Opinion: Drag has moved up, but it needs to move left

In today's world, drag queens are all over the planet spreading their messages of love ... and liberalism.

The genesis of drag is inherently radical. It is an art form created by transgender and nonbinary people with a need to survive in gendered societies. It was popularized in the ballroom culture of New York City, by poor black gay people abandoned by capitalism and neoliberals alike. Drag queens took the streets and fought police during the Stonewall riots. 

As the LGBTQ rights movement has been mainstreamed, it has been infused with toxic liberalism, forgetting the unapologetically radical nature of its past. LGBTQ people and culture have risen through the class hierarchies of western society, benefitting from capitalist systems, rather than challenging them. A similar watering-down has happened in the representation of the art of drag since the mainstreaming of Drag Race

This article focuses on queens from Drag Race because the queens with the most media influence are from that show. This is inherently problematic because many types of drag performers are not allowed to compete on the show, meaning the ‘unpolished,’ genderfluid, radical nature of drag is damn near completely lost in mainstream representation. 

On Drag Race 

While Drag Race queens have always used the show as a platform to crusade for social change, the conversation has been reigned in, ‘uncomfortable’ moments have been edited out and weak liberalism has been welcomed with a smile. 

Bob the Drag Queen  @thatonequeen

Bob the Drag Queen @thatonequeen

Over the years, queens have touched on all sorts of political and social issues including mental illness, bullying, gender identity, body positivity, suicide, poverty, racism and Islamaphobia. All of these issues are important and, when mentioned on the show, have often been discussed with great appreciation and intellect.

Who could forget the season 1 moment when Ongina revealed that she was HIV positive, or on season 6 when Trinity K. Bonet did the same? Who doesn’t tear up when watching Sasha Velour, Valentina and Shea Couleé discuss living with eating disorders on season 9? Who isn’t completely living for the Vixen’s blatant call-out of the white victim narrative on season 10 Untucked?

These are the moments that speak volumes; these are the narratives that viewers need to see represented on TV. While these moments may captivate and educate, they are fleeting in the show and the ‘wokeness’ of some queens seems to only extend so far. 

RuPaul has thrown many events in “support of the troops” on the show, often involving the girls performing for service members or in a military-themed challenge. Yet not once has there been a call-out of the military industrial complex or the senseless violence of imperialism and war crimes. We need queens who are willing to go on national television and say “end war profiteering,” not queens who use that platform to perpetuate hollow rhetoric about “fighting for freedom.”

One episode featured Nancy Pelosi as a guest judge and she was met with admiration and showered in smiles and expressions of gratitude. Sorry not sorry, but fucking around with elite capitalists like Nancy Pelosi on national television and suggesting that viewers vote democrat does not queer activism make. It does not bring about any substantial change in the lives and communities of marginalized voters, and it does not touch the souls of those people in the way that hearing the queen’s stories does. 

Drag Race needs queens who will stand on stage and ask why 26 percent of Pelosi’s funding comes from PAC contributions, who will ask if she acknowledges the ways in which she benefits from capitalism at the expense of others, who will ask why she has kept progressives in Congress in the dark regarding prescription drug pricing--not queens who will clap simply because she’s an anti-Trump democrat.

Other important moments have been edited out altogether, like on All-Stars 4 when Manilla was told she couldn't wear a tampon dress to celebrate the human body and when Gia and Ru’s conversation about his transphobic stance on trans drag performers didn’t make the edit. It’s fair to wonder how many other political and social statements were cut short to protect Ru’s image and to avoid controversy. 

After the show

Outside of Drag Race, many queens have been on the frontlines of varying social issues. Courtney Act has used her platform on various shows to educate people about LGBTQ identities. Bob the Drag Queen started her career doing activism in the streets of New York and has since the show discussed racism in the fanbase. Sasha Velour, Violet Chachki and Valentina have all came out as nonbinary since the show and have been educating fans on what nonbinary identities are. Peppermint, Gia Gunn, Stacey Lane Matthews, Sonique and Carmen Carrera have all come out as trans women, advocating for change on the show and in the community. 

Still, outside of the show, producers aren’t breathing down a queen’s neck coaxing her to spill tea about her personal life and have uncomfortable conversations regarding social change. Naturally, some girls might step off the soapbox because doing the work of advocacy and activism is exhausting — and that's totally fine. 

However, it would seem a lot of queens don’t want to do or say anything politically controversial to preserve their ‘respectable,’ mainstream image. After all, drag is finally being offered a spotlight on mainstream platforms and some queens may feel pressured to ‘act right’ so as not to mess up the sudden success. Still, other queens might refuse to criticize the show or RuPaul directly because they feel indebted to Drag Race

Yet, virtually every drag queen that has a mainstream platform is from Drag Race, so if none of them will call out antiquated liberalism and problematic practices, then who will?

It seems many Drag Race girls are socially aware, making an effort to learn and teach others and using their voice to spread love. However, many don’t use their voice to speak out on things at all, and others may intentionally avoid specific topics altogether. 

Queer people do not need drag queens “speaking up” by supporting presidential candidates like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. We need queens who will call out their problematic positions on criminalizing drug offenders.

We don’t need queens kiki-ing with problematic assholes like Jeffree Star and flaunting designer brands on social media. We need queens who will call out the disgusting nature of extravagant wealth and modern materialism.  

We don’t need queens who explode with joy when a police car gets a fucking rainbow on it. We need queens who will point out the racist nature of the police in general and the police protecting Nazi protesters at pride.

We don’t need centrist queens who compromise in the name of “meeting in the middle.” We need leftist queens who bring anti-capitalism to the mainstage in order to radicalize the conversation. 

Luke Gardner is a radical journalist and student who lives in metro Atlanta. To see his work or for contact information click here.