We're All God In Drag
I feel like I’m in a little bit of gay withdrawal.
The tenth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race ended last Thursday, June 28, and I honestly don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my Thursday nights now. Perhaps more than any other season, I needed this weekly booster shot of queerness in my life.
You see, like so many millennials, I moved back in with my mom and dad to save money this last spring. Don’t get me wrong; I love my parents but, man, they are so heterosexual. In contrast to my first year and a half out of college, which I spent immersed in the queer nightlife and activist spaces of Santa Barbara, I returned home to Sacramento and quickly realized I had very few queer friends left there. So this spring, the queens of season 10 became, in a way, my surrogate queer community.
After its eight-week All Stars season concluded in March, the show immediately launched the next week into this current iteration, flaunting a larger production budget, a redesigned Werk Room and new 90-minute episodes, plus a half-hour of Untucked’s bonus behind-the-scenes drama following each episode. That’s five months straight and about 35 hours of Drag Race this year (for reference, the entirety of Breaking Bad can be watched in roughly 60 hours if you include commercials).
This is certainly enough time to make a habit, perhaps even a ritual, out of my Thursday night viewings this year. And when you get a bunch of queer people together in a gay bar to partake in this ritual together, to nourish our spirits and build our communal strength and joy–maybe there’s something church–like about that.
I get it. Maybe that sounds silly or even sacrilegious to you. Maybe you think I’ve drunk way too much of the drag queen Kool-Aid. But I can’t remember the last time I felt truly recognized, truly seen in a Christian church, even one that supposedly affirms my homosexual identity. In church, we’re supposed to see each other as God sees us, but I don’t often witness that kind of empathy on Sunday mornings. On Drag Race, I witness it every week.
This season’s third episode, for instance, left me feeling utterly exposed. The queens had a backstage conversation about faith that led to a powerful confession from contestant Dusty Ray Bottoms, one of my favorite queens this season, about his coming out experience. “They lost it. They took me to church,” he recalled. “They got me exorcised because they thought I was possessed by a gay demon. I was so confused after the whole thing went down because… was I straight now? Was I? I had to go through therapy and I was on a track to go to straight camp.”
Since opening up about his journey on Drag Race, Dusty has begun working with the Trevor Project’s campaign to ban conversion therapy nationwide. While his family understands that reparative therapy was harmful, “we still don't see eye to eye on homosexuality,” he told Newsweek. “That does drive a wedge between us and it makes it hard for me to come home.”
But other drag queens have found ways to reconcile their faith, family and sexuality–and use drag as a form of ministry. Monique Heart, another season 10 contestant, grew up singing and dancing in church. She, too, initially got involved in ex-gay ministry. Then, something changed. “During that whole journey of trying to pray the gay away, I got to know [God] as a father,” she told the Kansas City Star. “I learned that because he loves me so much he said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to let this thing … hold you back from me. I’m going to take you on a journey.' That’s how I’ve worked it out. I’ve thrown out what the world says isn’t Christian."
Now, Monique uses her drag to reach out to those rejected by the church. She said, “The gay community has been rejected by the church, rejected by society, rejected by families. It’s the message of the father to say, ‘Know that you are loved. Know that you are beautiful. Know that I care for you. When your mother and father forsake you, I will pick you up.’”
Serenity Jones is the founder and lead drag queen of the Drag Gospel Festival at the First Church of Somerville, UCC in Somerville, Massachusetts. Like Monique Heart, she sees something uniquely valuable in delivering the Good News by way of sequins and wigs. She’s been doing drag since the 1990s, but in 2011, she started the Drag Gospel Festival as a way to better connect her church to the local LGBTQ community. “Drag Gospel was an effort to send a message to the gay community that we mean what we say, that we don’t just hang a Pride flag out in front of the church,” she told me. “We mean that you are welcome and that you belong.”
In addition to raising money for the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, Serenity sees her worship in drag as its own method of evangelism. ““People in the LGBT community can reclaim their faith and make it their own... If a drag queen can do it, anyone can do it,” she said. “So there is an evangelical element to Drag Gospel Festival where it’s flashy, it’s bigger than life, it’s glamorous. It’s really bringing the Gospel message in an over-the-top way to the gay community. Doing gospel in drag is such a juxtaposition, a contrast of worlds… In an era where many, many churches are dying, this drag gospel is one example of a more youthful revival.”
Asifa Lahore is the first out Muslim drag queen in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. She’s been doing drag for seven years but really shot to fame after starring in the BBC documentary, Muslim Drag Queens. Despite facing death threats and censorship, she continues to break stereotypes while remaining a devout Muslim. “I put my drag out there to show not only Britain but the world… that LGBT Muslims exist and we’re a very diverse bunch,” she said. “That was very much done through my drag and its activism, through documentaries and social media, to put the notion out there that Muslim people can do drag and vice versa.”
By putting on makeup and a wig, drag queens actually unmask their true identities, becoming the most themselves they can be.
She didn’t always find acceptance, though. When she first came out as a gay man to her parents, they reacted in a way similar to Dusty’s parents, though less out of malice, she says, than lack of understanding. “In the South Asian languages–I’m talking about Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, to name a few–there’s no words such as gay or lesbian. Anything that we do have is really derogatory and only synonymous with the hijra, or trans community, of the subcontinents of South Asia. My parents didn’t really know what to do. They took me to a doctor, thinking that there was something wrong with my body.”
