Featuring people of varying gender and sexual identities is never made a big deal of on Dragula – the message being that drag can be and should be accessible to everyone.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, as the prime example, has been forced to update in the last few years – many terminologies, references and mindsets were bizarrely outdated for a show that always boasted a message of all-encompassing love, inclusion and acceptance. The show once referred to RuPaul’s cryptic opening messages as ‘She-Mail’, regularly used the slur ‘tr*nny’, and queens were often criticised if they did not wear breastplates, heels or nails.
Drag Race seemed determined to exclusively feature the ‘woman impersonator’ sliver of the drag world with strict and unflinching rule, despite the industry of drag being extremely expansive and diverse, and the entire point being the radical disruption of gender norms and to experiment with one’s gender expression. For many seasons, when queens deigned to step a rhinestoned toe over one of the show’s defined gender boundaries, they received harsh critique.
Despite the show’s willingness to update to a more politically correct format (an albeit late, necessary move to retain its largely queer and socially progressive audience) the underlying mindset perseveres – distinctly, its anti-trans gatekeeping and rejection of a gender-diverse cast. This seemed to be in step with RuPaul Charles’ own opinions; the LGBTIQ+ icon has spouted some controversial and harmful views about transgender people in the past, including defiantly telling The Guardian he does not want trans women who have had gender confirmation surgery on Drag Race, and saying that he believes drag loses its “sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.”
To this day, the only queens to step into the RPDR werk room as out and proud transgender women is Peppermint (one of the top three in season 10) and Gia Gunn (who appeared pre-transition in her original season, but came out as trans and re-entered the competition in All-Stars 3), and Ilona Verley also spoke openly on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race about being two-spirit as an Indigenous Nlaka’pamux person.
Many other queens have transitioned or spoken about being transgender after appearing on the show, including Sonique, Carmen Carrera and Jiggly Caliente. Considering the enormous and fundamental legacy of trans and gender-diverse people throughout LGBTIQ+ and drag history, Drag Race remaining largely binary and cisgender is extraordinarily bizarre.
This is one of the big reasons that Dragula, aside from its celebratory spotlighting of various queer countercultures that Drag Race ignores, quickly became a cult phenomenon and a celebrated hit within the LGBTIQ+ community. From day dot, The Boulet Brothers were open-minded about who could be cast on their show, and accepted absolutely people of all identifications along the gender and sexuality spectrums. Hell, one of the competitors is married to a woman. A drag queen in a heterosexual relationship? Drag Race would never allow it. But on Dragula, it doesn’t matter how the artist identifies with sexuality or gender – they just have to be sickeningly talented.
Dragula has not only featured transgender and non-binary drag queens and artists, but they’ve featured drag kings – women, cisgender and transgender, gay and straight. They’ve spotlighted people who proudly flaunt their blurry gender lines and visible ‘fuck you’s to the gender binary, and they’ve even crowned a drag king winner (I won’t say who, for the Dragula newbies).
As well as their impressively progressive casting, the show also makes time to acknowledge and talk about these things. There are regular scenes in between the gory challenges and terrifying floor shows that feature conversations between the contestants discussing the spectrums of gender and sexuality, their pronouns, how each other identifies, their experiences with coming out, and much more.
The show acts not just as a spooky, gory drag competition, but it also opens the doors for these conversations to be normalised, to become everyday dialogue. It allows the contestants to speak openly about gender and sexuality, in all its various, glorious forms, and speak not only about the good experiences, but also the bad.
While contestants show their dark side through their drag, they can also share difficult experiences they went through solely because they are an LGBTIQ+ or gender-diverse person. It allows them to acknowledge the trauma that can come with being marginalised and the defence mechanisms that can form because of it. It allows them to celebrate their internal darkness in a positive and healthy way – through their art.
While Drag Race is slowly becoming better at allowing its contestants the same conversations, these narratives are often framed with a soft touch, a vagueness that tries to assuage the harshness of these topics with rainbows, pride flags and Vaseline-teethed smiles.
While there’s nothing wrong with a positive mindset, Dragula is light-years ahead of this narrative, instead choosing to acknowledge the good and the bad rather than placing an often clumsy and far too peppy lens over trauma. People can be wholly themselves, express themselves truthfully and earnestly. They can speak openly about who they are and how they identify, and how their lives – the good parts and the bad – have been lived.
That’s the thing I appreciate most about Dragula – it actively says ‘you know what, being marginalised and hated just for being who you are absolutely sucks, and it can create darkness in people’s lives, so we’re going to bloody well talk about it and then celebrate that darkness rather than pretending everything is rainbows and lollipops’.
Dragula not only refuses to shy away from this – it enthusiastically acknowledges it with diligence and vivacity and a grandiose air of ‘this is how it is, and fuck you if you can’t handle that’. And that attitude, my gender-diverse friends? That is without a doubt, the essence of drag.
Season 2 of Dragula airs on SBS VICELAND Friday nights from 12:50am. Catch up on the show at SBS On Demand: