(CNN) — An original reality competition series featuring drag queens might seem like a no-brainer today, but whenRuPaul’s Drag Race debuted in 2009 on Logo TV, no one could have guessed that the show would slowly explode in popularity over 15 seasons, across three networks, winning 26 Primetime Emmys and spawning spin-off All Stars series, international versions, and even a Monopoly game along the way.
RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 8 kicked off and the ninth annual DragCon LA convention took place last weekend, where notable queens from the franchise as well as Drag Race executive producers (and DragCon producers) Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato spoke with CNN about the current political climate as more state and local policies target LGBTQ individuals – specifically trans people and drag performers, two communities that span cultures and geographical divides, with long and storied histories dating back centuries. They also spoke of their collective spirit of resilience in the face of opposition.
DragCon attracts all walks of life, from the very young to the old, individuals who say they are drawn to the swirl of color, opulence and activity that goes part and parcel with drag performances.
“I like being able to connect with the fans. I think a lot of interaction with the fans is online, which is fine, but that is an environment that has never felt really real or human to me,” Alaska, who appeared in Drag Race Season 5 and won All Stars Season 2, told CNN. “So actually interacting with people face-to-face is really powerful and really connecting.”
“This year’s DragCon is different to all the previous ones because of the presence of so many international queens,” observed Barbato. “There are now 17 versions, maybe 18 versions of Drag Race… produced all over the world. And many of those queens – from the Philippines, and Spain, from Down Under – they’re here, and it’s great to watch all those queens connect with one another. It’s like a sisterhood.”
“There’s so many new queens here,” Detox, Alaska’s outspoken contemporary on her seasons of Drag Race and All Stars, observed. “There’s so many different franchise queens here. The last few years with the pandemic going on, we haven’t been able to commune as much as we used to do.”
And those franchises are expanding – in addition to many of their American counterparts, DragCon this year welcomed the casts of Drag Race UK Seasons 3 and 4, as well as Canada’s Drag Race Season 3. On Friday, Queens Lolita Banana and Valentina revealed they will host the upcoming series Drag Race Mexico in front of thousands of excited fans.
“There’s more support, and I feel like that’s more important because of how much negative legislature is against our community right now,” Detox added. “People are really showing out and showing up in a way that they weren’t before, to be more vigilant and prideful of the celebration of our queer community and our drag.”
“I actually have met so many people that are just now getting into it, which has inspired me a lot,” noted Drag Race Season 13’s Gottmik. “I am a punk rock diva, in my heart, and RuPaul is the ultimate punk rock diva who literally took an art that no mainstream person wanted to see and made it the most mainstream thing in the world. So now there’s so many new people watching it.”
Barbato’s producing partner Bailey remarked that this year’s Con “comes at a different point in the culture. Over the last few years, we have seen drag be recognized as the art form that it is, and I suppose inevitably, with that has come some pushback. I don’t understand why that should be the case, because the whole mission and intention and message of drag is that it’s very inclusive, it’s all about self-expression, and being whoever you want to be, and not taking it all too seriously.”
He added that “it’s interesting to see how this has been turned into a threat by those opposed to drag, when really, it’s no threat at all. And in fact it brings a message of peace, love and inclusivity that as a culture we’re really in need of right now.”
What would you say if given the chance to speak to anti-drag or anti-trans lawmakers?
Barbato pointed to the “over 400 pieces of legislature that are in some stage throughout the country” targeting drag performers, trans people or proposing educational restrictions like banning books or movies that are deemed to go against the gender binary.
“Ultimately these laws aren’t just about banning drag, their ultimate intent is to erase the LGBTQ experience from the culture,” Fenton said.
If given the chance to speak to proponents of this legislation, Drag Race queens who spoke with CNN offered differing approaches.
“I would first want to listen. I would love to have that conversation, instead of getting a sign out and screaming at one another,” said Mrs. Kasha Davis, from Drag Race Season 7 as well as the newly premiered Season 8 of All Stars.
Alaska agreed, saying, “it’s less about what I would want to say. I would want to hear what they had to say, really, face-to-face.” She observed that this spate of prosecution almost feels like “our turn.”
“In the last major election, it was about immigration and a fear over people who are moving to the country. So it could really land on anybody who is marginalized at any time.”
Gottmik said she wished those opposed to drag could simply see her as “a person,” and “an artist.”
“Trans people, gay people, everyone on the spectrum of life, we’re artists, we’re senators, we’re librarians, honey, we’re teachers, we’re everywhere,” she continued. “We’re never going anywhere, and we have always been here. So I would just try to be loving and educate.”
“If I were in a room with ‘the other side,’ I would hope that that room was DragCon,” Barbato observed. “I would spend the day with them at DragCon. They can all come. Judgment evaporates when you actually experience and connect with people. Experience is more valuable than words.”
Part of that experience at DragCon this year was also devoted to raising money for the Drag Defense Fund, which is affiliated with RuPaul’s Drag Race, MTV and the American Civil Liberties Union, geared toward protecting the rights of drag performers and others targeted by homophobic and transphobic legislation.
The Drag Defense Fund has raised $1.4M so far.
“We’ve been very deliberate about how we are responding to this threat,” Barbato noted. “It feels like this is a fight that needs to happen in the courts, and it’s a fight we need to be smart about.”
He also mentioned that the money is being used “A, to raise awareness and B, to help support legal battles.”
“This weekend, our tribe came together for the most joyful and spectacular RuPaul’s DragCon ever,” RuPaul herself shared in a statement. “Once again, our talented queens from around the world showed us what love, light and courage look like.”
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