The ancient roots of the entertainment industry are inseparable from the concept of drag, although the term itself is a recent development. Men have dressed as women for performances from ancient Greece to Shakespearean times, even across continents as kabuki troupes demonstrate.
Drag queens as we know them today have evolved as astoundingly as their art. Once taboo and underground, female impersonation has not only stridden proudly into the light of day; for some queens, the spotlight shining down is an opportunity to make a difference.
Two self-professed drag queens made an enormous difference on and after June 28, 1969 when the Stonewall Inn uprising began. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — who with today’s terminology may have identified as transgender women — rose from the dust of violence and took flight as leaders.
Johnson came to the Stonewall Inn that night to celebrate her 25th birthday, and found a very different coming-of-age awaiting her. Rivera, only 18 at the time, had known her share of struggles after being ejected from home at age 11. Drag queen leaders took her in, and both she and Johnson repaid their community a hundredfold.
The police violence that Johnson and Rivera faced and fought against that night made an indelible mark on LGBTQ history. These queens became leaders through their resistance, and afterward, the work of the organization they founded together: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR.
STAR’s mission was to aid the most vulnerable of LGBTQ people: the homeless, young people of color who were persecuted for their gender identities as well as their race. Johnson and Rivera were queens in the truest sense — strong, proud leaders who wouldn’t accept less than they and their people deserved.
In the modern day, drag queens are still standing up as leaders. In 2015, when marriage equality was granted throughout the U.S., conservative backlash prompted action from one such queen. Ambrosia Starling of Dothan, Ala., took up the mantle of opposition against her state’s chief justice, Roy Moore.
Moore tried to block access to same-sex marriage for LGBTQ couples in Alabama. Starling headed up protests against Moore and found a national spotlight. She also found her place as an activist, a new LGBTQ leader in a new time of need. After the 2016 Pulse massacre, Starling did not retire her platform or her crown.
“I try to make sure that each time I go to a public event I tell these children: ‘Standing and breathing and living here today, you have an opportunity that 49 people do not,’” Starling told Slate writer and fellow queen Miz Cracker. “Make it count — participate. If we do not use the rights we already have, they will not give us more.”
Starling’s leadership strengthens the movement for LGBTQ rights, and more leaders have risen to the community’s aid.
Bob The Drag Queen, best known as season eight winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” is another leader who strives to use her spotlight for progress. Bob’s work began long before winning her title, and continues beyond the season finale.
Drag Queen Weddings was just one of Bob’s projects, launched in 2010 to demonstrate in support of marriage equality. Now, Bob has taken up another cause key to the health and happiness of the community — youth, homelessness and the organizations that address them. Trinity Place Shelter benefitted from Bob’s brand, extending its work to transition LGBTQ youth from the New York City shelter system.
Bob says that her decision to become an LGBTQ advocate was a simple moment. She realized her own power to make change on an everyday commute — this time dressed in her full, stunning style.
“The first time I got on the train in full drag I realized that every single person — every single person — stopped dead in their tracks to look at me. I didn’t even say anything. All I did was stand on the train,” Bob told Slate. “And I thought to myself: Well, now that I have everyone’s attention, I should say something meaningful.”