Kerri Colby is a model, activist and online and TV personality who most recently appeared on Season 14 of the Emmy Award-winning series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Throughout the month of February, Variety will publish essays from prominent Black artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of Black entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.
I remember watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” as a traumatized teen in Dallas, Texas. Seeing so many gay, trans and nonbinary people on television, doing what they love, gave me hope that I too could have a future living as my true self. I grew up in a conservative, religious, homophobic and transphobic family that did not accept me. I hid my queerness as long as I could, but when it became too much, I had to leave. I was 15 years old. Thanks to the goodness of others, I survived homelessness, and at 18, I made my way to Los Angeles. Later, in my early 20s, when I was inspired to do drag myself, I discovered my transness, my feminine expression. Drag helped me discover my truth as a trans woman, and I am so grateful for this art form that has been life-changing and life-saving. I am living proof of the truth that “we are all born naked and the rest is drag.”
It has been extremely distressing to see the political attacks recently, not just on the LGBTQ community, but also specifically on the art of drag. GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, in a recent report found that in 2022, there were 141 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting specific drag events in 47 states. A number of incidents involved violence or weapons. One incident in Tulsa, Okla., this past October involved a person smashing the windows of a donut shop before lighting a Molotov cocktail and firebombing the storefront. The establishment had recently held a drag event. In November, an armed man walked into an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs during its weekly drag show and fatally shot five people and injured 17 others.
Meanwhile, bills working their way through at least 11 state legislatures are threatening to restrict or prohibit drag show performances. Many of these bills define a drag show as “a performance in which a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender assigned at birth.” This would require any venue that meets these criteria to be categorized as a “sexually oriented business.” These proposed bills and those like them across the country expose themselves as blatant attempts to attack and criminalize speech while continuing to marginalize “other” members of our community. They play on long-held anti-LGBTQ tropes and hurtful stereotypes that equate members of our community as dangerous. Bills like these create more stigma, discrimination and ultimately violence against LGBTQ folks — particularly transgender and nonbinary people.
Drag as a theatrical form is as old as Shakespearean theater, when women were not permitted to act on stage and men played the female roles. Since the 17th century, Japanese Kabuki theater has featured male actors performing female roles. In the U.S., an African American born into slavery, William Dorsey Swann, was the first-known person to identify as a “queen of drag.” Swann survived slavery, racism and the Civil War, serving as a civil rights leader who was active in the underground queer community in Washington D.C. Swann risked it all not just for individual freedom, but for the liberation of so many others.
Cut to the present, and drag performers are everywhere: they’re a staple on reality television shows, appearing in mainstream movies and commercials, at city brunches, in library readings and more. The backlash to all of this queer visibility is a convenient distraction for politicians and right-wing extremists to fire up their base and not address the issues that truly impact people’s daily lives.
So what can we do to combat the attacks on drag and the LGBTQ community?
Call the members of state legislatures who are attacking drag artists, our trans siblings and our community and demand they focus on real issues like gun violence — not manufactured conspiracy theories. Distribute resources from the Transgender Law Center. Vote in every election, not just in presidential election years.
Now is the time to raise our collective voice and demand our seat at the table, because no one will simply hand it to us.