Ultimately, her parents have come to accept her, and she continues to follow the five pillars of Islam: belief in the one Abrahamic God, daily prayer, giving to charity, fasting during Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. Since coming out publicly as transgender last May, Asifa has returned to attending her local mosque, where she finds acceptance of her trans identity. “I go to the central London mosque in Regent’s Park and I use the women’s quarters, as I do with my local mosque in south London. The first time I went in, the mosque required me to put on a headscarf. They gave me a headscarf, and I put it on, went into the women’s quarters and prayed. I go about my life as a Muslim woman in that respect,” she said.
When asked about how Muslims react to her identity, she answered, “I think the community will always raise questions, they will always point the finger. But as far as I’m concerned, in the next life, they won’t be there pointing the finger; it’s going to be God. I’d rather God knew everything that I did in this life… I don’t want to wear a veil in front of God, and I don’t want to wear a veil in front of his people in this world.”
Japanese makeup artist Kodo Nishimura isn’t your stereotypical Buddhist monk. Yes, he trained in all the ancient rituals and practices of his Buddhist faith, but he also has more than 11,000 Instagram followers; travels around the world teaching makeup to trans youth in Japan and beauty school students in Spain; and has done makeup for celebrities like Carson Kressley and Christina Milian as well as shows and outlets ranging from Miss Universe to The View to Esquire.
Having grown up living in a Buddhist temple, Kodo decided to become a monk while he was an art student in New York at the Parsons School of Design. “In order to produce the best art, you have to be true to yourself and express what you know and be original…so I was incorporating a lot of elements from Japanese flower arrangements, which I studied for eight years. But in order to dig down deeper, I wanted to re-learn how to be disciplined as a Japanese person and also find out and explore my roots, which is a life as a Buddhist,” he said.
Yet Kodo admits he wrestled with the decision, nervous because he did not want to appear disrespectful or uncaring simply because he wore makeup and, as he put it, “extravagant” clothes. (“Lots of crystals!” he said.) However, he found guidance in a spiritual mentor. “There are different choreographies in our rituals: men use their left foot to walk over an incense urn and their left thumbprint as a signature, and women use their right foot and thumb for the same rituals. If there are transgender people, how can I guide them, let them feel included, and not make them feel like they need to be one sex?” he asked his mentor. “He told me that in our faith, the teaching of being equal... is the most important thing. The choreography is not the most important. You can choose to do whichever [choreography] you want to do.”
For Kodo, that meant he could find a path balancing his sexuality, his love of makeup and fashion, and his Buddhist beliefs. In fact, finding this path made him a better Buddhist. “One lesson I learned while training to be a monk is that you cannot lie to yourself; that constitutes a sin in Buddhism,” he said. “[Because of that,] I decided to be more honest and to express what feels right to my heart. That’s helped me make better decisions, and expressing myself is one of those decisions. I don’t want to follow trends or social customs just to please others; I want to express what I think is true to my heart and brings me joy.”
To me, that’s the end goal of a lot of drag: to express beauty and joy. What has always thrilled me about drag queens is their ability to elicit this joy in me by presenting an image that is simultaneously larger than life and totally authentic. By putting on makeup and a wig, drag queens actually unmask their true identities, becoming the most themselves they can be.
In the season 10 reunion episode, Monique Heart, through tears, described this liberating feeling: “To hear the BS that you go through just trying to become your most authentic self, thinking that if I just prayed away or confessed this name that I’ll finally be free. But to be 100% honest, it wasn’t [honest] until I put on a dress and wig and grabbed a mic.”
There’s something holy about that, and RuPaul Charles herself knows it. When she’s not performing or working on Drag Race, she practices meditation, positive self-talk and other spiritual disciplines. “The big message with drag is not about being a woman,” she explained in an episode of the Dinner Party Download podcast. “It’s a commentary and an act of social treason, really, to say, ‘You are not the body you think you are. You are not what it says you are on your driver’s license. You are an extension of the power that created the whole universe.’ We are not separate from one another. We’re one thing. And that one thing we are, for lack of a better word — I’m not religious — but for lack of a better word, we like to use the word “God.” That’s what we are. We’re God playing dress up.”
She’s paraphrasing a poem in that last line, one I found while researching for this piece. It’s by Hafez, the fourteenth-century Persian Sufi mystic, and it ends with the lines, “Sweetheart, O sweetheart / You are God in / Drag!”
I’m in a place right now where church can get really uncomfortable for me. I spent most of my life in Christian spaces that didn’t affirm my sexual orientation. Even when I started to find more accepting churches, I often found myself in the awkward position of assuring anxious straight attendees that I wouldn’t make their church “too gay” so that they wouldn’t become known as “just the Gay Church in town.”
This anxiety stems from a misplaced fear of authenticity. They fear that if I and other LGBTQ people reveal our queerness too much, we’ll bring shame and corruption into the church. Like Kodo, Asifa and Serenity shared, the pressure to assimilate is strong. And it makes me sad. Because queerness isn’t a corruption or obfuscation of God’s image; it’s the very revelation of God. That’s what I’ve learned from drag queens. If straight congregants learned this as well, they’d not only welcome us LGBTQ people in; they’d celebrate our presence. If only they knew that we’re all God in drag.