Pop Culture

Lip Synch For Your Rights

“We love you, and you are so welcomed here. You know, we as gay people, we get to choose our family. We get to choose the people we’re around. You know what I’m saying? I am your family. We are family here. I love you.”

—RuPaul to Roxxxy Andrews, Episode 7,  Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race

Right now, RuPaul is deciding which of the top three contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5 should be crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar.

In other, less important news, nine judges are deciding whether or not my spouse can have a penis. That the irrelevancy of my future spouse’s genitals is not a foregone conclusion but rather an issue for the country’s highest court is infuriating. Consider what Salt-N-Pepa had to say in 1993:

Now who do you think you are
Puttin’ your cheap two cents in?
Don’t you got nothin’ to do than worry ’bout my friends?
Check it.

So check it. If it were up to me, marriage as a legal relationship would be abolished. Cohabitate and breed all you want, but screw you if you think that my tax rate should be higher than yours. Screw you if you think I need to have married the person I want in my hospital room. Screw you if you think your marriage, by definition, is more sacred and important than my non-romantic relationships. As far as I’m concerned, the only victim of marriage abolition would be the $40 billion wedding industry. With that said, I love a good wedding. I love seeing my friends happy almost as much as I love dancing and cake. My boys John and Steven recently had the wedding of the year. It was lux (whole lobsters) without being over the top (plastic bibs). It was wildly romantic yet honest and true.

With the popular discourse on LGBTQ issues so narrowly focused on marriage, stories like John and Steven’s often act as Exhibits A in the case for marriage equality. Their New York Times marriage announcement—had there been one—would have started like this:

John and Steven met as freshmen in the same singing group at Yale. After they dated briefly in college, their paths diverged when Steven went to Harvard for medical school and John moved to Los Angeles to run an organic mushroom farm. They rekindled their romance when they both moved to New York City. Steven was completing his residency in pediatric neurology, and John was running a boutique wallpaper company while attending Stern. Steven proposed at a small, intimate restaurant in the Hamptons.

You can’t make this shit up.

But what happens if you don’t get into the Ivy League school? What happens if your SoCal mushroom farm goes bust and you start doing porn to pay the rent? What if you’re a black bull dyke from Georgia who just wants to buy a house and sleep with as many women as possible? How does your story fit into the heteronormative discourse surrounding LGBTQ rights? It doesn’t really, and that’s the problem with the marriage equality movement. It’s not that marriage equality isn’t important—it is, in fact, vitally important symbolically—but rather that it fails to account for the breadth of issues that affect the LGBTQ community. All of this would be well and good if marriage equality were only one of many LGBTQ issues in the spotlight, but it’s not.

Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The New Normal, and Ellen prominently feature gays and lesbians, but their representations of homosexuality are anything but transgressive and do little to expand the discourse on LGBTQ issues. Even Glee, which has worked overtime to represent every letter of the LGBTQ rainbow, simply uses its characters to suggest ways in which LGBTQ people can live within our great big straight world. All these shows, Glee in particular, squander the opportunity to subvert, question, and provide alternatives to marriage equality as a panacea to LGBTQ discrimination. This pisses me off, especially since past television shows like The L Word, My So Called Life, and King of Hill have handled homosexuality and queerness in more thoughtful ways.

Thank God then for RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since premiering in February of 2009, Drag Race has been, without question, the best thing on television. Now in its fifth season, the show stars RuPaul as host to a dozen drag queens as they compete for $100,000 and the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. Structurally, the show shares a lot with its reality competition show cousins, especially America’s Next Top Model: each week the lady boys compete in a mini challenge (think Top Chef’s quick fire challenges) and a main challenge that tests their skills as singers, actors, comedians, and/or seamstresses. Every episode concludes with a runway show, judges’ critique, and an elimination showdown that requires the bottom two girls to lip synch for their lives. (If you haven’t seen a “Lip Synch for Your Life,” then look at your life and look at your choices, because you’re doing something wrong. There’s even a “Lip Synch” for every mood: when you’re sad; when you’re glad; when you’re horny.)

Drag Race works on so many levels. When you put two gay dudes in dresses, hire a lighting team, and put $100,000 on the line, great television is an inevitability. For starters, Drag Race represents some of the best video ethnography ever done by the mainstream media. It’s rare that a reality television series delves so deeply into its characters, their motivations, and their cultural practices, but Drag Race does exactly that. In any given episode, you’ll learn about reading (no, not that kind of reading) and drag subgenres (e.g. comedy queens, pageant queens, Vegas queens, and spooky queens). You’ll learn about thriving with HIV, about going to jail, about disapproving moms and supportive dads. The show is also hilarious. From RuPaul’s catchphrases (“You’ve got she-mail!”) to scripted acting challenges, Drag Race has the most memorable comedic writing since Summer Heights High.

At its best, which occurs frequently, Drag Race capitalizes on drag as a political act. In her oft-cited chapter on drag, queer theorist Judith Butler says:

Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a king of impersonation and approximation. If this is true, it seems, there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.

For one hour each week, RuPaul’s Drag Race shoves this understanding of gender down your throat, and praise Jesus for that. The power of drag—indeed, the power of being homosexual—is the opportunity it provides to destabilize not only gender norms, but also relationship and familial norms. When a Season 5 contestant (Roxxxy Andrews) tearfully recalls being abandoned at a bus stop, RuPaul consoles her and explains, “You know, we as gay people, we get to choose our family. We get to choose the people we’re around. You know what I’m saying? I am your family. We are family here. I love you.” It’s this FUBU ethos that makes Drag Race such an important blip on pop culture’s radar. It never panders to heteronormative tastes and never sanitizes things for your momma’s sake. It doesn’t even stop to explain the difference between “kai kai” and “kiki.” And why should it, hunty?

Even as it does things on its own, queer terms, Drag Race creates a remarkably inclusive universe, one that uses drag and sexuality to bridge the gap between its stars and its viewers. The literary critic Michael Warner observes that in drag circles,

The rule is: Get over yourself. Put a wig on before you judge. And the corollary is that you stand to learn most from the people you think are beneath you. At its best, this ethic cuts against every form of hierarchy you could bring into the room.

This, I think, is why Drag Race has found a mainstream, heterosexual audience. It’s comforting and even revelatory that a reality competition show debases and praises its contestants and hosts. In one episode, for example, RuPaul challenges the contestants to roast her. The girls embrace the opportunity, and RuPaul howls with delight at the results (“You look like the black Pee Wee Herman!”). Can you imagine Tyra or The Donald doing the same?

As a piece of popular culture, drag, including RuPaul’s Drag Race, is one of the few contexts in which this egalitarianism exists, where the judge and contestants sit in judgment of one another. The same cannot be said of the marriage license office. Sure, any two, unrelated adults should be allowed to marry, but the legal and societal privileges that marriage affords suggest that same-sex marriage is not about equality at all; it’s about the legal, financial, and moral advantages that the government confers upon a married couple over unmarried individuals. The legalization of same-sex marriage allows those married people—and everyone who supports marriage as a rights-granting institution—to sit in judgment of those who do not marry. No tea, no shade, but screw that. Like RuPaul says at the end of every episode, “Can I get an ‘Amen’?”

Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.