When I talked to my twins about going to RuPaul’s DragCon, Chloe asked, “What’s a drag queen?” I thought about it for a moment. “Someone who dresses up on the outside like how they feel on the inside. Usually, with sparkles.”
Clark, my nonbinary transgender kid, asked the most important question for a 6-year-old: “Will there be snacks?”
While most drag queens are not transgender, some are. As a die-hard fan of "RuPaul’s Drag Race," I knew all their histories and, for those who are trans, whether their parents supported or didn’t support their transition. As a mother, I wanted to know what helped these successful drag queens share their authentic selves in the face of adversity. So I went to ask them at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
I spent my first day at DragCon sans kids to scope out the scene, and frankly, to see if there was anything I needed to steer them away from. When I entered the convention, it was like I stepped into "Drag Race." I walked on a long pink carpet, surrounded by rows of booths selling glittery boas, rainbow fringe coats and long-lasting makeup. On the main stage, a rotating cast of fabulous drag queens performed. The sugary scent of cotton candy perfumed the air. I saw someone in a Ruth Bader Ginsburg-inspired drag. I stumbled on a re-creation of "The Golden Girls" kitchen. There were rows of Marge Simpson-sized wigs. I saw preteens smiling as they held their parents’ hands.
Make no mistake: RuPaul’s DragCon Los Angeles is family-friendly. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, World of Wonder co-founders and executive producers of “RuPaul’s Drag Race," explained how they see kids fitting into this world.
“If you’re invisible, you don’t exist.”
“It’s important that there’s a space like this, and the message of expressing yourself and being creative about yourself is a really important message, and one that we will stand by, and fight for, to the end,” Bailey told TODAY Parents. Barbato added, “I think the most important way for us, for drag queens and our community to fight back, is to maintain visibility.”
Bailey nodded in agreement. “If you’re invisible, you don’t exist. And when Randy said visibility, this is what we can do to remain in the light and remain visible.”
As a Taiwanese-American cisgender woman, I’ve spent a lot of time keeping an eye on who is around me, especially during the pandemic. At DragCon, I didn’t worry about skeevy comments from men or dirty looks from people who told me to “get away from them.” I was free and safe to wander as myself.
I stumbled into an epic dance party at the main stage. The drag icon himself, RuPaul — in a long sleeve black-and-white shirt — deejayed in front of a giant screen that played images from the beginning of his supermodel career to now. Kids were dancing. A bearded person in a red sequined suit and thigh-high vinyl red boots blew kisses to the crowd while striking poses. As Michael Jackson boomed, a man spun to the music and RuPaul called out, “Serve them Smooth Criminal!”
It was so fun that for a moment I forgot about the world outside his convention. A world where, according to NBC News, nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in 2022 so far.
“When I shared my kid’s nonbinary identity in our holiday card, I received many supportive comments. Then came the trolls who accused me of child abuse.”
When I first announced my kid’s decision to share their nonbinary identity in our holiday card, I received many supportive comments. Then came the trolls who accused me of child abuse — the same rhetoric used by politicians to stop parents from pursuing gender-affirming healthcare.
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So while RuPaul transported me to a dance extravaganza, I knew once I stepped out of the convention center, I would step back into that world.
The next day, I brought my kids and Brendan, my husband.
We watched toddlers to teens do their best runway walks, with splits and dramatic death drops, in a kids’ fashion show. Queer adults cheered them on. I watched these young people display more self-confidence and self-love than I ever had at their age.
“I’m not choosing this because I want to be difficult. ... I want to live so that I don’t feel like I’m going crazy.”
Brendan stayed with our twins as I dashed off to interview Jiggly Caliente, a proud Filipina drag queen, who starred in season four of "RuPaul’s Drag Race." Jiggly publicly came out as a transgender woman in 2016, and says it wasn’t an overnight warm welcome from her family. “It took time for them to learn and grow with me,” said Jiggly. When she came out to her mother, her mom said, “The world is not going to be kind to you.” In response, Jiggly said, “I’m not choosing this because I want to be difficult. I’m choosing this because I want to be happy. I want to live so that I don’t feel like I’m going crazy.”
