Queens Of Color: Role Models For A Troubled Time
by Ellen Levitt
My daughters and I flop into our seats and get ready to watch our weekly show. It’s one of the most enjoyable TV series of which I’ve ever been a devoted fan. Each episode brings glamour and energetic performances, rivalries, and alliances, humor, and pathos. It even has a follow-up show with behind-the-scenes material.
It’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, either a regular-season or an All-Stars season, and it’s a heady combination of fashion, performing arts, jokes both silly and shady, biting competition and oversized personalities. We love this show, hosted by the internationally known drag personality RuPaul Charles, and during the week we check out the Instagram accounts of the show and of individual cast members and occasionally watch online spinoff shows featuring a few of the most famous queens. My girls have even attended the New York City DragCon a few times.
We thrill to the lip-sync competitions, the weekly runways, the Mini, and Maxi challenges. We critique the outfits, makeup, and accessories of the queens. We cheer for “death drops” and splits, cartwheels, and other extreme gymnastic routines. We clap for dance moves done in high heels and laugh (or cringe) at comedy sketches and parodies. We get misty-eyed along with the queens who discuss challenges and struggles they have faced because they are gay and effeminate, and how they dealt with bullying, families who disagree with their lifestyles, and other problems.
We are hooked on watching a show about LGBTQ+ people who are expressing themselves, carving niches for themselves in the entertainment world, and dealing with the joys and sorrows of being “different” from much of mainstream society.
Going even further, many of the drag queens during these twelve regular seasons and five All-Star seasons have been QOC, Queens of Color. There have been many Black and Latino queens, as well as some Asian queens and even a queen with partial Middle Eastern roots. (There are even a few Jewish queens.) Many of the queens belong to “drag families” or Houses and have drag “mothers” and “sisters” (queens they mentor or have mentored them).
Drag has many levels for these people; it is intertwined with their identity but is also a professional persona. They revel in the gender-bending, the rebellion against typical male characteristics and attitudes. Many have spoken about how they enjoyed playing with cosmetics when they were kids or dressed up in typical girls’ clothing as children.
And especially for the past few months, the drag queens have been a source of escape for the millions who are stuck at home, often in small living quarters. Due to COVID-19 restrictions we have not been going out to the movies or to concerts, we can’t go out to sporting events or museum exhibitions, we cannot go out to see the drag queens perform their shows live at clubs like House of Yes or other spaces… but we can watch them on TV, or on their YouTube channels filmed from their own homes. In many ways, the Drag Queens have been a huge source of entertainment with their colorful clothing and makeup, their outsized personalities, their singing and dancing and so much more. RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a huge hit for VH1, and especially when nearly everyone is at home, this show has had banner ratings.
But especially now, in the wake of George Floyd’s horrific death, protests around the nation about racism and police brutality, and of course the continuation of many Coronavirus restrictions that have made our lives tougher and less joyful, the Drag Queens have a special set of messages for us. And now that it’s Pride Month, the Queens and especially the many Queens of Color can be truly inspirational.
One of my favorite Drag Race queens, who is a queen of color, is Monet XChange, a cast member from Season 10 and All-Stars 4. On June 3rd, Monet posted to her Instagram account a video of Black men beating up a Black trans woman in a store. She wrote, “To all the dumb transphobic N—-as out here…STOP IT!”
One of the Season 12 queens, Heidi In Closet (also a Black queen) responded with “This video just made me so angry being someone who has also been mistreated by my own race but still chooses to stand beside them in these crazy times because all black lives matter. This behavior is completely unacceptable.”
It is heartening, but not surprising to see Queens of Color speaking out against attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, but also feeling betrayed when it brings out prejudice in other segments of the Black community.
They are part of both, they feel for both, but they also feel especially protective of Black LGBTQ+ people. They know how tough it can be.
Monet posts about a variety of issues on her Instagram, many of them fashion and humorous pieces, but others that are more serious in tone. Black pride and African fashion are frequently displayed, as are her thoughts on the rights and sense of identity for the LGBTQ+ community. Solidarity for both groups, often, but not always intertwined, are major themes of her message and her thoughts.
One of the most glamorous (and very funny) winners of a Drag Race season is Jaida Essence Hall, who posted to Instagram on June 10th the graphic “I’m a Survivor” with a fist emoji, and the following message: “As a black queer person I face a lot of adversity, just like many of you. But there is a built-in need for survival in us and when we don’t even think we can make it, we constantly push boundaries and show that we can… As artists, it’s also part of our job to not only be advocates but to provide relief for those in difficult times.”
Jaida’s message is powerful: she asserts that people like her can be advocates (for change, for promoting acceptance) and to provide relief, via entertaining on TV and other media. And while some entertainers shy away from the mantle of being “advocates for change” and role models for members of society, drag queens such as Jaida are willing to take on such roles. Just as Heidi In Closet spoke on RuPaul’s Drag Race about a “guncle,” a gay uncle who was one of her confidantes when she was growing up, she and Jaida and many other queens of color and queens in general, are seen as more than just TV personalities. They are considered by many of their fans as role models, whether they are Black or Latino or Asian, or part of the LGBTQ+ community, or artistic “square pegs” who don’t fit into the typical stereotypical roles in our society as a whole.
Many of the Queens, and especially the Queens of Color, have become iconic for not only men and nonbinary people who are cross-dressing, but also for straight teenagers, for older people who once had dreams of being performers and fashion trend-setters, for those who are into cosplay, and for many others. These queens, whether they are on Drag Race or the HBO Max show We’re Here which recently finished its first season (starring the Black queens Shangela and Bob, as well as the Caucasian queen Eureka), are seen as daring individuals who push boundaries and do outrageous things such as wear lavish clothing and makeup, do intricate dance and gymnastic moves, who poke fun at themselves and have us laughing (and sometimes crying) along.
They express themselves and show people how they can express themselves too; they entertain us and themselves with their singing, dancing, acting, and runways; they are entrepreneurs who perform (and many of them are also fashion designers who sell T-shirts, cosmetics, posters and stickers, and even books).
Queendom actually has an intricate history, with roots that go back several generations. There is much more acceptance now for these people, and this form of entertainment; and while there are certainly people out there who are either uninterested in the escapades of drag queens or who are even offended by them, the many drag queens on these TV shows and elsewhere are becoming better known and better accepted in society. During a tumultuous time in which hatred, fear and uncertainty is constantly in the news, Queens and especially Queens of Color can help make our lives a bit lighter and more hopeful.
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