s even the most casual viewer of RuPaul’s Drag Race will tell you, the show is one meme-worthy, GIF-able moment after another. From the now-infamous Linda Evangelista rant to deep cuts like “Get her, Jade,” the show has spawned a shorthand of its own. But there is one specific scene from the show’s decade-long history that will always stay with me. It’s a testimonial clip from the seventh season (admittedly not the show’s strongest) in which Trixie Mattel reveals the origin of her drag name: “Trixie” was a homophobic slur used repeatedly throughout her childhood, a name intended to cause harm to a little boy who didn’t fit into a certain predetermined mold of manhood. Taking that slur and building her drag identity around it was an act of defiance on Trixie’s part, a way of reclaiming power and owning her identity.
The moment had such a profound impact on me was because it wasn’t until I began watching Drag Race in 2014 that I realized just how much I had been holding onto my own misguided ideas about what it means to be a gay man.
I was a scrawny and bookish little boy, and because I didn’t quite fit in, I found myself identifying with Disney heroines Belle and Ariel, who were outcasts in their own ways. I would sit in my room for hours, reading and making up stories and casting myself in lavishly imagined adventures. I had no idea that these things would code me as queer in the eyes of other people. I was called “camp” when I was still in primary school, before I even knew what the word meant, and long before puberty hit me like a bus called Priscilla and brought with it the first inkling that I might like boys.
When I later came out as a teenager, I almost immediately became preoccupied with being the “right” kind of gay. Since I didn’t personally know any other openly LGBTQ people, I can only assume I internalized what that entailed from the meager, sexless queer representation in the media at the time and from the constant jokes made by my peers. I went to an all-boys grammar school that had been so steeped in the myth of masculinity over its 350-year history that you could practically smell it as you walked down the halls. (Male privilege, it turns out, smells a lot like AXE body spray.)
Moderating my own behavior became second nature, and that habit followed me into adulthood. Was I being too loud? Too effeminate? How was I standing? What should I do with my hands? Even dating other gay men, I would feel this impulse to tone myself down, to put on a rather weak show of perceived manliness, assuming that would be what they found most attractive.
RuPaul’s Drag Race was a real “come to Jesus” moment for me. In addition to being one of the most consistently, outrageously entertaining TV shows of the new century, Drag Race synthesizes the battle that goes on inside a great many gay men in a way that I had never seen on screen before. The queens share many personal stories about playing with mom’s makeup and trying on her clothes, or feeling somehow separate from their peers and siblings when they were growing up; as a kid who was constantly described as “sensitive” and “creative” in a very particular tone, I could relate.
Unlike so many other gay narratives where you follow a character from their traumatic coming out to their inevitable death by HIV/AIDS, RuPaul’s Drag Race was perhaps my first unapologetically optimistic, joyful gay viewing experience. It takes all of the things it seemed I was encouraged to feel embarrassed about, the weirdness I often wished I could leave behind me in the closet, and it reframes them as important, integral elements of a greater collective identity. Here were men like me, who had also idolized Disney princesses as children and were now channelling and reinterpreting those characters, retelling those stories with themselves cast in the lead roles.
The acts of reading and throwing shade (described by drag queen Dorian Corey as “the art form of insults”) were also immediately familiar to me. After all, the stereotype of the acid-tongued gay man is rooted in some truth; if you spend your formative years being taunted or feeling like you have to read the room in order to better fit into it, then it makes perfect sense that you would become an expert at picking up on other peoples’ insecurities and retaliating with perfectly formulated barbs. What makes the show’s iteration of this so gratifying is that when a queen is read for filth, she will shriek with laughter because she appreciates the artistry of the shade. Drag queens wield language like a weapon, but those volleys are shot across an equal playing field. Bullies they are not.
As the show’s popularity grew, it became something of a gateway drug to queer culture for its audience. You can’t praise Drag Race without first acknowledging the debt it owes to Paris Is Burning (a legacy the show references proudly and often). And you can’t talk about Paris Is Burning without recognizing how much gay vernacular and iconography comes from black and Latinx communities, and trans women in particular.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have the circle of queer friends I do now if I hadn’t become so enamoured with Drag Race, but what I can say with certainty is that I wouldn’t be so openly affectionate and supportive with my gay male friends, so unafraid of showing vulnerability, if I hadn’t learned how by watching grown men share wigs and lovingly call each other “sister.”
I was in my late twenties when a friend initiated me into the cult of Mama Ru. Watching Drag Race become such a mainstream success and inspire a generation of younger fans has been hugely encouraging; queens like Trixie and Katya especially have stans who are still in adolescence, right at the beginning of their journeys to find themselves. It makes me so happy to know those kids are growing up hearing Ru’s message of self-acceptance: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” It makes me wonder how different things might have been for me if I’d been exposed to such a philosophy at an earlier age.
The show is not without its challenges. The conversation that has emerged during more recent seasons about the way black queens are received by fans of the show compared to their white sisters, and this season’s disproportionately negative viewer reaction to The Vixen (who correctly anticipated that she would be stereotyped as an “angry black woman”) is both illuminating and damning. This dialogue, and the fact that we are only now beginning to openly talk about race on the show, is in many ways a microcosm of the ongoing discourse on racism in the gay community at large, where whiteness (along with, yes, masculinity!) tends to be centered.
RuPaul herself might occasionally misspeak on certain issues, but RuPaul’s Drag Race as an entity has become a broad church in which queens of any ethnicity, gender identity and body type are celebrated. I eagerly await the day when that kind of acceptance is reflected in mainstream, everyday life so that young LGBTQ people won’t be inhibited by the same kind of gatekeeping that still occurs even within our own community.
The time has come for outdated ideas of being the “right kind of gay” to sashay away. Until then, it’s reassuring to know that there is at least one mainstream outlet for joyful diversity in the form of Drag Race; I hope it continues to open people’s’ eyes like it has mine.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis
Photos via VH1.