The long, fascinating and controversial history of the Drag Race term ‘trade’

RuPaul's Drag Race queen Kahanna Montrese.

If you’ve ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race and wondered what the phrase “trade of the season” means, then you’re not the only one.

During some seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, fans might call a particular queen or queens “trades of the season”, which leaves some fans scratching their heads. Allow us to elaborate.

Within old school ballroom and drag culture, a “trade” is a masculine-passing LGBTQ+ guy who has a certain edge to their look.

But the phrase has evolved, and within the Drag Race lexicon, it now simply means a queen who looks sexy and attractive and is considered the best of the season by their fellow queens, the fans, or both. Hence, they are the “trade” of that current season.

However, there are other meanings to the word “trade” in LGBTQ+ slang that predates drag and ballroom culture entirely.

“Trade” previously used to refer to the casual partner of a gay man. The casual partner was often straight and poor, partnering with a wealthier, gay man for money or gifts, participating in a form of sex-work.

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This was common among Cockneys in 1930s London, wherein the Cockney person was poor and partnered with a wealthy Englishman who was gay and would pay for their trade’s time.

1935: Workmen using pneumatic drills on a stretch of road in the Aldwych, London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Similarly, the term “rough trade” was often used interchangeably with “trade”. There were two possible reasons for the word “rough” being associated with the word “trade”, either because they had a dangerous vibe to them or because they were likely to be working-class labourers who worked in rough places.

Rough, tough working men, in other words.

There was also the risk of violence to the sex worker in question if for instance they said no to doing something they didn’t want to do. Laws around homosexuality meant that “trades” couldn’t report this in the past, but even after homosexuality was made legal, there was extreme stigma associated to being a “trade“.

Outside of Drag Race, it has also been used to mean a casual partner or situationship in recent years but without the connotation of being paid for those encounters.

Some people don’t agree with how Drag Race has altered the original meaning of the term, erasing the history of those sex workers who had to partner with wealthy, gay men due to extreme poverty.

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