To celebrate International Drag Day read this glorious essay on RuPaul from The Queer Bible. Jack Guinness shares how RuPaul inspired him and his journey to self love.
‘Let me get this straight. You publicly came out, did a tonne of interviews, launched a queer website and spent all your money commissioning pieces JUST SO YOU COULD MEET RUPAUL?!’ What kind of maniac-stalker-weirdo would do something like that?, I replied to my boyfriend’s wild accusation.
We both knew without saying a word that I was exactly the type of maniac-stalker-weirdo that would do something like that. My life has been a neverending series of long cons. First as a lonely child, and then as a painfully isolated teen, I retreated into a fantasy world. I imagined one day I’d have an impossibly glamorous life feted as a male supermodel with a pile of celebrity(ish) friends and a fabulous wardrobe of designer clothes. I look around my dreary life and pined for something more. My early life in South London in the eighties was impossibly beige (perhaps a hangover from the hand-me-down seventies clothes and furniture that filled our flat): the food, our family Volvo… my pallid skin. I wanted hot pink, gold and a tan! I’d caught a flash of something sparkly in the corner of my eye and I have spent the rest of my life chasing it, while it’s remained frustratingly on the periphery, always out of reach. This is the chase for fame. The promise of escape. To make the fantasy real. And now I have fashioned a rather fabulous life for myself. But something nags. There’s a snag. A thread has caught and I’m unravelling. I need more. I need meaning. Inside of me, in the pit of my being, I am still the daydreaming little boy lost, and the more glamorous everything outside gets, the bigger, wider, and more painful the chasm between who I am and who everyone else thinks I am. There’s a breach at the core. That is the irony of glamour, or shimmer – it simply isn’t real. But what was the spark that set me on this course? What shooting star caught me magpie-eyed and ruined my life? It was RuPaul, of course. Covering a Kiki Dee song, of course. With Elton John… of course.
Glamour offers a tempting and dangerous allure for many queer people. As we internalise society’s disapproval of our identity – our sexuality and gender expression, which is such a core essential part of ourselves – we get caught up in a spiral of shame and a sense of worthlessness. Our parents and society often shame us, and then we continue to shame ourselves. My generation, in pre-social media times, then set off into the night, to clubs that we were too young to be in, sometimes in dangerous situations, so much of it fun but ultimately unsatisfying. Too many of us lose ourselves in the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and alcohol addiction, co-dependency and toxic relationships, or patterns of behaviour. Ironically, we lose ourselves in the very places where we’re searching for meaning and identity. This emptiness springing from an impoverished sense of self-worth (a poison tree planted by a disapproving and oppressive culture which we then ourselves feed and water through self-destructive thinking and behaviour) leads us to seek out status-giving armour–designed clothes, glamorous friends, high-powered jobs or perfect bodies. Through this mechanism we tell ourselves to be liked or to stay physically safe, but this all comes at a price. That fixed inner sense of self can become stunted and undeveloped. When we feel worthless on the inside, no wonder we’re drawn to external objects that give a sense of worth.
Then we enter the gay community and find it inevitably infected with much of the toxicity of ‘straight cis’ society, namely the two pillars of colonial patriarchy – money and power, with racism and misogyny (which reveals itself as effeminacy shaming) as the methods of keeping those pillars in place. White gay men have a special responsibility to unpack and challenge these concepts. Our Trans and lesbian family fought so hard for our rights, and in this ongoing seemingly worsening climate of violence and oppression directed at Trans people, in the unchecked power of institutional racism and misogyny, we must show up and fight on their behalf. Never before have there been more resources for white gay men (and white people in general) to educate ourselves about our privilege, our history as colonial oppressors that have created the systems that we benefit from, and face our ‘whiteness’ and the politics of race, which, as Reni Eddo-Lodge writes, ‘operates on its inherent invisibility’. Our challenge now, as individuals and as a global queer community, is to develop a strong and consistent identity imbued with a sense of self that is internally generated, not externally signalled.
Glamour offers a tempting and dangerous allure for many queer people. As we internalise society’s disapproval of our identity – our sexuality and gender expression, which is such a core essential part of ourselves – we get caught up in a spiral of shame and a sense of worthlessness.
Through years of therapy (thank you to my therapists who have saved my life and given it meaning) I have further developed this inner, unchanging core self. I believe the power of the community – of seeing ourselves mirrored in each other, feeling seen, connected and loved – also develops this authentic self. Intersectionality – the interconnectedness of different marginalised social groups and our overlapping interests and rights – is the LGBTQ+ community’s greatest strength. We are woven together not just through oppression but by wonderful difference and uniqueness that makes us targets of hatred in the first place. Through telling our stories and listening to the stories of others, we develop a healthy, boundaried connectedness that reinforces us on a deeper level, moving us away from external status signifiers and identity masks, allowing us to move into maturity and wholeness.
