It’s no great secret that queer people have a fraught relationship with sport. I, myself, have distinct memories of standing knock-kneed on a freezing cold Sunday morning, in ill-fitting football boots, willing the football to fly anywhere but within a five-metre radius of me. Many queer people, especially gay men, share my seemingly innate disenchantment with popular sports and view them as a source of alienation from heteronormative society.
That being said, as Nelson Mandela once famously said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” This is a pervasive truth enjoyed by people across the globe, but significantly less by queer people. A survey carried out by the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2021 found that “gay men are half as likely to be passionate sports fans compared to the 60 per cent of straight men who say that, while the 40 per cent number for lesbians mirrors that of straight women.”
There is clearly a general incongruousness between queerness and sport, although that’s not a blanket rule. A few male sporting stars have come out as gay in recent years, Joshua Cavallo being the latest high profile sportsperson to join the ‘Alphabet Mafia’ last year. Yet homophobia is still rampant in male sports, especially British football, with still no openly queer Premier League players.
On the other hand, sport has long been a comparatively welcoming institution for queer women, seeing many gay players in sports such as football/US soccer. But the ongoing institutionalised exclusion of transgender women (and men) from professional sport demonstrates the unwillingness to reconcile queer identity with its entrenched gender norms.
We are left with the paradox that sport “has the power to unite,” yet queer people are excluded. So what do we have instead? Well, it seems that the phenomenon that is RuPaul’s Drag Race is our closest bet.
As a reality-competition television series that is dubbed by its own contestants as “the Olympics of drag” or “the gay Olympics,” the parallels to professional sports are palpable. Primarily, it’s a competition. We support queens like sports fans do their teams, and we experience rounds of the competition communally in drag bars as sports fans do in stadiums.
But the most salient similarity is its cultural unification. In its peak popularity (arguably around US season 9, in 2017) it was a pretty safe bet that one could chat someone up in a queer bar and use ‘who’s your favourite queen this season?’ as an ice breaker. Not to mention the first real pandemic in 2018 that saw any calling out of “Miss Vaaaanjie” being parroted in a gleeful chorus in many a queer bar’s smoking area.
Drag Race has not only educated the mainstream straight community but also given queer people across the world a unifying cultural nucleus. It has acted as sport does for queer people who don’t really give a damn about who is topping the Premier League.
Sadly, reality TV does not have the ubiquity, longevity or financial backing to truly rival sport. While I still watch the US Drag Race and its spin offs, one can’t help but feel that its novelty is waning. Fewer and fewer of my queer friends watch it each year and despite it still having a large fanbase, one can’t help but fear its years are numbered.
Producers have been attempting to shake up the format with each passing season to maintain viewership. Gimmicks are implemented, such as the ‘golden ticket’ wildcard in the current (14th) US season that sees contestants opening a Wonka-style chocolate bar upon their elimination with the hopes they have the golden ticket allowing them to stay in the competition. Or the ‘lipstick voting’ system of the All Stars spin-off that sees queens eliminate each other (criticised by many of the recent UK vs The World spin-off viewers).
These stunts feel forced and are putting some fans off the show. While stats show that viewing figures are not rapidly declining, one can’t help but wonder what will happen if Drag Race is eventually cancelled?
Would queer culture’s place in the canon of global culture take a hit or would the archives of previous seasons be enough to perpetuate its legacy? This remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, though, the TV spot vacuum will result in the race becoming the ‘new Supreme’ of the gay Olympics.
Competition shows that mimic the challenges on RuPaul’s Drag Race, such as sewing, comedy, singing and dancing could be an appropriate replacement. One such could be the drag singing competition Queens of the Universe. Shows such as Next in Fashion (which has finally been renewed, by the way) and Legendary are contenders, with both featuring many queer contestants. But these feel unlikely, somehow…
Although these shows are entertaining, I wager that Drag Race is simply irreplaceable. The show that catapulted a niche and inherently queer artform into huge mainstream success is truly a force to be reckoned with.
