“AOC!” someone yelled from below. The audience rose to give Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — who has been outspoken about her appreciation for drag on Twitter — a standing ovation.
Two days later, in another Washington mash-up of work and werk, drag queen Pissi Myles clacked down the halls of the Longworth Building in shiny red pumps. Myles was there as a journalist and commentator, covering the impeachment for live-streaming, crowdsourced news company Happs, though she quickly became a story herself: It’s not often that a drag queen sashays her way through Official Washington, at 6 feet 8 inches in heels and a wig, serving looks and political analysis in equal measure. The following week, she was reporting again, this time from the spin room at the Democratic debate in Atlanta.
Drag and politics have always been intertwined, ever since the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York, where drag queens and transgender women, notably the performer Marsha P. Johnson, were among the foremothers of the gay rights movement. And in the lead-up to 2020, with drag enjoying more mainstream popularity than ever, drag queens are becoming a perfect foil to President Trump.
“In the queer community — and this is something that a more broad audience might not know — drag queens are kind of looked at as community leaders and mouthpieces,” said Myles. They “ride out first with their sword in the air.”
The act of dressing in drag has long been a political statement — it’s an act of rebellion against societal norms and an art form that elevates the voices of disenfranchised communities. And as drag has attracted a new, mainstream audience — one that might see it purely as entertainment — there have been efforts to make the connection more overt.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has appeared on “Drag Race,” and the show has hosted political challenges for the contestants, asking them to participate in a mock presidential debate and a Trump-themed musical. DragCon, a convention for fans of the Emmy-winning show, has hosted panels on “The Art of Resistance” and “Drag in Trump’s America.”
No one commands attention quite like a drag queen. It’s a matter of channeling that attention into important causes, said Velour.
“The queer community . . . especially the drag community, is made up of many people who fall below the poverty line,” and “many black and brown people,” said Velour. “I think the popularity of drag and popularity of those kinds of stories and narratives is going to shift people’s minds, hopefully.”
Myles had no reporting experience before her gig with Happs. She was recruited by one of the company’s contributors, who thought she would be an eye-catching addition to their coverage, which targets younger viewers. She didn’t realize she would get so much attention.
“When I got out of the car . . . 20 cameras on the stairs all just turned and pointed at me,” she said. The Capitol Police made her go through the metal detector three times.
It’s notable that a drag queen was sent to cover an event that wasn’t overtly about LGBTQ policy. (Though one could argue that impeachment is the ultimate case of — to repurpose one of RuPaul’s catchphrases — “I’m sorry, my dear, but you are up for elimination.”)
“To our audience, she’s another person — an unusual person, a theatrical person,” said David Neuman, Happs’s co-founder and chief content officer. He’s talking to Myles about covering other news events throughout 2020.
For Velour, AOC’s appearance in the audience wasn’t a total surprise. The performer had reached out to the congresswoman ahead of the show, asking her to attend.
“The whole time I was painting my face, I was thinking about her,” said Velour, 32, of Brooklyn. Audience members were doubly star-struck by the juxtaposition, and even tried to form a selfie line to the balcony, until security shut it down. The congresswoman met Velour backstage, filming a short video where, as Velour said, they “fan-girled over each other.” Dressed in a pink gown, Velour thanked her for “facing the kind of online bullying and rabid surreal hate from some right-wing people.”
Drag’s ascension into the political conversation has not been without challenges.
Drag Queen Story Hour, a national program that encourages queens to read to children in libraries, has sparked protests across the country. Founders say that it teaches children empathy and inclusiveness, but Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum told viewers that the program aimed to “indoctrinate and unnecessarily expose children to sexuality.” Some conservative groups have sued libraries for hosting the events.
A similar thing happened to Velour, after she posted her video with Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. Conservative gay political commentator Dave Rubin reposted the video with the caption, “Your Democratic 2024 ticket, ladies, gentlemen and other.” Another Twitter user with the handle @BrWrecked responded, “If she wins in 2024 that pink tall person will be our supreme court judge.” Velour appropriated the insult, changing her name on Twitter to “Pink Tall Person.”
“If these people are so threatened by a little makeup and like, by theater? Talk about people who live their lives defined by fear,” she said. “They cannot think rationally if they’re this afraid of this gorgeous lipstick and a little corsetry. Well, a lot of corsetry.”