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How Drag Queens Have the Power to Change Your Life

This week's episode features Johann, a South African man who grew up closeted and lonely until he discovered the gay community in a place he could never have imagined as a child: at a screening of, hosted by Seattle performer Ben DeLaCreme.
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My weekly podcast, The Sewers of Paris, is all about the entertainment that changed the lives of gay men. This week's episode features Johann, a South African man who grew up closeted and lonely until he discovered the gay community in a place he could never have imagined as a child: at a screening of Drag Race, hosted by Seattle performer Ben DeLaCreme.

You can listen to Johann's amazing story here. His journey took him from furtively reading forbidden gay books as a child, to craving the grown-up urban lifestyle he saw on Will and Grace, and then finally meeting other gay people like him through Seattle's wonderful drag scene.

Johann isn't the only one to find a community through drag -- and if there's one thing queers love, it's community. We use that word so much that it's kind of lost its meaning, but when you get down to it what we're talking about is having a group of friends who like each other, and look out for each other.

And I think that kinship is an essential component of drag. Just look at Drag Race: a group of performers who are in competition and often very catty, yes, but they're at their best when they support each other, and encourage each other, and when they lift each other up to overcome challenges together. Close-knit drag queen tribes literally refer to each other as "drag families" for a reason.

If you like Drag Race, I can't recommend Paris is Burning highly enough. It's a documentary from the '80s about New York drag balls, and I think it perfectly encapsulates how vital drag can be. The subjects of the documentary have no access to mainstream power. Most can only fantasize about being an executive, or about being an object of popular desire. And so they've created an entire world of power structures that they can have access to. Those drag balls existed through the sheer force of will of a community.

I'd also recommend Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- that's a film about what happens when queer performers take a chance by stepping outside of their safe little bubble. Two drag queens and a trans woman set out on a long road trip through the Australian outback. Along the way, the can only count on each other -- a queer community of three. It takes all the strength they have not to fall apart.

When Johann moved from South Africa to the United States, he wasn't sure how to meet gay men like him, and for a long time he worried that there simply weren't any. But whether in documentary form like Paris is Burning, or in fictional stories like Priscilla, on on a reality TV show, drag has always been a powerful catalyst for building community.

And that's what Johann discovered one night in a crowded ballroom: Local performer Ben DeLaCreme was featured that season on Drag Race, and a Seattle venue hosted weekly screenings of the show. Like a gay sporting event, fans flocked from all over the city to cheer for Ben. Here was a crowd of like-minded people, all united (and a little drunk) in support of their hometown hero.

For the first time, Johann felt like he'd found his people. Week after week, the screenings created a space where he felt accepted, like he was part of a team, and that everyone had come together with purpose.

Why is drag so great at bringing people together? I think it's because drag requires complete vulnerability. It's daring. A risk. And it couldn't exist without performers and fans who embrace that vulnerability, celebrate it and support each other. Looking out for one another is baked into the DNA of drag. That's probably why drag queens are the ones responsible for Stonewall, and why to this day they're the cornerstone of Pride events around the world.

What Johann was feeling in that ballroom was the power of community. And nobody can do community like a bunch of boys in dresses and heels.

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