In November, five people were killed at a drag show in Colorado Springs, Colo. Earlier this month, an openly gay New York City Council member had his home broken into and vandalized after he attended a drag story hour event in his district. These events are not unique. GLAAD has identified over 140 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests, threats and attacks related to drag events in the United States in the last year.
Meanwhile, on HBO, three drag queens are traveling to small towns throughout the United States to help young LGBTQ people, and in some cases, their families and supporters. The docuseries “We’re Here,” now in its third season, is the vision of Stephen Warren, a former GLAAD co-chair, and his husband Johnnie Ingram.
They approached HBO in 2019 about producing a series that could empower LGBTQ people living in the kinds of small American towns that they themselves grew up in. Their idea was to have three iconic drag performers from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”—Eureka O’Hara, Bob the Drag Queen and Shangela Laquifa Wadley—travel to towns across the United States and put on a drag show in each place starring local LGBT people and their supporters, whom they would mentor.
On the surface, it sounded like a new twist on the long-running self-empowerment show “Queer Eye.” But in fact, “We’re Here” has proven to be unique both in the kind of care and attention it offers LGBTQ people, and in the look into American life that it has offered. With each season Eureka, Bob and Shangela have faced more vocal opposition to their presence.
But they continue to do their work both with grace and an unexpected amount of charity toward those who dismiss them.
Recently, I spoke to trans star Eureka O’Hara about her experiences on the series and as a drag performer. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
I have so much appreciation for what you, Bob and Shangela have been doing on “We’re Here.” I feel like you’re doing a lot of good for a lot of people. Personally, I find it very meaningful to watch.
Thank you. That means a lot.
You come from a Christian background, right?
Yes. I was raised Southern Baptist and I’m very spiritual still. I just had to customize my spirituality for me, because the religion I was raised on was very belittling to who I am in my existence as a queer person, as a trans person. So I just had to customize for myself. I am a child of God. I call her Goddess.
Do you see what you do on “We’re Here” as a kind of a ministry? Because it seems like the three of you are so intent on helping people.
I don’t know about Bob and Shangela, but I do know for myself that everything I do is kind of a ministry. At work, it’s about bettering the people that I love, my people, you know, and equality for all others too, but especially queer people. I see it as my responsibility as a queer individual who has spirituality to do good for others, especially in this way. So yeah, I guess I do.
On the show, you’re walking into local communities where you don’t know how you’re going to be received, and are often criticized or even harassed. It seems to me so brave. Yet the three of you are always so gracious and accepting. How do you do that?
Well, I think [we’re accepting] because we’re just used to it. We all come from small towns, we’ve all worked in small cities. You’d be surprised at the areas that book us as “Drag Race” girls. But as drag queens, and each of us being in the industry for over 10 years now, we have experienced some hate. And I think you learn how to walk through it gracefully. Because we know at the end of the day if we become the monsters they think we are, then we’re only validating their opinions.
So for me it’s kind of like that old country saying, “Honey, kill ‘em with kindness.” You know?
When we were kids, my mom used to tell us that all the time.
You can’t be the monster that they call you, because as soon as you validate their opinion by reacting to them, then they have a foot to stand on. And girl, that’s one thing I ain’t gonna give ‘em.
But you could choose to be in places that are safer or more accepting.
Well, we choose the places that we think need us the most. Through the great work of the casting team and HBO and IPC and the creators, they pair us up with people who they know would benefit the most from our personalities and what we’ve been through and how we work. It’s all done strategically, for the betterment of the people, the cities and ourselves. I learn a lot myself sometimes—well, every time.
How do you mean?
I learn so much from these areas. Also, I am reminded constantly of where I come from and what I’ve overcome. So when I have those bad days, and some days I still have them, I’m reminded by the work I’m doing and by the people I work with.
There’s also an episode later in this season in Florida where I work with a young woman named Mandy. And she reminded me of who I am, and the student became the teacher. I really went through a journey.
We’re not only helping others. I was very helped this season myself.
You said you had to find your own way to be Christian as a queer person. How did you do that? What did it look like?
When you start talking about God in a room full of queer people, they get very triggered. They’re not normally very receptive to what you have to say, because they’ve been traumatized by religion.
So not only did I have to find it on my own for the most part, but also I had to learn to ignore the way I was raised and the things that were preached to me specifically, because they taught me that who I was was a representation of damnation and against the will of God, that I didn’t have a place in the church.
