The first seed of my interest in drag was planted during the summer of 2008, when the Olympics came to Beijing. Between the third and fourth ring of the rippling city, my mother, father, big brother and I lived in a small apartment, burning under a sky that was, at the time, still blue. I was six years old then and did not yet know the heavy burden of gender. I did not understand what it meant to be in love, how it felt to be trapped in a body, or what a pain it could be to attempt escape. These realizations came later, but in the summer of 2008, I was simply a child watching the Olympics in a city lit by fireworks, and China was doing great.
Even then, I was not terribly interested in the sportspeople or their athleticism. Only one memory still resonates with me from the 2008 Olympics: the British operatic diva Sarah Brightman singing “You and Me” at the opening ceremony in a white, floor-length Versace gown, rhinestones shimmering at the chest. Sitting on the edge of a couch in striped pajamas, feet swinging above the floor, I wanted to be her.
Afterward, as we watched athletes from two hundred countries march into a nest-shaped stadium on our little TV, my father said to me, “you could become a big strong man like them one day.” Six-year-old me was not impressed. Still hung up on the opulence of Brightman’s performance, I could not see myself as an athlete in a competition, nor could I see myself as a big strong man. If only I knew that, across the Pacific in a poorly lit studio, another competition was taking place that very summer. A competition of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent created by a bald-headed, six foot four (without heels) Black man from San Diego who sometimes wore sparkly dresses and wigs. A competition that would change my life.
2008 marked the first of many “Olympics” in the sport of self-expression—drag. Some trace the origin of drag to Shakespeare himself, whose scripts often required male actors portraying female characters to perform in “drag” (either an acronym for Dressed Resembling a Girl or a reference to the lengthy Elizabethan petticoats that dragged on the floor). In America, drag culture became prominent in the 1970s and ‘80s alongside Harlem’s underground ballroom scene. As Jennie Livingston documented in her legendary film Paris is Burning, ballroom provided a necessary haven for the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community, including drag queens. During this time, drag was still a narrow and exclusive term synonymous with female-impersonation. This was the era when RuPaul Charles, a notorious queen from the clubs of New York City, sashayed onto the world stage with the hit single “Supermodel” and won America’s heart. The rest, as you know, is herstory.
Flashforward to the summer of 2008: As Sarah Brightman sang about international unity and Usain Bolt broke the world record for the 100-meter dash, nine queens walked into the Werkroom of the very first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. When the season aired in the spring of 2009, six-year-old me was memorizing poems in a Chinese elementary school classroom, sitting behind metal desks with a red scarf (dyed red for the blood of martyrs who fought for Chinese liberation) around my neck. I would not discover Drag Race for another eleven years, when a massive pandemic devastated my country and spread panic around the globe.
I had never known despair before, and perhaps I do not know it now, but in the summer of 2020 I knew it like the back of my hand. The prevailing feeling of that summer is best summed up as a painful detachment. The streets of my city, the walls of my room, the moving faces and sounds of my life became the ambient noise of my distress, the water in which I drowned. It is a dark hole to wallow in, where the mind, once so positive and filled with light, cannot find a single thing that would bring it joy. Throughout the summer months of 2020, I woke up dreading the impending day and went to sleep praying for hibernation. Looking back, the cause of my despair was a disastrous mix of strained family dynamics, the heavy uncertainty of a pandemic-ridden future, and a crippling identity crisis. I was a drought that needed to be broken, and Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars came along as much-needed rain.
I began watching Drag Race in my grandmother’s living room in Wuhan, where rain poured non-stop from a low gray sky and ran slanted toward the river. I was mesmerized from episode one. Shea Couleé’s flawless fashion execution, Miz Cracker’s infectious personality, and Jujubee’s hilarious commentaries pulled me out of a deep rut of gloom and worry. In the following months, I quickly devoured most of Drag Race’s 12 seasons, as well as all five seasons of All Stars. On Drag Race, not only do contestants create multiple runway and makeup looks each week, they also compete in challenges that range from acting, singing, and dancing to comedy, sewing, and impersonation. To believe that Drag Race is simply a competition where people play dress-up and prance around on stage could not be more wrong. For me, however, the true power of the show lies not in the costumes and talents, but in the hearts and stories of its contestants.
