Drag and activism have always gone hand in hand. In June 1969, Marsha P Johnson, a Black drag performer reputedly threw the first brick in the Stonewall uprising in New York City; the violence that followed inspired LGBTQ+ people the world over to stand up to oppression and discrimination. Now, 51 years later, drag is more visible than ever, due in no small part to the multiple Emmy award-winning reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race. The show has given a powerful platform to a new generation of drag, trans and non-binary performers. And, whereas early activists often had to contend with police batons, water cannon and prison cells, these queens have more freedom to speak their minds.
“Drag has always been a stronghold against shitty politicians,” says Alaska, in her trademark vocal fry. The ferociously witty winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season 2 says her political role models include Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), the movement that advocates to end Aids, and Elizabeth Taylor, one of the first Hollywood icons to speak up during the Aids crisis in the 1980s, who “wasn’t technically a drag queen, but she kind of was, right?”
“Act Up had this badass element and ‘enough is enough’ attitude. It was during the Reagan presidency and they were, like: ‘This man doesn’t see us, we have a crisis, people are dying – we’re burying all our friends and the president won’t even acknowledge it.’ They had to take really drastic measures because it was the only way to get through,” she says.
Alaska has also found an effective medium to get her point across. The bi-weekly podcast Race Chaser, which she co-hosts with fellow Drag Race contestant Willam, features Let’s Get Political, a segment in which the queens share crucial information about registering to vote and engaging with good causes, while making no secret of their personal sentiments. Alaska recently said, “An empty suit on a hanger in a closet would do less damage than the current person in the White House.” With 1.2 to 1.5m downloads a month, their platform is not to be sniffed at.
“People didn’t like it at first. They were like: ‘I don’t think you drag queens know anything about politics and you should just stick to talking about Drag Race and wigs and makeup.” But we persisted. Even though we’re talking about something we may not know about, there’s a lot of people who don’t know shit about politics but, right now, there’s so much injustice and so much lying, we have no choice but to be active and fight against it,” Alaska says. Her message to her US followers is, simply: vote.
I’m always trying to be a better person, a better citizen. I guess it’s just a case of trying to do good and not do harm
With her teased blond beehive, love of leopard print and notorious potty mouth, Alaska is not the most obvious political role model – a paradox not lost on the leggy diva: “It’s sort of a topsy-turvy world where a drag queen named Alaska Thunderfuck is someone who’s a role model for young people, but sure, why not? I’m always trying to be a better person, a better citizen, a better drag queen. I guess it’s just a case of trying to do good and not do harm.”
For Peppermint – actor, singer, Broadway performer and fan favourite from Drag Race season 9 – there were no public figures that represented her experience growing up. As a young Black trans woman, she was inspired by those who dared to stand for change and challenge social and gender norms.
“People who were being ostracised or fired from their jobs, or being made fun of on television – those are the trailblazers who paved the way for people like me,” says Peppermint, whose role models include the Minneapolis councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, the first Black openly transgender woman elected to public office in the US, and earlier on, gender non-conforming pioneers such as Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie, who are credited with starting the modern queer rights movement.
Since the start of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, “sassy, but never shady” Peppermint has emerged as one of the most eloquent voices in the Black Trans Lives Matter movement, which aims to raise awareness of the violence directed at the Black trans community, and Black transgender women in particular.
“It’s absolutely necessary for people to become outraged and mobilised when we see images of injustice. I’m so thankful that the Black Lives Matter movement began after the murder of Trayvon Martin and continued with George Floyd, but what we’re not seeing is the same sort of energy when it comes to the women who have been killed: Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and many others,” Peppermint says.
In 2019, at least 27 transgender people were murdered in the US, of whom the vast majority were Black women, according to Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. Peppermint believes the lack of public indignation surrounding the murders of Black trans women is rooted in misogyny and transphobia – issues that have become glaringly apparent under the current Republican administration.
“Trump is like a really bright light that’s hard to look at but shows us everything we need to see,” she says. “It’s not pretty and it’s rough and it’s uncomfortable. But I don’t know that we’d be out marching for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd under a different presidency because I think we’d be comfortable with the way things are. Trump is using the worst tools he can to inspire the worst in some people, but it inspires the rest of us to say ‘No!’ You can’t make change until you hit rock bottom and he’s rock bottom.”
One queen who is no stranger to change and overcoming adversity is Latrice Royale. Having been arrested in 2001, she served a year in a Florida prison on a minor drug charge, after missing a parole meeting.