That being said, we should appreciate this annual bitchy Hunger Games while we can. Drag Race is the closest we will come to a thoroughly queer equivalent to televised sport, for those who don’t partake in that. When it’s gone, it’ll be more than just a smoking area icebreaker that we’ve lost. You’ll miss it more than you think.
Last week, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK announced the lineup for its third season, which arrives on BBC iPlayer next month. The third season was cast and filmed entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic—season two had a sudden and unexpected break in filming midway through the series. And if it feels like that series only just finished airing, you wouldn’t be wrong: Lawrence Chaney was crowned the show’s second champion in mid-March. But the producers wanted to get back to the show’s original timeline, airing each autumn. And as RuPaul now chairs four Drag Race shows filmed around the world—which have been on non-stop since New Year’s Day—she’s on a tight schedule.
But season three of Drag Race UK is set to make herstory, with the first cis woman competing for the crown. Victoria Scone is a Cardiff-based drag queen and performer—and a queer woman. Immediately, there was backlash on social media, particularly from Drag Race super-fans, the kind who have little knowledge of drag beyond RuPaul’s world. And, of course, they distracted from the real issue here: whether ‘scone’ is pronounced like ‘stone’ or like ‘gone’.
One Twitter user and YouTuber prompted significant outcry after posting a video titled ‘Why I Don’t Support Victoria Scone on RuPaul’s Drag Race’. He was promptly torn to pieces by drag queens from all over the world, including reigning champion Chaney, who posted her comments on Twitter: “Women raised me, I’m inspired by strong women and now Victoria is one of those strong women because of her standing up and showcasing who she is to the world, unapologetically. Sorry but you’ll just have to get used to it.”
This news revealed the worrying misogyny that pervades much of the gay community. Recently, I saw a similar discussion about women in gay bars, with gay men seemingly determined to gatekeep such spaces—when, in fact, many queer bars are intended to serve the entire LGBTQ+ community, not just the G. And it should be noted that we are thoroughly lacking in spaces for and representation of queer women.
“Drag is for everyone and anyone can do drag,” season two fan favourite Bimini Bon Boulash reminded us. Trans women have competed on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars—when queens have come out as trans in between competing on their original series and returning for All Stars. And the last US season cast Gottmik, the first trans man to compete on the show. RuPaul has previously made some rather disparaging comments about female drag queens—but it seems that she is now changing her mind and moving the show in the right direction.
For some time, Drag Race supported and elevated a very specific kind of drag: femme makeup, wigs, heels and padding. Slowly but surely, though, it has accepted and platformed more diverse drag artistry, like Sasha Velour and Ginny Lemon.
There were, however, valid criticisms to be made of the Drag Race UK announcement. Many were pointing out that there was only one person of colour in the cast, which wasn’t technically accurate. While there’s only one black queen, two contestants are of mixed heritage—River Medway and Anubis Finch have Singaporean and Egyptian heritage, respectively.
But the criticisms didn’t stop there: only two of the queens aren’t from London and the South East; there’s no one from Scotland or Northern Ireland this year. People want to feel represented on such a prominent and popular show, but small towns and local scenes are consistently overlooked. Of course, true representation is nearly impossible, especially in a cast of twelve, and this is reality television, with casting decisions made to deliberately cause drama. But they could certainly do better.
To be clear: it is not the fault of any of the contestants that the casting is so deficient. Any and all blame lies entirely with the producers. Applications were no doubt down this year, with people wanting to wait until after the pandemic to apply. But it’s still largely inexcusable—perhaps not much has changed since the first cast was announced.
RuPaul is not and should never be the arbiter of everything drag, even if fronting two dozen seasons of drag reality competitions has effectively made that the case. Marla Sinner, a drag queen based in Glasgow, put it particularly eloquently. “Just because we can be cast now doesn’t mean we all want to,” she wrote. “It’s good progression but it’s a long time fucking coming and a long way to fucking go.”