Drag queens on a timeline

Where The Drag Race Began

Every week, the iconic media giant that is RuPaul invites us to tune into RuPaul’s Drag Race to see which contestant will be told to "sashay away" this week. The contestants go through a series of challenges that test their skills as artists, clothing designers, makeup artists, and entertainers all in one. The bottom two contestants lip-sing for their lives. They show off their best dance moves to stay in the heated competition.

But RuPaul’s Drag Race started off as a type of ‘dance ball’ where ‘families’ of queer youth found competition as well as community.

A bit about drag culture

So you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but have you heard of Paris Is Burning?

Paris Is Burning

Okay, it’s time to go to your closest streaming platform and see this documentary. It presents the lives of Black and Latino LGBTQ+ youth in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The ‘Ball Culture’ is an underground community of queer people of color. They organized contests where contestants would be judged on best look, walk, dancing, style in various categories that satirizes or glorifies different gender stereotypes. Elevating and making fun of the everyday things that make life rich.

And different ‘Houses’ or teams would put contestants up in each category with an overall house winner. (Granted, this explanation is incomplete at best. I’d recommend watching the documentary and doing a little more internet diving if you’re really interested in the history).

The House, a family for LGBTQ youths of color

As these events grew, the ‘House’ became a substitute family for queer youth of color who were often disadvantaged. Rejected by their biological families, forced into prostitution and drugs, and had no support systems to rely on.

House Mothers for guidance and support

House ‘Mothers’ emerged as leaders to guide the artistic direction but also be of emotional and financial support. During this time, knowledge about HIV was limited, and the availability of breakthrough medications either weren’t invented or very expensive experimental treatments, like the drug AZT.

Watching the LGBTQ community come together

When watching RuPaul's Drag Race, I am reminded that beyond all the glitz and glamor are people coming together in community to celebrate in spite of the challenges they face economically, emotionally and health-wise. In their celebration, they defy the stigma of being queer and, for some queens, they represent a thriving, full life with HIV. In the FX television series Pose, you get a deeper understanding of the people and culture in which Drag Race is positioned and I’d highly recommend this for your holiday media binge.

So next time you watch Drag Race, remember the community of queer Black and Brown people who made it happen because they deserved joy in every circumstance of life.

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