Ten years later, “large and in charge, chunky yet funky” Latrice Royale emerged as the heart and soul of season 4, earning the title of Miss Congeniality. Since then, her glittering career has gone from strength to strength. “Thank God for drag! When you go away [to prison] and come back, there are no job opportunities. But most people don’t have drag to fall back on,” Royale says.
Drag may have restored her ability to support herself, but another of her key rights took considerably longer to be reinstated. Like 1.4 million other Floridians, Royale lost her right to vote after having been convicted of a felony, due to a law from 1868, which disproportionately affects Black people, who make up 46% of Florida’s prison population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. After the 2018-midterm elections, a piece of legislation known as Amendment 4 reversed this Jim Crow-era law by restoring access to the ballot to so-called returning citizens. However, voting rights are only restored once they have paid off their court fees.
Just before the 2018 midterms, Royale shared an Instagram post with side-by-side pictures of herself in prison and in drag, urging, “All that have a voice, please vote! Speak for people like me who can’t!”
“It passed, thank goodness, but it’s a never-ending uphill battle,” she says, referring to the estimated 774,000 with felony convictions who still cannot vote because they owe money, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. “The point of this law is to keep Black people disenfranchised and silence us. We’re in this situation because so many people think their measly little vote doesn’t matter, but it does. If we don’t participate, we’re going to be sitting here crying about it and I have no more tears. So I’m going to keep screaming, ‘Vote! Vote! Vote! Vote!’,” says Royale, who will vote herself this year for the first time since Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996.
One of the fiercest queens ever to slay the runway of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Latrice Royale is well aware of the lack of representation for people like her in mainstream media. That’s why RuPaul has been such an inspiration.
“What RuPaul has done for our community has been beyond anyone’s imagination. When he came out with Supermodel (You Better Work), I was like ‘Oh, my God – that’s a man, Maury!’,” exclaims Royale, with her deep boisterous laugh.
Talking to all the queens about role models, one name that comes up repeatedly is Lady Bunny. A friend of RuPaul and referenced frequently on Drag Race, the iconic drag performer, DJ and actor is recognised not only as the reigning queen of New York LGBTQ+ nightlife, but one of the most radical voices in queer politics. Perhaps, though, Lady Bunny is best known as the creator of Wigstock. The annual drag festival, which was born on a night out in New York’s East Village in 1984, is often described as subversive and anti-establishment, but Lady Bunny disagrees.
“No!” she exclaims, in her captivating southern drawl. “People tried to say it was ‘in your face’. Actually what it was, the whole country was gripped by Aids – and the tragedy of it. I was in my early 20s and, as hard as it may be for people to imagine, I was a twink [a young, gay, slim, boyish man], so my interests were drinking and sex! The role of Wigstock was for me to be a jester and for people to celebrate that we were still here in the midst of all this death and darkness.”
Lady Bunny says her true political awakening occurred after 9/11, when she saw the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center “used as a way to start a war with Iraq”. Since then, the drag legend with the giant blond wig and mouth like a fishwife has been an outspoken critic of mainstream media and politics. In 2016, she backed Bernie Sanders and, ultimately, voted for the Green Party nominee, Jill Stein. Today, she continues to be a voice of dissent against the two leading parties, arguing that they are in the pockets of corporate interests.
Not so in this election, though. While Lady Bunny disagrees with many of Joe Biden’s policies, she admits, “Trump is a nightmare for LGBTQ+ issues. Because of the Supreme Court, because of LGBTQ+ rights, because of the emergency that is the climate, I would encourage people in swing states to vote for Joe Biden,” she says. “However, Americans have to stop thinking that voting every four years is enough to change the hideous problems in this country. We began seeing cellphone footage of police killing Black people under the Obama administration. Nothing was done and now, here we are, with a white supremacist-affiliated president,” referring to alleged links between Donald Trump’s father and the Ku Klux Klan, described in historian Linda Gordon’s controversial book The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan and the American Political Tradition.
Many in the drag and LGBTQ+ community see the coming election as a critical moment for them. Alaska put it best in a recent episode of Race Chaser: “For us as queer individuals, this is life or death. The current administration is trying to dismantle our rights, discriminate against us, create a country that is hostile towards us and treats us as second-class citizens. That is not OK and we will never allow it to be OK. And we will never stop speaking about it until every fuckin’ person on this planet has the exact same rights and fuckin’ justice. That’s the tea.”