Drag Race UK season 4 spoilers follow.
The deep, meaningful chats between Drag Race contestants pre-runway have had a tough time lately.
From Kornbread needing to leave the Werk Room during one in season 14, to the way that they felt increasingly shoehorned into some UK seasons — remember that cancel culture talk in UK Vs the World? — it’s become increasingly easy to discount them as a pointless prelude to the show’s runway presentations.
But in the wake of the latest Snatch Game, the obligatory DMC moved in a surprising, and much needed direction.
Rather than covering the typical bases of these conversations — like the relationship between queens and their parents, or stories of first times doing drag — Cheddar Gorgeous shined a light on something that’s often felt under-discussed on a stage as big as Drag Race: the history of the AIDS crisis, and the damage it inflicted on queer communities.
The runway category for this episode was 'Tickled Pink,' and as she got ready for the runway, Cheddar Gorgeous prepared a pink triangle, one of many that ended up adorning her outfit.
She’s asked about it by Dakota Schiffer, who initially identifies it as the sign used to "identify homosexuals during the holocaust." Cheddar goes on to put this image in the context of ACT-UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), a major activist group during the AIDS crisis, along with their slogan: "silence equals death."
As Cheddar puts it, groups like ACT-UP took phrases that were "used against us," and reclaimed them, using them as a "symbol of queer resistance." She describes her runway as being a "twist on pink" (the finished garment features a lot of black, an echo of the ACT-UP symbol itself), as well as drawing attention to the fact that AIDS activists made use of "spectacle and gags in order to draw attention to social issues."
While this isn’t exactly new to the Drag Race stage — across seasons of both Canada and US, there have been incredibly powerful runways that tackle issues of racism and the legacy of slavery — its a rarity to see a statement like this made on the UK runway, especially when it comes to a topic like the AIDS crisis, which for many is seen as being over.
Not only through her conversations with other queens, but also through confessionals, Cheddar is able to fight back against that historic silence — and the stigma that still exists, one that Drag Race itself has acknowledged in the past. She talks about the reality of "governments at the time [that] were quite happy to just let people die," and that people with AIDS were "denied basic medical care" before dying alone.
While there’s a temptation to think of the AIDS crisis as being a thing of the past, both Cheddar’s runway, and the conversation on the episode, serve as a reminder that — although it’s no longer the death sentence it once was — the disease still exists.
Cheddar's runway is adorned with so many pink triangles; the words "silence = death" in pink letting on black straps; bleeding makeup; and a pink triangle over her mouth, silencing her — and she dedicates all this to "anyone struggling with stigma around HIV."
The offhand way that Cheddar mentions starting PrEP is a gesture in the direction of dismantling that stigma, as well as her insistent reminder that the drug is able to make HIV undetectable in someone taking it.
Here, "silence = death" becomes replaced with a something new and more optimistic: "undetectable = untransmittable." Even though the legacy of the AIDS crisis is still felt by queer people, not only in the sheer number of people lost, but growing up with "adverts on the television of gravestones dropping," the intertwined nature of being queer and the fear of death, is something that still needs to be reckoned with.
For Cheddar, PrEP carries with it the feeling that her "sex life is not a death sentence," and the lifting of a psychological burden along with it.
Acknowledging and dismantling this stigma feels like a direct connection between the activism of the past that Cheddar’s outfit is indebted to, and what contemporary activism — especially for drag queens — can look like.
Drag can never be apolitical, and Cheddar herself acknowledges this as she describes her look on the runway, saying that the mantra of silence = death is "a metaphor for the way gay identity works full stop," and that her drag is a vehicle for this.
Cutting between her confessional, and the stark silence of her runway walk — no comments or puns from the judges, a rarity for looks that seem to stun them into silence like Symone’s Black Lives Matter angel from season 13 — its impossible not to be moved alongside her as she says "I’m really happy that this is gonna get to be seen."
The act of letting something like this be seen is what makes it so impactful — it at once serves as a vital lesson in queer history for those who might not be aware of it, but also refuses to consign these things to the past.
When Cheddar is getting critiques in the judges deliberations — her Queen Elizabeth I was best by a wide margin in a patchy Snatch Game — Michelle says "we love it when people bring their cultures to the runway."
But to say that this is simply bringing culture to the runway feels like an oversimplification; this is about more than just Cheddar’s culture (whatever that is in this context) and is instead about the importance of queer history.
By brandishing herself in "silence = death," Cheddar is able to show the ways in which drag can speak beyond words, not only carrying with it the legacy and memory of what came before, but offering up a path forward for the next generation of, not only drag queens, but all queer people.
Cheddar’s runway presentation broke new ground for Drag Race UK, using the platform of the show as a way to articulate something that’s still left unspoken.
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK season 4 airs on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer. It streams on WOW Presents Plus in the US.
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