My child told me when they were 5 that they felt like neither a boy or girl, I told Jiggly, and people around me dismissed it because they think it’s impossible for a young kid to know.
“I’ve known my whole life,” Jiggly said, holding back tears. “When people say, ‘You didn’t know when you’re a kid’ — you knew. You knew you were different. I hate when people say that. We didn’t choose to be different. We just knew inside. We didn’t know exactly what it was. We knew we were different.”
My child came out as transgender in our holiday card, I told Jasmine Kennedie in her signing booth. On season 14 of "RuPaul’s Drag Race," which premiered in January 2022, Kerri Colby entered the reality competition series as an openly transgender women. But during filming, Kennedie emotionally shared that she, too, is a transgender woman. (After filming of the season wrapped, three more contestants came out as transgender and nonbinary: Kornbread “The Snack” Jeté, Bosco, and the season's winner Willow Pill.)
Fans waited patiently as I asked Kennedie about how she handled putting herself out there on TV with so much vulnerability. My holiday card story went viral, and people had negative things to say.
“People have made their comments, including family members, about my transition, but they don’t pay my bills and I haven’t seen them in 15 years,” Kennedie said. “Those people online are not in your inner circle. If they’re not affecting your circle, then do not worry about those people.”
She squeezed my hand, and I felt seen. I thanked her for telling her story so other people, like my child, can share theirs.
Colby, a Black transgender woman who grew up in Texas, gave a fist bump to Clark, who beamed under their mask. I told Colby I cried during "Drag Race" when she shared how she was kicked out of her home at age 15.
“I felt like I was in an uphill battle just waking up because I knew I couldn’t act too feminine. I couldn’t pursue how I felt. And I felt that way since I was 3,” Colby said. “If my mom is never going to accept, nurture, and care for me in the way that I think a parent should, I’ve got to be that person for me.”
“I’m so sick of trans being a secret. We aren’t some underground, forbidden, forsaken caste system of people. We are your professors; we are your children.”
I mentioned that teachers and staff at my children’s elementary school celebrated Transgender Visibility Day by wearing light pink, light blue or rainbow colors, and there was pushback from some parents.
“I’m so sick of trans being a secret,” Colby said. “It needs to stop because we aren’t some underground, forbidden, forsaken caste system of people. We are your professors; we are your children. We are your sister, your brothers. We are your doctors, your lawyers, we are everywhere. All we want is just to be able to breathe and not feel like mutants.”
“I’ll never be the perfect mother, but supporting my kids’ decisions is the best love I can give.”
Colby's words reminded me of Randy’s discussion of visibility. By living our lives authentically, my family and I are not hiding in the shadows of other people’s shame. I walked away from these conversations, feeling seen and heard as a parent, and better understanding the impact of what happens when your family doesn’t support your gender-affirming decisions. I’ll never be the perfect mother, but I know supporting both of my kids’ decisions is the best love I can give.
After the interviews, Brendan and I took our twins to drag queen story hour, sponsored by the Los Angeles Public Library. Before we left, I bought myself some sparkly pink poof ball earrings. Chloe selected rhinestone-covered white sunglasses. The moment Chloe slipped them on, my normally reserved kid transformed into a model.
When we got home, I asked them if they had any questions for me about what they saw. I was ready to answer anything, even if it made me uncomfortable. All Clark wanted to know was why a booth sold battery-operated candles instead of real ones. After they ate dinner, Chloe and Clark wanted to play “drag queens,” which involved donning every bit of sparkly clothing they owned, several hats, a pink blanket that Chloe tied around her shoulders like a cape, and the aforementioned rhinestone sunglasses. Before they walked the runway (our hallway), Chloe said, “Thank you for interviewing us. Now, the show must begin.” Chloe and Clark twirled and posed in our hallway as Brendan and I clapped.
If meeting drag queens meant that they could see themselves as confident, beautiful kids, and for a few days, no one would judge them for being their authentic selves, then sign me up for this convention for years to come.
To celebrate LGBTQ pride, TODAY is sharing this community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and special features throughout the entire month of June.