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Watching 'RuPaul’s Drag Race' In A Global Pandemic And Why Drag Matters In These Times

A drag reinterpretation of  the Frida Kahlo painting "The Two Fridas"; one is sitting in a dramatic gothic chair wearing a traditional Mexican black lace dress and heavy black make up; one on the right wears a gold and red long dress while the one on the left wears a green floral long dress.
Hiliana Perez in a drag reinterpretation of the Frida Kahlo painting, "The Two Fridas"
(Courtesy Laura Dark Photography)
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RuPaul’s Drag Race has gotten me through some of the hardest moments of the pandemic. When I was isolated in my apartment feeling sad, scared and lonely during lockdown, like many people, I turned to TV for a distraction. It seemed like a moment to go down a new rabbit hole, and I thought Drag Race might do the trick.

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It turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Over those months I watched all 11 seasons — plus the All Stars episodes. Sixteen seasons in all. And I continue to watch the show as it comes out.

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Listen: Help Me Apply To RuPaul's Drag Race

That’s why it was a pleasure for me to produce this week’s episode of the Snooze, a podcast series from LAist studios, where we feature Gerardo Medrano, whose dream is to be a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Although he’s begun the application three different times, he’s never completed it. On the show, we support Gerardo to find the courage to finally hit submit on the audition tape, and put him through our own version of Drag Race in the process.

Gerardo describes his drag persona, Hiliana Perez as a “love letter to Mexican heritage and a love letter to Mexican women.”
In a part of the interview that didn’t make it into the episode, Gerardo said:

“I like to tell people, try drag at least once. It doesn't matter who you are… When you think about it, the psychology of drag is an alter ego… So when someone is having a lot of issues and a lot of struggles with finding who they are… drag gives them an outside perspective."

"Drag puts you as a different person. And you are able to look at yourself out of drag and see who you really are. Drag helps you find who you are.”

That resonated for me personally. Watching Drag Race wasn’t just a fun distraction from the anxieties of the pandemic, it fed me in other ways as well.

"I know first-hand how femininity is both worshipped and derided."

As I began to watch the show weekly with my friends, it connected me to my queer community. It also resonated with my own gendered experiences, and reminded me why drag is so necessary in these times. As someone who was raised as a girl, I want to tell you how I came to understand myself as a queer femme and why I love the art of drag.

I know first-hand how femininity is both worshipped and derided. I received messages growing up that I should wear makeup — but not too much. I should show off my figure — but just the right amount of skin or it’s inappropriate. These messages came from the media, sure, but they also came from my friends, family and peers, and they deeply impacted me and how I moved in the world.

As a middle-schooler in the early aughts, I played a lot with clothes and makeup — platform shoes, glitter eyelids, cow print nails, peasant blouses and a green streak in my hair. My classmates often taunted me for my choices. I remember one time a boy drew an angry line in sharpie on the back of my vintage jacket; another time another boy pulled the flower wreath from my head and ran away with it down the hall.

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They never succeeded in making me tone it down, but looking back, I know the messages I got that I was in some way stepping out of line were wearing on me. I also don’t remember a single time that an adult had my back.

Thankfully at my public arts high school, I was far from alone in my bold fashion choices. But by the time I got to college, I was getting serious about being a jazz bassist and spent most of my classes surrounded by straight male musicians.

When my peers all threw on jeans and a T-shirt to our gigs, I became afraid that if I looked like I’d spent too much time or put too much thought into my appearance, no one would take me seriously as a musician.

Every time I walked into a venue with my instrument, I could feel my appearance being evaluated by the audience and the other musicians. I was uncomfortable in my body in a new way, although I don’t think that was apparent to other people.

The models I had of women in jazz were either instrumentalists who hid their bodies behind turtlenecks and were well-respected, if treated like a non-threatening auntie; or singers who oozed sex in low-cut shirts and were definitively mocked by my peers.

So for a while I stopped singing (which was the thing that had originally gotten me into music) and I stopped seeing bodily adornment as something I could access. I tried to minimize my body and my sexuality. I wanted to be hired; I wanted to be respected; I wanted to be listened to. Ironically, I traded in my bodily self-expression to work in a field that was supposedly about creative self-expression.

The pressure to be less feminine didn’t just come from men. Early on in college, a well-intentioned friend made me feel like a bad feminist for wearing eyeliner. She didn’t have to say much, just a pointed questioning of why I was wearing it that made me feel ashamed. My gender expression was being policed in the guise of feminism, but I see now that it was internalized misogyny.

Emma playing a red bass guitar, wearing a sequinned tank top with leopard skin bra straps visible,
Emma playing a bass guitar on stage
(Lebasi photography)

I was afraid that if I wore too much makeup, or if I wore it in the wrong way, I would become a caricature of a woman — crazy, silly, ridiculous, like I must be trying too hard to be desired by men. I stopped wearing makeup entirely for years.

In our dominant culture, beauty is compulsory as a woman but only to the extent that it appears natural. Too much femininity is frivolity. We do not take it seriously. We make assumptions about a person’s intelligence, competency and class status based on how they wear their gender. A woman who “overdoes it” is a model of the hysteria we pin on femininity — she is not only unfashionable and undesirable, but she is not to be listened to or trusted.

Although I walk through the world with all the privileges of a white woman, my respectability can be called into question depending on how I present my body. And I know this is much more true for folks who are perceived as feminine but neither white nor woman, for people with larger bodies than mine or bodies that in other ways don’t conform to our narrow and oppressive concepts of the norm.

The consequences can be dire. This is how transmisogyny manifests — trans women are seen by our larger culture as the ultimate tricksters; femininity is imagined as something that can only be bestowed at birth and someone who is seen as “choosing” it is unfathomable, wrong and deceitful. And when these beliefs about trans women are taken to their extreme, they have violent and even deadly results, especially for Black trans women and sex workers.

Emma is playing an upright bass; her shoulder length hair is a deep orange. She closes her eyes as she plays
Emma playing the upright bass at JACK in Brooklyn
(Leo Ferguson)

A Path Back To Myself

Queer and trans women are the ones who showed me a path back to myself and the bolder, more playful ways I wore my gender as a pre-teen. After college, I began to spend more time in queer community. My best friend, Hana Malia, was part of a group in New York at the time called Femme Family, and I saw possibilities for myself in other femmes. Queer femmes showed me that bright lipsticks and unshaved armpits were not contradictions. They made me feel like I could never be too much.

So many of the queer femmes I met had other aspects of their identities that they’d been told made them wrong or undesirable — that called their woman-ness into question. They’d been told they were too fat, too loud, too hairy, too angry, too weird, too dark, too slutty, too masculine, too effeminate, too ambiguous, too disabled, too trashy, too disobedient… And despite people telling them that they should somehow make themselves smaller, I met people who celebrated and amplified their too-muchness.

Femme isn’t a specific aesthetic, more so a way of relating to one’s gender. In her memoir, writer, filmmaker, activist and self-proclaimed “lesbian sex radical, ex-hooker, incest survivor, gypsy child, poor-white-trash, high femme dyke,” Amber Hollibaugh said:

“The difference between myself and many of the straight women I know is that they think that they are normal and natural. They believe in girl-ness, that girl-ness becomes woman-ness. … My femininity is about irony. It is a statement about the construction of gender; it is not just an appropriation of gender. It is not being a girl, it is watching yourself be a girl.”

I would add, more than 20 years after she said this, that femme-ness is absolutely not synonymous with girl-ness. Femmes can be nonbinary, or trans or cis men.

Hollibaugh also said “…my role models for being femme have been drag queens because drag queens construct female identity. I look at drag queens and I think, that’s how I feel as a woman.” I resonate with how she speaks on drag and ironic gender play as foundational to femme identity.

It's Hard Work To Be Fabulous

Drag queens turn the frivolity of femininity up to 11. Watch an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race and you’ll see just how much work it really takes to look that fabulous — layers of makeup and elaborate wigs, yes. But also padding, fillers, new teeth, face tape, duct tape, not to mention custom costuming. Some of the queens don’t do all of these things, but those who do, don’t pretend otherwise — the performance of gender is explicit.

You may think drag is an outrageous joke — and it is! But it’s also part of daily life. Even if you’re not a drag queen putting tons of time and money into your performance of femininity, or even if you’re not a queer femme, all of us are putting some kind of work into making choices about how we perform gender.

RuPaul tells us, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” My friends and I understand this. We put on “teacher drag” to be in the classroom or “wedding drag” to go to a straight cousin’s wedding, and of course we also put on our favorite wigs and full face of makeup to get on stage in the kind of performance that you see on Drag Race, (if scrappier, without those stars’ budgets.)

Drag can also be serious, both politically and socially impactful. No one can agree on exactly what happened the first night of the Stonewall Uprising, but we do know that drag queens were part of it, and we also know that queer and incarcerated women were involved, even if their contributions are often left out.

Traditions of gender-expansive performance and resistance exist in every place and time. That’s one of the reasons I love drag, its deep histories, and how it shows up in our present moment.

We live in a time when gender is heavily policed. The GOP is rallying their base by attacking queer and trans people. The resulting legislation denies trans kids gender-affirming care, pushes trans people out of sports, prevents teachers from educating on the histories or even existence of LGBT+ people in schools, and even attempts to outlaw drag queens from hosting read-alouds to children at libraries. It would all be absurd, except many of these laws are passing, more continue to be introduced, and peoples’ lives are at stake.

This world can be impossible to survive in our circumstances. Those femmes I met when I was in my early 20s, who showed me a way to be myself? Some of them are no longer living. I hold their spirits close and dream every day of the kind of world we could build, in which they could stay, survive, and thrive.

A promotion for the Snooze podcast features a person wearing Mexican-style flowers in their hair and heavy make up, imitating Frida Kahlo
The latest Snooze episode features Gerardo Medrano, aka Hilliana Perez
(Dan Carino
/
LAist)

Drag queens can teach us a lot about what that world looks like but representation will not keep us alive. Drag Race stars speaking at Pride events hosted by the vice president are not substitutes for the health care, mental health services, housing, education, and other forms of economic, social, and political freedom that we need.

My dear friend, Dr. Omotayo Jolaosho’s epigraph in their forthcoming posthumous book is, “To our dead, not a moment of silence but a lifetime of struggle.” I intend to struggle for a world that resources and cherishes queer and gender-non-conforming people like Tayo.

I look to drag artists and other queer and trans performers for models of how to be glamorous, playful, humorous, biting, and fully ourselves in that struggle.

Listen to episode 10 of Snooze: Help Me Apply To RuPaul's Drag Race

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