This weekend, RuPaul's DragCon returned to the L.A. Convention Center for the third consecutive year, but this iteration was different from the two before it. As the first DragCon since both Trump’s election and the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the atmosphere at 2017’s event was chock-full of politics and activism. Panels, booths and even parties this year all sought to speak out on behalf of the Resistance.
Drag being intertwined with politics is nothing new. Sasha Velour, a queen who's currently appearing on season nine of RuPaul's Drag Race, told me, “When I think about what is most important to me about drag, it’s the long history of drag activism and my fundamental belief that drag is always a kind of resistance — it always pushes against boundaries set by society, by government, by media.” In 1969, it was drag queens and transgender women who fought back against the police raid on the Stonewall Inn, an event that gave birth to the gay rights movement.
In the 1970s and ’80s, filmmaker John Waters collaborated on many projects with voluptuous drag queen Divine. “Divine was a political leader in the drag community,” Eureka, another current Drag Race contestant, said in a panel called “What Is Drag In Trump’s America?” Referring to an infamous scene in the film Pink Flamingos, Eureka said, “[Divine] ate shit [and] that shit she picked up and ate was like every person that had ever called me a fat faggot. … For me, Divine was always a symbol of the fuck-you to the man.”
While drag and politics have gone hand in hand throughout history, the last eight years under President Obama, which saw a lot of progress for LGBT people including the legalization of gay marriage, may have made the community a bit complacent. “[Trump’s election] was like a wake-up call; we kind of fell asleep a little at the wheel [under the Obama administration],” writer-comedian Phoebe Robinson said in a panel called “The Art of Resistance.” Therefore, it’s not a surprise that the last two DragCons had less overtly political material.
That all changed with Trump’s election. Although during his campaign Trump promised to be a champion of the LGBT community, in his first 100 days, he’s withdrawn Obama-era guidance to schools on the treatment of transgender students, instructed federal agencies to roll back the collection of data on the needs of LGBT Americans and has succeeded in appointing a Supreme Court justice who is a public opponent to marriage equality. And that's not to mention that his vice president has a long history of championing anti-LGBT policies.
Signs on the convention floor this year explained why “Your Vote Matters” and how to contact your representatives. The Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU had their own booths, and World of Wonder, the production company behind Drag Race, hosted a booth where customers could choose what to pay for a variety of resistance merchandise, such as empty cracker and cereal boxes “to symbolize Trump’s empty promises,” with all money going to the ACLU. In fact, the ACLU presented an entire panel called “Liberty and Justice for All,” which guided the audience through what they can do to be politically active. One of the panel members, Brian Pendleton, is the organizer of the #Resist March, which is replacing the annual pride parade at this year’s upcoming L.A. Pride in June. “People are saying why are you making Pride political? Pride is political, that’s how we started, people!” Pendleton reminded his audience. “We didn’t gather because we wanted to have a party, we started because we were being brutalized by police. Hollywood and Highland is the ancestral birthplace, 1970, where the first ever L.A. Pride parade took place, and that’s why we’re starting there [for the Resist March].”
For certain queens, the political issues addressed at DragCon extended beyond the LGBT community to racial groups being marginalized in today’s political climate. Current Drag Race contestant and L.A. native Valentina said in an interview, “My drag is very political. I represent an entire community of people who have not been well represented politically. I’m first-generation Mexican-American, so I’m going to do as much as I can to be a little beacon of light for my Latino community.” Drag Race season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen made a similarly important point in the “Drag in Trump’s America” panel. “I think for the first time in the history of America, an overwhelming majority of the population feels like the administration is against them. I want to say this is not unusual for queer people and for people of color,” he told the audience. “For people of color, this is not the first time we’ve had a president be against us. … Everyone is like ‘How will we survive?’ and it’s like, the same way black people survived the war on drugs.”
While Trump’s election may be a catalyst for renewed activism, the progress that those in the LGBT community are fighting for is nothing new. “You don’t treat a cough, you find out why you're coughing. Coughing is a symptom there’s something wrong with your body,” Bob said in the “Trump's America” panel. “And Trump is not the problem, Trump is a symptom of what is actually going on.” Drag Race judge Michelle Visage echoed Bob’s statement. “I think the very being of doing what we do in a hetero-normative world, especially under the Trump administration, is in itself making a statement, but it was always going to happen with or without him,” she said in an interview.
Since 1979, for example, the charity and protest organization the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been fighting for sexual and gender tolerance. They have appeared at DragCon all three years, and in their panel this year, “#Resist With the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” the Sisters outlined three major issues facing the LGBT community today: the crisis in Chechnya, where homosexuals are being sent to concentration camps; the removal of LGBT people from the upcoming U.S. Census; and the various religious-freedom bills floating around at the state and federal levels. While some of these are a byproduct of Trump, some were pre-existing, proving Bob’s point that Trump is merely a symptom and not the disease.
Even those who did not attend any political panels or stop by booths promoting activism experienced the political atmosphere in some form. At the Friday night party DragCon: All Stars Live, for example, when Drag Race season-four winner Sharon Needles performed her song “Taxidermy,” she shouted “Trump!” after singing the lyrics “How can I explain/Things are different today.” Brandon Voss, whose company Voss Events produced both DragCon parties, said, “I believe that politics have become something of an everyday thought to us all, especially now [that] the civil rights our community have [are] being threatened by leadership all over the country. I think the millions of fans we have with Drag Race … are ‘activated’ in a way that’s been unseen before. It’s comforting to see the next generation care about our marginalized friends.”
Ultimately, drag is in itself political. As Bob said during the “Trump's America” panel, “Drag is punk rock, drag is political. … Don’t try to whitewash drag, don’t try to make it PC.” Therefore, all those who attended DragCon were part of a political statement whether they liked it or not. “Literally just all of us being here, in this convention center, in this room, in this political climate has an effect, because being unafraid to gather and to celebrate the kind of beauty I know we all believe in is resistance when you live in a political climate that says that you don’t have value,” Sasha Velour said in the “Art of Resistance” panel.
DragCon concluded, as it always does, with a keynote address from RuPaul himself. While most of his address discussed how to love yourself more and overcome your internal saboteur, even he couldn't shy away from mentioning today’s political climate. “This is a revolution. As we deal with what’s happening in government, it’s important to remember that our secret weapon is something that they don’t have … [which is] our love, our music, our dancing, our joy, our love of colors and beauty. That’s the thing that will get us through this mashuganah [sic],” he told the crowd.
RuPaul’s words were a heaping dose of inspiration for those being marginalized and targeted in today’s world, but knowing that people like him, like the hundreds of drag queens at the convention and like the thousands of activists fighting for their communities, aren’t afraid to speak up, be visible and be themselves was an important message to send to others. “This election, when you look under the hood of it and see what it’s really about … it’s the change over from the 20th century to the 21st century, and the people who don’t want to move into the future forward,” RuPaul said. “They took on this used-car salesman who promised them that they could turn back the hands of time and bring it back to what it was. We ain’t going back, baby!”
Indeed, with people like RuPaul leading the charge and inspiring others, it’s clear that he’s right.