected before I had the opportunity to speak about my experience on such a huge platform.”
Open about her status from the moment the series aired, she nonetheless waited for the right
Gay folk knew and still know they can rely on trans folk to be there in the crowd and be part of the
gathered voices that make us stronger.
time to tell the other contestants, which she did in the workroom in episode six. “It was a competition and I didn’t want anyone to use anything against me because I didn’t know how cutthroat the girls would be,” Pep says of sussing out the other queens first, “but it wasn’t very long before I realised the queens were very kind, genuine and progressive.”
A leading light of the NYC drag and club scenes before the show as well as a singing star whose parody of Gaga and Beyoncé Telephone music video (co-starring Sherry Vine) caused a viral sensation, she’s busier than ever – touring the world and being trailed by camera crews for her Project Peppermint documentary. The latter promises to reveal the backstory of a woman who is Peppermint in her drag life and Agnes Moore in private, but over her two decades as a performer “systemically dismantled the identity that I was given when I was born”.
Born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, she muses: “I’d erased myself subconsciously. You can easily find pictures and tapes of me as a drag queen and a woman, but not in any other form before my transition. I realised that I don’t want that part of my life to go missing. You also get to see some of the issues that I’m involved in - activist issues, trans issues, and you see before Drag Race I was just a struling drag queen. I am worried about being so honest, but I’m ready for it.”
Misgendering is something she’s had to contend with. “Day-to-day it’s less than I would expect,” she’s pleased to report, “but I have dealt with different forms of discrimination and it usually comes as micro-aression. It doesn’t feel good, but it never stops me from living. When I first transitioned, it felt crucial and hurt a lot. I’d bite and argue and confront them. As time moved on I got over it. If people sense you’re not secure in your gender identity it gives them license to pick at it.”
Does she think Drag Race does enough to represent trans women? Not really, no, since it’s through the lens of drag. “It’s not a show about trans folk or trans issues and it’s not necessarily supposed to educate the community. It’s just the model they have. I don’t know if they’re planning on changing it soon, but I would personally like to see all kinds of queens on the show - not only different types of drag queens but different types of people doing drag.”
With the murder rate of trans women of colour the highest it’s ever been in the States, she’s cautious about making a correlation between that and Donald Trump being voted in, feeling it’s more to do with ignorance and transphobia. “However, I do think there’s people who are more involved with certain ideals since he was elected,” she says, adding a positive caveat: “It’s worth noting we’ve made great strides and I don’t believe there’s anything they could throw at us which we couldn’t handle. We’ve been through so much before and will do in the future, but it’s about how we get through it. We’ve been there when the law wasn’t on any of our sides and where allies or a sense of community didn’t exist. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Allies in high places include Danica Roem, the first ever trans state representative, and Andrea Jenkins, the first African American trans woman to be elected to office. Their appointments mark a sea change for Peppermint, who asserts: “We need lawmakers in our favour. Lawmakers must be diverse as possible from all races, genders and sexualities to reflect the societies they are representing. We’ve had a number of lawmakers around the world step into the light who are queer and that’s fantastic and it feels essential now.”
Her message to trans youths discovering their truth is a positive one. “Getting to where I am today once looked impossible so I know that their future will be even brighter. Whatever you’re going through now can feel horrible and confusing but it’s necessary to get to the next step. When you do eventually turn around and look at what’s behind you you’ll acknowledge it wasn’t as bad as you thought. Now is the time to be out and proud and have those conversations with your family. I was faced with the option to take the step of living out and facing the negativity or avoid it all and making choices that weren’t me. The person and feelings you have inside are always right.”
Our history-making cover star is happy to be a trailblazer. “I don’t want to reject the significance of the contributions I’ve made to change as I’ve been the first person to do a lot of things,” Peppermint states. “I recognise the historical significance of it and I’m ready to try and uphold it in the best way I can. I want to blaze the biest trail I possibly can so that people who come after me have it easier.”