I was a huge part of my church until I came out my senior year. Me and my best friend Andrew went to church together, we played sports together, I mean we were inseparable. There was nothing queer about it, nothing weird ever happened, he was just my best friend. But when I came out, I lost him as a best friend. I lost his family’s support. My minister leaders in church asked me not to come back, and then I was harassed by them on the phone. It was just wild how quick they turned on me.
So I had to kind of rediscover my spirituality after that, because I was just so shunned and so hurt by the people that I loved. I had really become a part of their family, I thought, but then how quickly I wasn’t, as soon as I wasn’t playing by their rules. I just couldn’t live like that. So it took me a little while.
I was also sexually traumatized. Trying to be with other men and experience myself sexually was hard for me at first because of what I was raised to believe. I felt guilty, like I was doing something wrong, constantly. I lived in this perpetual existence of guilt.
I had to learn how to customize my religion and my beliefs to cater to my existence, to allow me to live, really, experience life sexually and explore my transhood and my personal identity. There’s so many things that I had to rediscover and give myself permission to be.
It was hard. But I did figure it out. I know that my god loves me, because I’m a good person, and I believe in people and the power of hope and love. And I have to live by my version of what’s expected of me when it comes to my spirituality. So I live by that.
What would you say is your image of God today?
My relationship with my goddess is really strong. I went through rehab a year ago, and I had to refind my spirituality again. I pray every day, I pray for my friends, for my family’s success. I talk to my mother and my grandmother because I know that they’re glorious angels in heaven.
But I don’t put an image or an expectation on my god. Because I think that’s another big thing for me—for the longest time I was putting these expectations on God about what they thought of me and who they were and what they were supposed to do for me.
And when things didn’t go right, it was like, “Well, God clearly doesn’t exist. How could God allow this? How could God allow my mother to suffer the way she did?” But you can’t blame God for negativity. I’ve researched a lot of different types of religion, from Mormonism to Judaism to Buddhism and Hinduism. I read a lot of books when I was soul searching.
I always landed back around Christianity, but I love the message of the balance of life in Buddhism. It helped me learn that I can’t put expectations on my god.
Some of the people who will read this won’t know anything about drag. Could you describe what being a drag queen means to you, how it brings you life?
Doing drag gives me purpose. It gave me a place to learn my true identity, it gave me a place to express myself, my femininity, my artistic opinion and vision. Being a drag queen gives me a reason to exist.
But it’s also a job for me, it’s how I take care of my family. At this point, it’s my career. And I’m good at drag above anything else; everything that I’m good at ends up making me an amazing drag queen.
But I think what I would most tell people that don’t understand drag is that it’s just another form of art. It’s just performance art. I think that there’s been misconceptions about what drag is and what our agenda is.
If you would go to a drag show and experience it, you would understand that it encapsulates confidence, self-love and outward expression. It’s just fun performance art where you can get lost in a moment. That’s all it is, drag is a fantasy where we escape to for just a moment. It’s no different than any other art or movie or theater you go see.
That’s all our agenda is: to entertain and to have a moment to express ourselves through performance art. And to look fricking fierce while doing it.
I’m struck by how often, on the show, people come away from doing drag for the first time saying it’s so empowering, it made them feel so strong. I didn’t expect that.
Everyone craves to belong. Everyone. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, what race, what color: Everyone has the desire to belong and find their place in the world. And what drag gives you is a moment to be in the spotlight. Everyone wants to feel beautiful and loved. When you’re in drag, it gives you a moment to feel fabulous and glamorous and fierce with who you are.
It has a strange power to it. It’s like this unwritten rule that people automatically respond to drag. It’s probably because of what it represents and how many people are against it that people love it so much. Because when they notice it, they realize how beautiful and loving it is. And it has that chosen family energy, too.
I don’t know, I can go on and on about this.
I just want to say again, thank you for the work that you’re doing and for being who you are.
Thank you for being you, too, and for taking the time to write this. By being your authentic self in your setting, you’re starting to create change in the spiritual realm and in the religious community, as well. That’s my hope, that we can start touching people’s spirits and energies and show them that we’re humans and that we have rights, too.
I hope the same.
It’s not just human rights. We got spiritual rights, too, you know?
I’ve never heard anyone put it that way!
It’s the truth. It’s like for some reason I’m not allowed to love God or be loved by God because of who I am? That don’t make no damn sense to me, you know? That’s not the god that we love and that we should follow.
Sorry. I just hate that spirituality and religion often get painted in such a negative light because of the trauma that we’ve experienced. This hatred overshadows it all, when there’s a lot of people doing really beautiful things, too.
The season finale of “We’re Here” airs on HBO on December 30th.