We’re Here [HBO]. Three drag queens not named RuPaul take a Priscilla/Too Wong Foo tour through small towns across America to stage drag shows and use their power to validate and heal local queer scenes.
I loved gay culture, like so many of us did, before I loved my gay self. I loved the sense of humor and the aesthetic and the love for the forgotten and the neglected. I learned to love myself eventually, and only now am I truly understanding what it means to love and to gather close to the most defiant and challenging of us: the sissies and the faggots, the bullied and abused.
There’s so much power in the experience of learning to love yourself. That’s something that Queer Eye taps into so deeply. The danger in Queer Eye is that it muddies the line between who you are and what you buy (although much much less than its original incarnation) and also in the sheer amount of space it occupies in queer representation. Some queer people, especially young people discovering themselves, may not have more access to queer adults than their Netflix account, and I worry that the aspirational devotion the show has towards its stars makes their confidence seem unattainable to younger queers.
I considered ditching We’re Here a few minutes into its first episode. I though its hosts, Shangela, Eureka, and Bob the Drag Queen, were doing a tired and derivative imitation of Queer Eye. I’m so glad that I gave the show a second chance, because once I figured out what it was doing it totally won me over.
The show has more or less a fixed format. Bob, Shangela, and Eureka roll into a small town (ranging from about 10k people to about 50k, from Pennsylvania to New Mexico). They explore downtown shops, locals don’t know what to make of them. They pick three locals to collaborate with to put on a free drag show: one is always a straight, cis guy. Another is a queer person who is trying with all of their might to be themself despite adverse conditions, like a wildflower in a thunderstorm. The third is a little loose, but the thread that connects them is that they are people who have chosen to stay in their home communities despite deep wounds, and who are in need of a little healing through community.
There is a little bit of “once in a lifetime experience”/“transformation” language—that’s what turned me off in the beginning—but the show is pretty straightforward about the fact that when the drag queens leave town, regular life will resume. “Your life is not going to change in one week” Shangela bluntly tells a young gay Latino man, José, in a Louisiana town. There’s a scene later in that episode where Shangela sits down with José’s mother so we can get the tearful scene where she tells him that she will always love him because he’s her son. What sets this show apart from the pack is the scene that comes afterward. “Moms always put on their best face for company,” Shangela says quietly. José’s face is guarded and ambivalent. He’s heard the love before. He’s also heard disappointment, disapproval, and scolding. It undercuts the drama of the moment, but it’s a thousand times more real than the staged scenes of reconciliation in Queer Eye, almost fraying in front of you at the edges of the frame.
This show would be so obnoxious and patronizing if it was about the big bad city queens showing small time yokels how it’s really done. What comes through so strongly is that, even though the locals are “crunchy,” according to an unusually shady Shangela in the episode in Twin Falls, Idaho, they have such respect for the people they are working with. The queers that stay in small towns are those who defy a whole host of voices—some loving, some hateful—that say that you are going to have a happier life if you don’t live it here. Queer people are delicate flowers. We flourish in environments where there is enough material abundance for beauty and grace to be valued, where self-expression is permitted, where difference is tolerated. Small town queer people are those flowers hanging on, fiercely, to life. The succulent rooted in sheer face of rock, the thistles growing on the side of the road, the tree that was uprooted by the storm but flowers anyway.
I was transfixed by the beauty of these people, the fierce way that they held on to their sense of themselves. A grandfather and a grandson, bonded so tight by love that there was no room for shame. Two gay men who have a beautiful friendship in which each is totally comfortable in the company of the other. The title carries a double meaning. It’s not just “we are now here” or “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” it’s “look, we have always been here, right here, in your town. We’re your brother or cousin or granddaughter or boss or teacher.” The visiting drag queens are basically church planting. They are giving all of the local queer people a reason to gather together, a way for all of their allies to gather together by bringing this bubble of total queer acceptance and (almost) uncompromising queer aesthetic and letting everybody see each other and experience together what queer joy feels like. The shit that they stir up is the grit around which the pearl forms.
So in that way, it’s not like Queer Eye at all. It’s really the anti-Drag Race. (I think that Drag Race gets a lot of unfair hate. The critiques are totally valid, but they wouldn’t matter as much or sting when the show gets it wrong if there was a whole ecosystem of queer entertainment that was funded and promoted and critiqued and awarded like entertainment directed at straight audiences. That puts way more weight on Drag Race than it can support.) Drag Race is about gatekeeping, it’s about designating something as special, it’s about elevating regional talent into international spotlight. We’re Here is about recognizing that queer talent and beauty and joy is everywhere, and about the power of coming together and nurturing that in the places where you live.
This is for: queers who need a pick me up, people tired of LA/NY stories or having to pretend places like Houston, Chicago, or Atlanta are small towns because they are slightly smaller than those two cities, anyone really missing Pride this summer.
Not for: haters, cynics, the lactose intolerant.