When viewers tune into to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” most don’t understand that they are getting a weekly lesson on queer history. With “Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life,” which was released March 3 from Penguin Books, authors Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez give fans of the show a fantastic primer on how it references, respects and outright pays homage to LGBTQ history — and makes sure that the VH1 series is part of that history’s timeline.
“We wanted this tone of being two really chatty gay uncles with a whole lot of stories about your queer forebears,” says Fitzgerald, half of the Philadelphia-based couple that’s behind the website TomandLorenzo.com, which delivers a daily dose of takes on fashion, celebrity, film, TV and pop culture; and podcast Tom & Lorenzo’s Pop Style Opinionfest. They still recap “Drag Race,” as well as “Project Runway,” “Westworld” and other shows.
“Ultimately, we want to showcase the talent of these legendary people, that yes, they made history, yes, they were right there fighting for us. But they were also talented singers, performers, actors,” says Marquez of the queer pioneers in the book, such as Dorian Corey, Crystal LaBeija, Hector Xtravaganza, Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch and Julian Eltinge, who first appeared on Broadway in the early 1900s. “And a lot of people don’t know who they are so that would be a way to introduce these very, very talented people to everyone.”
Readers don’t have to be immersed in “Drag Race,” as one of the book’s big goals is to make the history of drag and queer performers relevant to everyone. (The title “Legendary Children” is a phrase taken from ballroom culture, and refers to the people who have risen to the top of their categories and have stayed there for a long time. See “Paris Is Burning” and “Pose” for more about balls.)
And the authors want audiences to “read the book with one hand” — and use the other to Google the people in the book. There are tons of videos and pictures available online, and the authors include a chapter with references to movies, TV appearances and other materials.
“Drag Race” is a starting point to understand queer culture. “It is a great starting point. It is queer 101,” says Fitzgerald. “But it’s limited in what it represents. The show is not great about trans representation. You almost never see lesbians on the show you don’t see drag kings at all. So you have to take ‘Drag Race’ as a starting point.”
“It is a starting point and we should be thankful for that because it didn’t exist before. I remember when we watched the first episode and we said ‘We’re f-ing watching drag queens on our television!'” adds Marquez.
The book seamlessly weaves LGBTQ history into the “Drag Race” present, and gives readers a deep dive into the background of the show’s challenges,
and what they mean in the history of queer life.
Fitzgerald notes that the book developed from their recapping the show during its first season on Logo, through to the Emmy-winning glossy production on VH1.
“We did a podcast in 2018 about the 10th anniversary of ‘Drag Race,’ just sort of reflecting on it and our agent called us later that day, Monika Verma, and said that she heard the podcast and we should pitch a ‘Drag Race’ book, which was a great idea.”
They put a fan guide proposal together and got no bites. But Elda Rotor, VP and publisher at Penguin Classics, told them she liked the tidbits of queer history they threw into the book and suggested they focus on that.
“And that was it,” Fitzgerald says. “That was the genesis. Sometimes you have to be pushed into these things by other people. We didn’t think anyone would give us the chance to write a comprehensive look at queer history. It turned out to be such an amazing gift we never thought we would get to this point as writers.”
Marquez, who notes that he is “obsessed with social media and Twitter,” says he often reads the online commentary as he is watching a show,.
“I noticed that the younger fans of [‘Drag Race’] especially would laugh at certain things that were directly connected to the history of the queer community, but they didn’t know about it. They thought it was funny, but didn’t know that that came from Stonewall, that it came from anything, and so we’re like, ‘All right, this is perfect, we’ll talk about the show’ — because the show is 100% pulling from the queer community — every challenge, every segment, the way they judge, the Pit Crew. We thought this would be a great way to address that and ‘teach the children.’”
“We want young people to know that the reason HIV drugs are advertised on TV is that queer people took to the streets and screamed their heads off,” adds Fitzgerald. “Elizabeth Taylor raised $100 million before she died just to make sure AIDS research kept going. And that’s important to get their stories told. As long as it’s in a fun way.”