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Shantay You Stay

December 11, 2019
Last summer, I became a fan of Rupaul’s Drag Race. That’s 10 years after it first aired and became a sensation globally. I was aware of RuPaul as a celebrity drag queen, as well as the show, as a close friend has been a dedicated fan from the beginning, yet I didn’t feel an inclination to watch.
Honestly, I didn’t see how a reality show about drag would have much relevance to me. Drag, to me pre-RuPaul, is men dressing as women, be this in an exaggerated way, and was synonymous with transvestites, cross-dressers, transgender and transexual. I will not go into the differences between these groups- though I do encourage anyone who isn’t familiar to educate themselves- I will say, on a basic level, I’ve learned the majority of drag queens who go on this reality show are men who dress as women professionally to perform. I’ve heard contestants clearly separate themselves, majority gay men, from their drag personas, women of all shapes and sizes. They put on their costume to perform and entertain, in a myriad of variations within the genre (comedic, conceptual, pageant, fishy etc).
To me now, drag queens ultimately fulfil the role art and artist hold in society: to act as a mirror, reflecting back, with commentary, on how we see ourselves, inviting us to question and dialogue around change.
The reality show makes all this accessible, as it humanises what are often a minority within a minority group of people, historically marginalised and persecuted, often by their own family. The contestants find ways, often highly creative ways, of actively battling to hold onto themselves, their inner authentic selves, which I’ve found astounding and deeply moving. They have an opportunity to be seen and heard, not just on a platform to catapult them professionally onto the world stage, but as people, to be amongst peers, to be ‘normalised’, validated and accepted in a way that society might not have done.
This inclusivity, acceptance of difference and celebration of diversity is what excites and speaks to me most as an audience member, whose life on the surface still seems a world away.
In reality, I now see that I’ve much in common, as a human being who has struggled (like the majority of us) to be accepted wholly, and in turn, continue the struggle by not accepting parts of myself I’ve since learned are not acceptable (like being angry, dressing provocatively, being loud etc). The successful drag artists are those who have come to recognise their life script, to accept and often weave this into their artistry.
As a mother, I have often felt important life lessons were at hand too, listening to contestants’ experiences of acceptance and rejection. I am inspired and moved, not just by the contestants, but by their families, who we also hear about and often meet at the end of each series.
I resonated with this recently when I enrolled my son onto ballet classes, to join his older sister, and was met by resistance from immediate family. The implicit fear saddened (and angered) me, and though I believe I’d have taken on this battle even before my introduction to RuPaul, the impact of accepting/ rejecting a child has deepened somehow since.
Ballet is an art form where it’s male dancers are often discouraged or explicitly rejected for their passion; sadly too, more often by the male members in their immediate family, like brothers, fathers, grandfathers etc. I don’t imagine my son will become a ballet dancer, in as much as I don’t imagine my daughter will become an Olympian swimmer, because they are taking lessons, and I want to continue to expose them to experiences, expand their toolkit, offer them creative and healthy ways to express themselves, and hopefully accept themselves.
I watch some contestants thrive in the competition, as they push themselves to their limits, whilst others self-sabotage and crumble. RuPaul often shares part of his story, his struggle, just enough- almost in a therapeutic judicious self-disclosure way- to encourage and facilitate this process. Sometimes his words are heard, sometimes his words are not. All this I see as immensely reflective of life journeys in general, how we meet challenges, what we take from our environment, and what enables us as humans on a constant path of change.

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