Black drag queens have been at the forefront of social justice movements since Stonewall, and this past decade has only seen this trend continue. Popular reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race has given several drag queens, both Black and not, a platform to use their voice and their drag to advocate for change. One being Symone, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Season 13 winner. Symone, a Black queen from Arkansas, used the show’s runway to demonstrate her support for Black Lives Matter, wearing a “Say Their Names” dress with bullet wounds on the back. The look sparked conversation among the judges’ panel, fellow drag queens, and on social media platforms such as Twitter. While known for its glamorous and entertaining nature, it is clear that the impact of drag extends far beyond lip syncing.
The term drag is believed to have Shakespearean roots. During the 17th century, only male actors participated in Shakespeare theater productions and would dress as female actors when necessary. It is rumored that 17th century actors coined the term drag when discussing how their dress costumes would “drag” across the floor. Drag did not become a part of American culture until it was introduced as a part of the vaudeville entertainment genre of the early 20th century.
Vaudeville combined music, comedy, dance and often female impersonation for a live entertainment experience. It is from vaudeville that the first famous drag queen emerged: Julian Eltinge. Eltinge placed drag in the spotlight of American entertainment, aiding in its increasing popularity. Following Eltinge, gay men began to perform as drag queens in underground clubs in the 1930’s. Drag has been intertwined with gay American culture ever since, and has evolved consistently with time. Drag queens have found themselves both underground and in the mainstream media, fighting for gay liberation and more recently Black lives.
In June of 2020, drag queen Jo Mama organized “Drag March For Change”, an event meant to raise awareness of police brutality against Black Americans and violence against Black trans women. Thousands of drag queens in full drag attire marched in Chicago calling for a defunding of the police, reallocation of police funding, and for violence against trans people to be considered a hate crime. Jo Mama and other participants aimed to emphasize intersectionality in their march, wanting to serve as a reminder that LGBTQ+ Black lives are included in the fight for all Black lives.
Famous Drag Race alumni Bob the Drag Queen immediately responded to the killing of George Floyd with a call to action. Bob encouraged her Twitter followers to use their voices and advocate for Black lives. Unable to participate in protests due to health concerns surrounding the pandemic, Bob traveled to local jails and bailed out protesters, proving that there are multiple avenues for supporting Black lives. In an hour long conversation on the drag queen’s YouTube channel, Bob discussed how white silence is both unacceptable and extremely harmful to the Black Lives Matter movement. Through both conversation and action, Bob the Drag Queen has served as an example to her fellow drag queens and the world at large what it means to be a true activist.
Bob’s Drag Race community followed a similar course of action, with over 40 former Drag Race competitors appearing in a five minute YouTube video challenging non-Black identifying people to speak out against white supremacy and police brutality. The drag queens featured in the video advocate for the signing of petitions and challenging of belief systems that have allowed racism to persist in America for centuries. Although the creator of Drag Race, RuPaul, has said little on the human rights issue of the mistreatment of Black Americans, the queens who have competed on his show have used their newfound popularity for good.
At its core, drag has always had a spirit of revolution and change. In drag’s history are queens such as Marsha P. Johnson, who fought for the liberation of minority groups even when pushed to the outskirts of the movements they helped to create. Now, with new drag queens facing similar social challenges as their predecessors, drag is serving as a force for shaking up long-standing systems and promoting cultural change once again.
Featured image from DAZED Magazine