I spent years as a male model selling a certain type of performative masculinity. I was told by agents to ‘butch’ it up, whatever that means. I policed my mannerisms, trying not to appear too feminine. I adopted what Matthew Todd refers in his fantastic book of the same names as a ‘straight jacket’. I was performing oppressive drag: the opposite of everything real drag stands for. I wasn’t challenging, exploring or playing with gender, I was hiding behind its most restrictive socially acceptable forms. I was complicit in my own imprisonment, trapped in toxic masculinity. What a miserable existence. After coming out publicly – or rather, ‘breaking out’ – I felt able to be my true, full self. I stopped internalising a sense of shame that others were projecting on me. I am trying to stop self-shaming. Our inheritance as queer people is not shame. It is hope and love. Having to question, explore and claim your sexuality and gender (and often be oppressed for it) can create empathic, thoughtful and inspiring human beings. We are descended from a long line of pioneers, our history stretching through human civilisation across endless cultures. We must walk tall in that legacy, knowing that in spite of and because of our suffering, we are brave, awesome and powerful individuals. We are a family.
Our Trans and lesbian family fought so hard for our rights, and in this ongoing and seemingly worsening climate of violence and oppression of Trans people, in the unchecked power of institutional racism and misogyny, we must now show up and fight on their behalf.
I was twelve. The year was 1994. In a music video playing on a Saturday morning music television show (was it Going Live! Or CD:UK?), there she was. All fifty feet of her. Palpable sexual chemistry sparked between her and confirmed bachelor (and suspected serial womaniser) Elton John. She was probably his new girlfriend – that’s how an unknown model had managed to snag such a great gig (she was so tall she had to be a supermodel because that’s what tall people did for a living, unless they were employed as giants). Something deep down inside me knew she wasn’t simply a woman. She was beyond binary. She wasn’t simply a man either. She was something more. More than the sum of her parts. A magical forbidden taboo creature sent to tempt, inspire and drive us mad. Somehow deep down I knew Elton didn’t really fancy women either, but together, as they dressed up as famous lovers from history, the illusion was irresistible.
I suppose I knew there was something different about Elton John before I really understood what being ‘gay’ meant. He was rebellious, boundary-crossing, and didn’t care what you thought of him. Before we know, we know. Gay people are drawn to each other before we understand our sexuality: as outsiders, as breakers of norms, as the rejected. We sense a shared secret revealing itself through pain or wild abandon – clues glances and nods pull like magnets. The dejected John, desperate for his father’s love in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, drew me in long before I read Giovanni’s Room or discovered James’s homosexuality. George Michael’s rebellious anti-establishment streak, cheeky wink and camper than camp videos lit a fire in me. A boy crying alone on a train in Bronski Beat’s ‘Small Town Boy’ climaxed into falsetto, bringing tears to my eyes, without me knowing why. The lyrics called to me: a mother who doesn’t understand, knowing you have to escape where you came from; desperately seeking love. And so RuPaul burst through my television in an off-the-shoulder Breton top, a 6.5-foot-tall Black siren in a ginormous blonde wig, calling me out from my miserable beige life and promising to take me away to somewhere fabulous.
Our inheritance as queer people is not shame. It is hope and love. Having to question, explore and claim your sexuality and gender (and often be oppressed for it) can create empathic, thoughtful and inspiring people.
Born RuPaul Andre Charles on 17 November 1960 in San Diego, RuPaul moved to Atlanta to study performing arts, then headed to NYC and became a celebrated fixture on the party scene, employed by nightlife legends like Susanne Bartsch. Female impersonation happened by happy/gay accident. Performing in a gender-fuck punk band, one night Ru dragged-up and the crowd went wild. RuPaul listened to the Universe’s stage direction and didn’t look back. This is one of Ru’s greatest lessons for us; we all have neat, fixed ideas about who we are and what we want to do in life. In the moments where I’ve relinquished control and expanded my narrow view of myself, I have found joy and success. Read the clues. Ru didn’t necessarily grow up wanting to be a female impersonator, but he when he smelled a hit, he seized the moment, making it his own. He became an international pop star with the single ‘Supermodel’, won a trailblazing MAC Cosmetics campaign, and as their spokesperson raised funds for the Mac AIDS Fund.
