The drag race to acceptance


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I pressed “clear history” right after I finished the video. It was a ritual for me. No, the video wasn’t porn; it seemed even more taboo than that.

I was watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” And it may sound silly, but the show changed my life.

In “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” queer men and transgender women compete in various challenges to be named “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” They have to create different outfits, act in movie spoofs, lip-sync against each other and even compose their own songs. What kept me watching all 13 seasons and various spinoffs of the show was not these challenges, entertaining as they may have been, but the sense of camaraderie and community that developed between the drag queens.

Although they had infamous reality television fights, these queens were a family. They actively supported each other regardless of their femininity, queerness, looks or backgrounds. They carried themselves with nerve, showed the world their truths and celebrated the art form of drag.

All of these wonderful things were in the show, yet I hid my fandom from everybody in my life. I never mentioned the show to anyone close to me and continued to watch each new episode under the covers at night. I’d lock my door, open my private internet browser and make sure I left no evidence I’d watched the show, almost as if I were committing a crime. If my mom asked me what I was doing, I would tell her I was doing homework or FaceTiming a friend. The truth was that I was watching the show — my dirty little secret.

My fear of being caught watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” stemmed from anxiety about being asked if I was gay. I mean, I was gay, but I was not out. I had no idea what my family thought of the LGBTQ+ community, but they were religious, so, in my eyes, it was a coin toss between acceptance or flat-out rejection. 

At Christmas, questions such as “When are you getting a girlfriend?” or “Are you gay?” were constantly lobbed at me, yet I always dodged them. All the while, I continued watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and kept up with all the new seasons. I was living a double life as Gay-mes Bond without any of the confidence and half of the coolness.

The show has had many face-lifts over its 12-year run. The casts got bigger, with personalities that grew by the minute. The main stage also grew, from a tiny strip of raised platform to a Paris Fashion Week catwalk. All of the outfits that began as off-the-rack, mall “eleganza” transformed into high-fashion acid trips. Despite all the changes, the one thing that stayed constant was RuPaul’s end quote after each episode: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

I know it’s kind of a stupid line, but hearing it hundreds of times hammered it into my brain. I mostly made fun of the quote — its absurdity and lack of connection to each episode. But as I continued to repeat it, the English major within me analyzed the quote like it was a Shakespearean sonnet. “You have to accept yourself first before doing anything else” was what RuPaul was saying. 

I had what RuPaul calls an “inner saboteur,” a voice in my head that told me I was not good enough. That voice had burrowed itself in my brain and made its home there ever since I realized I was gay. When I watched the show, the voice constantly banged on the front door, as if it were locked out. It dictated my every action to ensure I wasn’t outed. Don’t act too feminine. You’re dressing too gay. Its commands were restrictive, and eventually I grew tired of following.

As I watched more episodes of the queens, I just felt happier with myself. There were gay men on television just like me with similar stories and fears. It felt like finding a place to sit in the school cafeteria after searching for days. These queens were happy with themselves. They did not care about what their families and friends said. They found a life beyond hiding.

Thanks to the show, I also found a wonderful online community of fans that were either LGBTQ+ or allies, and it was so beautiful to be in a place of acceptance and support. I was even able to chat with some former contestants: Yuhua Hamasaki of season 10 sent me an old outfit of hers with some makeup. She made sure I liked it and that the package got to me on time. Compared to my illicit viewing of the show under the covers, there were no secrets, lies or hiding in this online paradise.

Back then, I knew that if my family did not like that I was gay, it was going to cost something. But hating myself for being gay was going to cost more in the long run. Although I still struggle, I have never felt more sure of myself.

I mean, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Nicholas Clark writes the Monday column on LGBTQ+ issues in media and politics. Contact him at [email protected]