by Sam Chapman
In 2011, on a sticky day in late August, I packed my life into the trunk of a car and drove across the state to a university plopped on the marshy outskirts of another town. I was 18 and deeply anxious to begin my life. My hometown and 13 years of Catholic school felt like a cage I was desperate to escape. I looked forward to the life of collegiate bohemiana I’d seen in movies and read about in books: tests, papers, lounging on the quad, waking up to somebody in your hall playing an acoustic guitar cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”
Most of all, I looked forward to beginning my real life, my queer life. College, I had been told, would have no shortage of people like me, just waiting to welcome me into the big gay fold. So I packed up my books and records and numerous tchotchkes and set out to meet my tribe.
The reality, of course, was something different (except for the dude playing “Fast Car,” who was definitely there). Finding a community proved to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. The queer people I saw at my school were few and far between. I signed up to receive emails from the campus LGBT group, but the only meeting I ever attended was a somber affair with bad snacks and none of the colorful weirdos I was interested in meeting. Compounding this was a severe bout of homesickness and a roommate who stayed up until the early hours of every morning watching “Lord of the Rings” on a loop. As a result I spent most of my first semester at school holed up in the stairwell by my dorm room, listening to Bon Iver, and calling my mom.
To cheer myself up — and, let’s be honest because I had no social life to speak of — I spent a great deal of time watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” If my real life lacked the vibrancy I’d hoped for, at least my television didn’t have to. I’d discovered the show the previous spring, during season four, and I’d spent months sneaking into my mom’s living room to watch it late at night with the volume turned down, always keeping a hand on the remote in case somebody walked past. At school, I pirated old seasons of the show, watching episodes over and over until I could recite dialogue from memory.
If my real life lacked the vibrancy I’d hoped for, at least my television didn’t have to.
To the uninitiated, Reddit might seem like a strange place to find the most devoted community of “Drag Race” fans on the internet. The site has historically garnered criticism for giving a platform to all the worst behaviors the faceless hordes of the internet are capable of perpetrating. The Wikipedia page for Reddit has an entire section devoted to the site’s controversies, organized by year.
Yet despite this, r/rupaulsdragrace is a bustling online community with almost 120,000 registered subscribers and many more casual viewers. Members create and engage in forum discussions about every aspect of the show — what the queens wore, stories of encountering them in real life, who would win in an all-winners season — and even former competitors have been known to surreptitiously read and post in discussion threads. The subreddit has even garnered enough attention from the show itself to be included as a sponsor in past installments of RuPaul’s Drag Con, the brand’s flagship annual event.
Once I discovered the subreddit, I began checking it daily, scrolling through the newest posts every morning. Each year I joined in the collective hunt to discover who would be cast on the next season, traded opinions on lip sync performances posted to youtube, and laughed at the arcane in-jokes and memes. The subreddit became, for me, the community of queers, weirdos and pop-cultural savants that I’d always hoped to find.
There exists, particularly in the wake of an election that seems to have been decided in the mysterious back rooms of the internet, a tendency among cultural commentators to frame online communities as inherently malignant. In fairness, this can be true. The anonymity allowed by forums like Reddit lends itself to a culture of abuse. The queens of “Drag Race,” when asked about it, often talk about r/rupaulsdragrace with derision, and who could blame them? They’re highly experienced performers at the pinnacle of their industry being adjudicated by an outspoken peanut gallery.
It’s unsurprising that they might request, as Alyssa Edwards once famously did, that we “...please shut the fuck up with your no drag knowledge mouth.” But this view of the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” subreddit ignores the way in which it informed my — and I suspect other’s — entry into the labyrinth of history and art to which “Drag Race” nods, but rarely addresses directly.
The world of “Drag Race” is almost entirely referential. The format echoes that of early reality TV competition shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway.” In earlier seasons, challenges were largely designed as callbacks to things RuPaul herself had achieved throughout her career. Queer luminaries like Kevin Aviance, Leigh Bowery, Klaus Nomi, Divine, John Waters, the B-52s, Thierry Mugler, Alexander McQueen, Willi Ninja, Sylvester, Andy Warhol and countless others have all been cited directly by competitors on the show. And there exists a vast constellation of artists and pioneers whose work, or the very least whose sensibility, has been indirectly invoked over the course of the show’s nine seasons.
The “Drag Race” subreddit was my way into this world of color and light, a subcultural compendium compiled by an extensive hive-mind. It was, largely, how I encountered my history: Junior LaBeija’s “OPULENCE!,” the glittering beards of the Cockettes, Joey Arias’ famed cabaret acts, Susanne Bartsch’s parties, the controversial fame of JonBenét Ramsey, and the danger of wire hangers in the Crawford household. It wasn’t perfect, but it made me feel, for perhaps the first time, like I wasn’t alone
In the drab concrete block of the library, on quiet, drizzly days, I opened my computer and I found my people.