After a few years in the wilderness (though he never stopped gigging around the world) RuPaul returned with Drag Race – a simultaneous pastiche and celebration of reality TV shows such as Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. It was turned down by every major network, and eventually found a home on gay-centric cable channel Logo TV. Now the show calls the mainstream VH1 home, with past seasons streaming on the international digital monster Netflix.
Drag Race is a global phenomenon, spawning spin-offs, tours, live shows and events, as well as international versions in the UK, Thailand and Holland. It relaunched RuPaul on the global stage and ironically allowed him to appear as RuPaul out of drag for the first time (though still wearing some fabulous outfits). What a strange, wild journey. RuPaul took a risk and detoured into drag whilst remaining true to his punk values. He acts and hosts, both in and out of drag, celebrated as the powerful human that he is. RuPaul sees his work as a challenge to identity stereotypes and politics, telling Vogue, ‘We live in such an egocentric world where identity is king, and we’ve elected the poster child for the ego in the USA… Drag is the perfect balance of that mentality. Ego is all about saying “I’m better than you are” and drag says “you are not your clothes, you are not what it says you are on your birth certificate. You are a creation of your own imagination.”’
This is one of Ru’s greatest lessons for us; we all have neat fixed ideas about who we are and what we want to do in life. In the moments where I’ve relinquished control and expanded my narrow view of myself, I have found success and joy.
I simply cannot overstate how much joy Drag Race brings to my life, and into the lives of millions of people around the world. I am never happier than when I’m watching Drag Race. Watching the show I feel like I’ve come home. I’m with my chosen family. It creates a connectedness with the global queer community that hasn’t existed before, set firmly in the mainstream. When I was a teenager I had to desperately seek out any literature, films or television shows that made me feel less alone. I could never have imagined that our community could come out of the shadows, and not just be tolerated, but celebrated. It is legacy making, shaping our culture.
Now, through the global popularity of Drag Race RuPaul sets the agenda for his legion of fans, subverting the mainstream by inspiring a generation of queer (and straight) youth. Ru rightfully remains a poster child for misfits and generation queer. He is not here to make us feel safe, he wants to challenge and destroy. Burn it all down and start again! His punk impulses are seemingly at odds with his mainstream success and engagement with consumerist culture – one in-joke of Drag Race is that Ru also seems to have a new product to peddle – the joke resonates because it is true! We are all full of tensions and contradictions. Ultimately Ru’s work is about ripping off the illusions we cloak ourselves in, questioning our very ‘identity’ – ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.’
RuPaul’s hosting style references the catchphrases and performances of iconic film stars and performers, from Joan Crawford to Liza to Blaxploitation films. It was these references (some obvious, some frustratingly obscure) that inspired me to create The Queer Bible in the first place. I wanted a place to go where I could immerse myself in the same culture landmarks that RuPaul had been exposed to. The AIDS epidemic robbed us of an entire generation who would now be our elders – queer people who could educate us, show us films, play us the music and let us in on the jokes that make up queer culture. Drag Race is a gateway drug into queer culture. You want to know why ‘reading is fundamental’? Watch Paris is Burning. Who owns ‘51% of this company’? Watch Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. ‘My girls’ are Maggie Smith’s in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And Ru’s catchphrases themselves have entered the popular lexicon. As depicted in the iconic film about the New York drag ball scene Paris is Burning, we need ‘Drag Mothers’ to initiate us into our mysterious, wonderful and subversive birthright.
Now everyone has access to a Drag Mother. In turn, RuPaul inspired me to create The Queer Bible; to create something beyond myself and something real. A platform for others to tell their stories in their own voices. A space and community for the next generation, who can joyously celebrate our culture and educate us about evolving concepts of gender and politics. By looking back we are empowered to look forward. As a child, the shallow and bombastic caught my eye; now I’m reaching towards something deep and solid. Ru has claimed, passing through the glamour and lure of New York nightlife and Hollywood, a meaningful path. Now RuPaul inspires a generation to seek out those fierce humans who bravely stomped before us and celebrate who they are.
RuPaul inspired me to create The Queer Bible; to create something beyond myself, something real. A platform for others to tell their stories in their own voices. A space and community for the next generation, who can joyously celebrate our culture and educate us about evolving concepts of gender and politics.
I think back to that little boy watching RuPaul on television. Ru appeared as a Fairy Godmother, travelling by my side. I think of all the confusion and bullying and suffering that was to come for me. So many times I wanted to give up, but I’m so glad I carried on. On the other side of that pain was a beautiful life: little Jack would accept himself, repair relationships with his biological family, and would find an additional chosen family in the queer community. He would eventually be happy, be proud, and love who he is. I thank RuPaul for showing me that is possible. As Ru says, ‘If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an Amen!’