For the love of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the importance of queer representation on mainstream TV

Symone - Drag Race

I rarely watch TV. But RuPaul’s Drag Race is my favourite show. It’s my go-to pick-me-up. But it’s not just the creative runway looks, diverse challenges or comedy that I enjoy. It’s the much-needed queer representation on mainstream TV. And in a world littered with deep-rooted injustices, we need some light, laughter and shablams. Although far from perfect, Drag Race has been a solace during lockdown.

I often reflect, however, on how amazing it might have been to have a queer-centred show on mainstream TV while I was growing up.

Growing up Queer

First of all, everyone’s experience of growing up as a queer person is different. And I acknowledge my privilege here; I am a white cis man. And I’m incredibly lucky to have parents that have been nothing but supportive since when I felt comfortable to ‘come out’ for the first time. But I know so many people whose experiences resulted in fractured relations with family and friends; or in some cases, complete estrangement from their support network.

Growing up as working-class queer in the Conservative-led UK of the late 1980s and 1990s was tough. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government voted through Section 28 to the Local Government Act 1986, which said local authorities:

shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.

And could not:

promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

As far as the Tories were concerned, queer people should be neither seen nor heard in the classroom. And this heinous intervention came during the AIDS crisis, where gay men were demonised in TV campaigns which instilled fear and peddled misinformation about the virus to the masses.

“It just erases gay people completely”

In Drag Race UK Season One when the cast were discussing growing up queer, contestant Divina De Campo spoke about Section 28. They shared their experience of homophobic bullying at school. And De Campo highlighted that, because of Section 28, teachers couldn’t “step in”.

They went on to say:

[homosexuality] could not even be spoken about so it just erases gay people completely. There was no discussion around it, so you’d have no understanding as a gay person that there can be a different way of living because you never get told that…

Whereas for a straight person you are constantly fed: ‘you are correct’, ‘you are right’, ‘you are valid’. You don’t get that as a gay person.

Scotland under Section 28

Similar to De Campo, my entire time in the Scottish state education system was under Section 28. As a shy queer kid, I had to navigate school knowing I was different. But I had no idea what made me different. Homosexuality was discussed in a derogatory way by my peers, mocking any boy outside their ‘masculine’ heteronormative ideals. And the painful legacy of Section 28 still affects so many queer millennials today – from addiction to deep-rooted mental health problems.

I had to alter and tone down behaviours, characteristics and interests; I was scared of being picked on for being too femme or a ‘poof’. On reflection, I wasn’t fooling anyone apart from myself. But I should have felt safe to be my authentic self. I should have been able to be queer.

But times have changed somewhat. In Scotland, Section 28 was repealed in 2000 (the rest of the UK repealed it in 2003). And after tireless campaigning and collaboration with the Scottish government, the TIE Campaign and others helped ’embed LGBTQI+ education’ into the Scottish curriculum in 2018.

This was a very proud day for Scotland. But queer people and our allies must not become complacent. We must continue to fight to ensure our trans and non-binary siblings have their equal human rights; and continue to help carve out an inclusive society.

So what is RuPaul’s Drag Race?

For those of you not familiar with the phenomenon, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a ‘reality’ TV show where queer people of different shapes, sizes and minorities compete to be crowned the “Next Drag Superstar”. Drag artists strut into the ‘Werk Room’ and take part in mini and maxi challenges showing their “Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent” to compete for the crown. In each episode, the two bottom queens that do not slay the challenge or impress the judges with their runway look face a lip sync battle to stay in the race. In the US, UK and Down Under franchises, RuPaul sits as a permanent senior judge alongside Michelle Visage.

Drag Race originated in the US, airing in 2009. Since then, it has expanded to include 13 seasons in the US, five seasons of the spin-off All-Stars, a celebrity special, and five international seasons including Drag Race UK.

My partner and I make the latest episode our weekly date night. And when I feel a bit low, I binge-watch a season to perk me up. But I often think how different my childhood and teenhood could have been with a programme like Drag Race on my screen – to help me understand and digest my own sexuality and identity. A show throwing some light on gender and its variety of expressions. And with queer people front and centre – unapologetically being their creative selves. Not toning down who they are to conform to heteronormative expectations. And shouting a big ‘fuck you’ to mainstream society.

The criticisms of Drag Race and its inclusivity

Now Drag Race is far from perfect. RuPaul has been criticised for past comments around trans inclusion. And following an interview for the Guardian in 2018, the main judge was widely criticised again for narrowing inclusion in the show down to biology. As Pink News reported in September 2019, RuPaul said the comments were taken “so out of context”. But the jury is out on that one.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2020, meanwhile, Michelle Visage suggested she could host a spin-off show for women and trans people who participate in drag. But in my opinion, the Drag Race production team should reach out and encourage more women, non-binary and trans drag artists to participate; and then cast them on the bloody show. Drag Race should be a beacon of hope for all queer people.

In the past, Drag Race has (rightly) been criticised by previous contestants for its lack of trans representation. Although Peppermint appeared on Drag Race US Season Nine and a “handful” of queens on Drag Race Thailand and franchise spins offs, the trans representation needs addressing. That said, cast members including Sonique, Monica Beverly Hillz and Gia Gunn have come out as trans women during or after their Drag Race appearances.

