I am a great evangelist. I used to evangelize in Pentecostal settings until I was 22. Then, I left my church to evangelize about feminist issues to every woman that crossed my path. Rhetoric is a gift I received when I was a kid and that I inherited from my grandpa and my dad. But during the COVID lockdowns, it was hard to socialize, and my evangelization skills turned toward making my friends and family join the privileged fan base of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. One by one, I convinced my sister, cousins, neighbors, and best friends to watch the reality show, and they did with astonishing devotion. Every week, two or three of us gather in someone’s living room wearing masks to watch episode after episode after episode. Our debates about the queens in the show could last all night long. Who had the best performance? Did you like their lip-synching? “That elimination was so fair/unfair!”
If you are not familiar with the show, it is about a group of drag performers (the number varies season to season, but most times, there are fourteen contestants) that compete every episode in diverse talent challenges. These might include acting, stand-up comedy, impressions, singing, dancing, confection and sewing, parodies, etc. At the end of each episode, every participant hits the runway wearing their best drag, based on a specific topic like zodiac signs, winter, western, wigs, sequin, etc., which adds points to the challenge scores. The panel of judges—which also varies from episode to episode except for Ru Paul—score the contestants, pick one winner, and sentence two for elimination. The latter must lip-sync a song picked by Ru Paul, and the best performer earns the privilege of staying for another week. While I write these words, I realize it sounds so basic! It sounds like every other competing reality show. But no, there is something special about this one. It warms our Latin American hearts for the first time after decades of watching American Idol, The X factor, Hell’s Kitchen, America Got Talent, The Voice, and America’s Next Top Model. We feel a special connection with something almost… divine.
Once we finished the third season, we created a WhatsApp chat room to discuss the season winners’ outfits, the Snatch Game episodes, and when it was impossible to meet to watch the premiere episodes together, we agreed a night to make a Zoom call and discuss our opinions. Once we finished the seasons available on Netflix, we started all over again. We revisited every episode with open minds to find exciting new things that we might had missed the first time. I have watched all Ru Paul’s Drag Race seasons, from the first to the thirteenth, at least four times. My best friend, Camila, is twice as obsessed now than I was two years ago. I created a new religion.
“But wait,” I thought to myself, “I’m not that great of an evangelist to convince all these women that Ru Paul’s show is worth their devotion.” What does this show have that we, women from Latin America, non-related directly with the drag world, or the LGBTQIA+ world, find so appealing?
I had to pray to understand what was going on with us, a group of obsessed Colombian women. So, here is my first attempt to systematize a theology of Ru Paul. But before, let me say this: These lines are not intended to criticize the drag world or to bring opinions to the LGBTI+ trans discussion. It is an attempt to elucidate our reactions to this foreign show (foreign on various different levels) being a group of Colombian women. So here it goes:
These men—some of them trans women—are powerful in a way that we are not, we never have been, and we cannot see such power in ourselves. These are wo/men that are not afraid of dress like women and acting like women. They wear whatever they want, they hit the runway however they choose, they walk/run/dance in heels better than any of us do, and they change their hair every week in any possible way. They are in front of their idol, who they call “Mama Ru,” and they put their own makeup to perfection, sew their own sassy clothes, pick big, colorful accessories, sing and choreograph, and make jokes. They are just amazing.
But we admire not only that they are supreme artists. They share their personal struggles of being a minority, and we identify with many of their stories of rejection. Some of them have been punished by the same Christian church that punishes us women when it forbids us to be preachers and pastors. (Many Drag Race queens have faced conversion therapy and other forms of violence at their churches.) A Church that also made us feel ashamed of our sexual impulses; that insists on our duty to become wives and mothers so we can be “respectable” before God’s eyes. So, while we are astonished seeing these drag queens’ performances, at the same time, we feel envious and angry because they are a group of women that we cannot be. They are free. They feel powerful. They overcame their fears and found a way to be set free from religion and coercive families and systems. They decided to follow their hearts and do what they wanted to do despite many obstacles and rejection, Ru Paul being the greatest example.
But we, a group of professional women in our twenties and thirties, feel trapped in families and societies that punish us for wearing certain clothes, for being single, for being married, for being divorced, for changing our hair, for wearing make-up… “You don’t look professional,” they say. “You are not getting any younger,” they say. “I don’t want you to wear that,” he says. “Did you get a piercing? You know you are not going to heaven,” my mom says. We feel hopeless in our cotidiano (daily life) but inspired by Ru Paul’s contestants.
We want to have their courage to dress, walk and dance as we want. We want to feel that powerful and free! So, we tried. Ru Paul held an opening event in Bogotá’s downtown to premier All Stars Season 6 (yes, there is a spin-off with talented eliminated contestants called All Stars.) And for the first time, we felt strong enough to wear high heels, sexy dresses, wigs, and a lot of make-up. We are not drag queens, of course! But we wanted to be one for one night. And we did feel sexy, sassy, and confident. But the question remains, how can we feel like this in the future? How can we feel empowered every day? Honestly, I don’t know. Certainly, our social conditions in Colombia do not favor most women from middle-low classes like us to be independent and confident without a man by our side. But we – my friends and I – are working to ensure that possibility for future generations so that they can find a way.
Many questions emerged while I was discussing this piece with my husband, like: Why do we not feel as inspired by other women as we do by these men? Isn’t it strange that a group of men must model what it is to be a powerful woman? No doubt our mothers, grandmothers, and other women in our families are strong and powerful, but what happened to them that we don’t want to replicate their stories? This deserves further reflection.
In the meantime, my friends and I repeat to ourselves every day before leaving our homes to face the world, the wonderful Ru Paul’s mantra: “If you cannot love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else? Can I get an Amen up in here?” and we all, her faithful believers respond, Amen!
Laura Montoya is from Bogotá, Colombia. She is a Psychologist devoted to working alongside communities affected by the 60 years of war in her country. Currently, she is a third-year student in the Masters of Divinity program at Boston University School of Theology. Her academic interests are in Liberation Theologies, Feminist Studies, Sociology of Religion, and Pentecostalism.