It was on RuPaul’s Drag Race where Dusty Ray Bottoms opened up about the conversion therapy and exorcisms she underwent as a child, and it was in the Drag Race Werkroom where Katya and Miss Fame found connection in their shared history of alcoholism and addiction. On the mainstage, the audience sobbed as Roxxxy Andrews told the harrowing story of being abandoned by her birth mother at a bus stop, and Monica Beverly Hillz announced her identity as the first openly transgender contestant on the show. In Season 9, the queens commemorated the friends they lost at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where many of them used to perform, and where 49 people died during a tragic, homophobic shooting. These queens and the art of drag itself struck a chord in my heartstrings and opened my eyes to a world of vulnerability and resilience.
It was also on RuPaul’s Drag Race where I first saw Kim Chi, a plus-size Korean queen with incredible makeup artistry who struggled with her Asian family’s approval. I related to Kim Chi’s self-doubt and saw myself in her journey to find love for who she was. Out of drag, Sang-Young Shi was shy and reserved, but Kim Chi gave her the confidence to thrive and unleash the creative genius within. “I am proving to myself, to the world, and my mother,” said Kim Chi on Season 8 of Drag Race, “that all the work and crazy stuff I’ve been doing has not been a waste. I don’t want to be America’s Next Drag Superstar; I am America’s Next Drag Superstar.”
Kim Chi’s perseverance gave me hope, but she was not the only queen to exhibit bravery and resilience. Nothing, I quickly realized, not even hatred and violence and a bad critique from Michelle Visage, can keep a good queen down. By showcasing the strength and tenacity of these queens, RuPaul’s Drag Race saved me from my own “inner saboteur” and dragged me out of depression. Drag, I learned, is about hope. It is about the queer and gay and trans and non-binary people throughout history who have been knocked down, day after day, year after year, and keep climbing up. But this uphill battle toward equality and recognition, even within the LGBTQ+ community, is far from over.
Drag, like any other art form, is constantly evolving. Until recently, the drag community has neither accepted nor included transgender/non-binary queens. Even RuPaul himself has made offensive and exclusionary comments about trans queens. But as the concepts of gender and sexuality expand, so too must the definition of drag. It’s 2021, and gone are the days when drag simply stood for Dressed Resembling a Girl. With the rise of talented trans queens like Peppermint, Sonique, and the recent addition of Gottmik—the first trans-male contestant on the show—the definition of drag is continuously growing to accommodate greater diversity. As Season 8 winner Bob the Drag Queen said in an interview with Vanity Fair, “if you’re blurring the gender line, you’re engaging in the art of drag.” Today, no matter your identity or style, whether you’re a “look queen,” a “comedy queen,” or a “butch queen first time in drag,” drag is open to anyone.
There is a picture of me in a photo album somewhere in that cramped apartment in Beijing, taken the same year that the Olympics came to town. The picture, yellowed and fraying at the edges, is of a little boy wrapped in a piece of blue-white gingham fabric, smiling at the camera. At the end of every season of Drag Race, RuPaul shows each remaining queen a picture of their younger self and asks them what they would like to say to that child. Watching the queens reply, I can’t help but think of that little boy playing dress-up with a curtain, prancing around the living room, like a mermaid out of water. I can’t help but think of that boy who grew up in a country where the bullies didn’t know the word gay so they called him sissy. That boy who lip-synced for a seventh-grade music project and had the word faggot hurled at his face. That boy who maybe didn’t want to be just a boy anymore, and who maybe never was. That boy who got knocked off his feet so many times and yet, despite everything that held him down, kept on walking in imaginary six-inch heels.
I think of that little boy often. Perhaps one day, dressed in a white, floor length gown with rhinestones at the chest, I will see him again at the Olympics of drag, and have the chance to sing him a love song from the bottom of my heart.