Three of the most recent winners of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the latest Miss Congeniality, are Black drag queens. The most recent season of the show, it’s All Stars season, also made history as the first season in the series to feature a cast of predominantly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) queens.
The visibility, and success, of these BIPOC queens are important. As our queer liberation is rooted in the hard work of Black queer, transgender, and drag artists, it is fitting to see those crowned with a scepter being a part of the community that made way for our community and the show to exist.
For many, Drag Race is the gateway into queer culture and figuring out more of what the LGBTQIA+ community looks like. The show emphasizes the ability to embrace your difference, especially true for queer BIPOC viewers who are at odds with the dominance of whiteness and masculinity in the queer community and society at large.
Speaking from my own experience, I began watching Drag Race during Season 3. That season’s top two were both Asian-American queens, Manila Luzon and winner Raja. Seeing Manila and Raja on my TV screen, successfully and unapologetically being who they are as Asian American queer people, gave me the confidence I needed to be authentically intersectional. It is through this visibility that a foundation of strength was molded, one I needed to endure the lifelong battle ahead of me in combating institutionalized and societal oppressions for folx of my identities.
This new generation of young queer people have many more BIPOC queens to look up to.
I spoke with middle eastern and Muslim drag queen Jackie Cox, a top four contestant in the show’s twelfth regular season. I also had the honor of interviewing Black drag queen Mayhem Miller, from season ten and the most recent All-Stars season. These two queens are part of the rolodex of BIPOC excellence to grace our television sets from the runway to our hearts.
Jackie Cox has spent a lot of time reflecting on her Drag Race journey and the role her presence on the show has had on combating oppressive tropes.
“For queer middle eastern folks especially, I know there is so much shame and fear to be our true authentic selves,” Cox said. “It’s felt so rewarding to be a figure that middle eastern and Muslim people can identify with on television, one who isn’t being portrayed as a terrorist, or rich materialistic oil baron, or any number of offensive tropes that have been the norm in western media for the last few decades.”
Cox hopes that she was able to give at least a single person the confidence to live more truthfully, and she has done so in me and so many others. Her lip-sync to Firework by Katy Perry against Widow Von’Du, wearing an American flag hijab for the “stars and stripes” themed runway, was a standout moment that is etched forever into the show’s history.
Mayhem Miller, who has served us excellence on the runway from her leather glove eleganza to her iconic Krampus inspired look, emphasized the role of queer BIPOC visibility in combating embedded anti-LGBTQI+ cultures.
“So many queer people of color grow up feeling unseen, unheard and unaccepted by family members because of the stigma associated with homosexuality,” Miller said. “From a young age you’re already facing an uphill battle with maintaining a healthy self-esteem. Drag race has given many queens of color the opportunity to be seen by these young people and encourage them that it’s okay to be who you are.”
Mayhem Miller has instilled hope in so many BIPOC queer youth, especially after showing much resiliency in the face of dealing with racist fans after her run on the show.
“The growth of the show had brought in a huge demographic of people who love drag. But, a large portion of the new fandom has been problematic and toxic,” Miller said. “I began to be judged, criticized and bullied. I never experienced blatant racism in the drag world until then.”
Miller mentioned that not being given the same opportunities and social media following as her non-BIPOC counterparts is something she’s used to. She said that death threats and hate mail, which she has spoken openly about on Instagram, are “all a familiar reality.”
Black contestants on the show recently made a PSA on the fandom’s racism and the disproportionate mistreatment of Black queens on the show. Mayhem Miller, alongside Heidi N Closet, Latrice Royale, Mariah Paris Balenciaga, Widow Von’Du and The Vixen called for the fandom to address their racism in an urge to end the hate Black queens are receiving on the show.
— The Advocate (@TheAdvocateMag) September 22, 2020
From Jackie Cox’s experience, she reiterated that this treatment will often occur for underrepresented BIPOC queens. This racism directed towards them, however, are sentiments not secluded to just this show. It mirrors indicatively the racist behavior of society as a whole, furthering the importance of having BIPOC queens represented on the show.
Both Cox and Miller had words of advice for BIPOC queer youth and queens planning on auditioning for the show.
“Don’t be afraid to let the world know who you are and where you come from,” Cox said. “Never be afraid of bringing together all the parts of you that coexist. Your family, heritage, culture, queerness… these are all valid important parts of who you are, never be afraid to let them shine together.”
“I always hoped that I could help someone in the world and I found a way to make that happen through the art of drag,” Miller said. “Know who you are and the greatness that you carry. Your uniqueness is what makes you special and set apart from the ordinary. You’re beautiful, don’t let nobody tell you different.”
I don’t know where, or who, I’d be if I hadn’t stumbled upon Drag Race and found examples of what harnessing my intersectional identity looked like. In my upbringing, visibility of BIPOC queens on Drag Race meant more to me than just face value visibility of my identities. It was monumental for my younger self to see drag queens on television who looked like me being accepted for all that they are, especially after years of suppressing my identities to fit a Eurocentric mold of who I was supposed to be as a “man.”
Manila Luzon wearing the national flag of the Philippines designed perfectly into a mini dress on the runway of Season Three, which aired when I was 13 years old, will forever be etched into the foundation of what made me the proud queer Filipinx and Indigenous journalist and activist that I am today. Who we are as BIPOC queer people should never be hidden, we must be exemplified in honor of ourselves and our ancestors, from the Drag Race stage to all the spaces in the world.
Andre Menchavez is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and rising senior studying English and Law at the University of Washington. Proudly queer and Filipinx, he is passionate about intersectional activism and journalism. He hosts an online series “Q&A: Queer and Asian” at Queerspace Magazine and previously worked as a GLAAD Junior Editor.