In January 2020, when the Season 12 cast was announced, former cast member Detox took to Twitter to say:

In a follow-up tweet to criticism of their intervention, Detox said:

It’s not about political correctness*, it’s about the conscious exclusion of an integral part of the drag community. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for the trans performers that took me under their wings, and they deserve the same kinds of opportunities

Bring on the drag kings

Moreover, drag kings should be competing alongside the queens on the show. Similar to Detox’s argument for including trans artists, drag kings are an integral – but often undervalued and overlooked – part of drag. Drag Race should reflect the diversity of artists in queer venues the world over.

As the Season 13 cast member Denali said so succinctly in March 2021:

The “villain edit”

But it’s not just inclusion that Drag Race has been criticised for; it’s also the personal costs and debt which are built up by contestants to participate. It’s the snobbery and frustration shown by RuPaul towards queens that wear “off-the-rack” garments. And some fans have called out the show for its unnecessary confrontations with RuPaul and plot ‘pot stirring‘ designed to intimidate the cast members for audience enjoyment. Some former contestants and fans of colour have said the show has an obvious “villain edit” – creating an overarching narrative for the season to boost ratings. This often revolves around a queen of colour. And in many cases, this has resulted in the “toxic” elements of the fandom harassing and bullying queens on social media.

As fans of the show, it’s up to us to call out this type of behaviour; and most importantly, apply pressure on the production teams to instil change in future seasons. We need to help build a programme that can be inspiring for *all* young queer people tuning in.

Important conversations

Drag Race has allowed some raw and beautiful conversations to take place on screen. And we have seen Indigenous queens bring powerful messages to the runway in both the Canada and Down Under franchises. The show also gives viewers some insight into the struggles queer drag artists have experienced more broadly. These include living with HIV and their experiences of being a queer person of colour and even going through conversion therapy.

In Drag Race UK Season Two, a discussion between two contestants went viral. Ginny Lemon and Bimini Bon Boulash had an organic conversation about their own gender identity. Both Lemon and Boulash are non-binary. In the clip, Boulash said:

As humans we’re so complex that having a binary to have everyone fit into it, whether it’s just male or female, just doesn’t make sense when there’s seven billion plus people in the world.

Lemon went on to say how, growing up in a “working class council house”, anyone who was different “from the binary” was viewed as a “freak and an outsider”.

And after this episode aired, young queer people shared their stories of feeling empowered to come out. Discussions like this on TV are important. And for the masses who are not queer, it might also allow them understand gender identity a little bit more.

“I just didn’t have anyone growing up that was like me”

Without giving away too many spoilers of Season 13, Gottmik walked onto our screens in January 2021. And in doing so, she made history. Gottmik, who uses she/her pronouns in drag, is the first trans man to compete on Drag Race.

In an interview with Advocate in April 2021, Gottmik said:

I just wanted to show a new side of drag. I wanted to show that it’s not what everyone thinks it is. It’s not just boys dressing up in drag. Trans women created drag, and on top of that, there’s other people on other parts of the spectrum that are also doing drag and exploring. And even beyond me, there’s even more that we haven’t heard from.

Gottmik went on to say:

I just didn’t have anyone growing up that was like me. It kept me from transitioning and living my truth for so long. So I was like, ‘OK, well, this isn’t maybe valid? I don’t see anyone in the world like me’. And then now, being on the show and telling my story, there are so many people that messaged me just saying thank you and that they connect to me.

Drag Race casting a trans man shows more of what drag is to a mainstream audience. And it further diversifies the queer visibility on the show. But on that very point, Divina De Campo said in an interview with Entertainment Insider in January 2021:

we have to be very aware that it’s male queer visibility [on RuPaul’s Drag Race]. There’s practically no queer female visibility, and there’s only one male trans person in over 20 seasons.

I think it’s done great things about opening up conversations about the power of femininity and owning that as a male person, but I don’t think it’s done huge amounts for women and for trans people

Some input from friends

Speaking to some of my fellow queer friends when I decided to write this article, I had some really insightful conversations. We all share the love of Drag Race. And we share similar concerns and criticisms of the production of Drag Race. But we do think having such a queer-centred show on mainstream TV in our teenhood would have been such a wonderful thing.

My research colleague and pal Sophie Duncan-Shepherd, who is non-binary, said:

Looking back on my childhood, I can now see how queer I really was as a kid and a teen. But at the time, there was very little in the media that I could relate to for that side of myself. Having a show like Drag Race growing up would’ve meant the world to me, it would’ve meant that I wasn’t alone. I’ve always been fierce, but my younger self would’ve loved to have my queer power back then too.

Drag Race is not perfect. But it’s a programme that puts queer people on mainstream TV. And it has creaked open the door for queer drag artists to share their stories and talents with the world. But RuPaul, we want more trans, non-binary, women and Indigenous contestants on the show. And please, get drag kings on Drag Race too!

And some final thoughts

Growing up queer is still tough, I have no doubt. But at least now there is a lot more support and LGBTQI+ inclusive education in place. And I think programmes like Drag Race have their place in ‘promoting’ homosexuality and queerness to the masses. I think little queer Brian would have really benefitted from that growing up. I would have known that queer people were my tribe.

(Note: when the COVID-19 restrictions allow, please get your queer and ally arses back down to some venues and support your local drag artists.)

Main article image via DragRaceTingzz/YouTube and edited

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