June is Pride month, and although the Pride celebrations in my city will be virtual again this summer, some of my friends in places that are out of lockdown have been sending me wonderful pictures of queer+ folks gathered together once again. It warms my chilled pandemic heart, and has sowed the seeds of hope that the return of socializing, traveling, and live performances will also mean the return of the fabulous HBO reality tv drag roadshow, We’re Here. It’s like a crossover combination of a queer make-over show, Drag Race, and an LGBTQ+ social justice documentary, and it reminds me of what Pride marches were born to do.
We’re Here involves Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela Laquifa Wadley living their Priscilla Queen of the Desert fantasy, caravanning from town to town across the U.S. in what may be the most fabulous, dragged up collection of trailers those parts of the world have ever seen. Shangela’s trailer is hot pink with a big bow on top and a side staircase bedecked with disco balls, Bob’s trailer looks like a big yellow purse on wheels (naturally), and Eureka’s looks like a giant metal elephant wearing a crown. In each episode, they roll into an unsuspecting town and are each paired with local folks who become their drag children and get made over and trained up to perform in a local drag show.
First off, I have to say how incredibly brave I think all three of them are and how much respect I have for what they and everyone involved with this show are doing. They walk into places where being queer is often not accepted or a safe in full, fabulous drag and open themselves up to whatever people might do or say to them. They talk to everyone, hand out flyers in the streets and local restaurants, and arrange the venue bookings for their shows. They do it to make queerness visible and push boundaries to create more space for the queer people who live there to be themselves. Some people are wonderfully welcoming and very happy to see them – they get complimented, flirted with, and even get to serve coffee shop customers – but others respond with prejudice and rudeness, ranging from gawking and whispering to customers saying they’ll never shop in this store again, and even a woman threatening to call the police on them when they ask her about whether they could book the venue she works at for their drag show.
Secondly, I love the genuine diversity of the people they get paired with to mentor through the drag show and the simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming stories they have to tell. They work with people of different genders, races, ages, and abilities, people who are already doing drag or who are gay and interested in drag, but also straight men who see it as an opportunity to be allies, parents who are showing up for their kids, and queer folks whose families haven’t shown up for them. They create an on-stage wedding performance for a transguy and his wife who never got to have a roomful of happy people cheering them on. They work with queer Navajo photographer Nate Lemuel his friends, including the amazing two-spirit queen Lady Shug, to create a performance that incorporates his own photography. When they’re working with a butch lesbian who lost limbs in a motorcycle accident, they bring in the fabulous drag king, Landon Cider, to help her king it up and get back to dancing in her favorite cowboy boots.
We’re Here is about building community and connections between drag performers in communities where queer folks are often isolated, not accepted, or actively discriminated against. I’m in awe of how incredibly brave all of the people who come on the show are, especially in their willingness to talk openly about their experiences and all the hard things they have been through. Those kinds of stories have tremendous power to help others who have been through similar things feel less alone, as well as the potential to create empathy and defuse prejudice. So often people who don’t share the same beliefs just butt heads or get angry with each other, so it’s wonderful to see how open Eureka, Shangela, and Bob are to talking with folks who don’t share their opinions, haven’t really thought about things from the perspective of people who are different from them, or have been raised to believe that being queer is wrong but are starting to really think about it themselves. I think that watching people’s opinions shift in places where you might not expect it would and seeing how many queer people and allies there actually are in these communities makes it possible to imagine change and to believe that the same thing could be done in every community.
Tragically, there were only 5 episodes filmed before the pandemic hit but watching them I can’t help thinking that this is what I’m really looking for in reality tv – more realness. Even after years of activism and Pride marches there are still so many places where it’s not safe or livable to be visibly queer or different, and especially after all the isolation, loss, physical and mental health challenges people have faced during the pandemic, now more than ever it’s important to tell the world We’re Here!
Alex MacFadyen feels inspired to someday live his drag western road trip fantasy.