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DragCon returns to L.A. in celebration as queens fight to keep their culture

Ru Paul surrounded by five drag queens in a ribbon cutting ceremony at Drag Con
(From L) Shea Couleé, The Vivienne, RuPaul, Trinity The Tuck, Jinkx Monsoon, Monet X Change, and Raja attend the Pink Ribbon Cutting with the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 7 at the 2022 Rupaul DragCon, Day 1, held at the LA Convention Center
(Jennifer Graylock / World of Wonder)
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What do RuPaul, the ACLU, sewing machines and the Teletubbies have in common?

At this weekend’s RuPaul’s DragCon, thousands of attendees from all over the world will come together with more than 180 drag queens, gracing the now iconic Pink Carpet and turning the Los Angeles Convention Center into a two-day runway for the ages. While there will be vendors, performances, meet-and-greets, wig and sewing workshops and more, at its core, RuPaul’s DragCon is so much more than the sum of its parts.

“This will probably be the biggest DragCon, with the most attendees ever,” said Randy Barbato, co-founder of L.A. production company World of Wonder. He and WoW co-founder Fenton Bailey have DIY roots inspired by NYC drag clubs, and ‘80s public access television. They started DragCon in 2015, billing it as a convention that celebrates “the art of drag, queer culture, and self-expression for all,” after being prompted at a Drag Race meeting by RuPaul herself to find a way to physically bring people together.

Two men posting at a merch booth
World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey
(Jennifer Graylock / World of Wonder)
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Barbato and Bailey are most thrilled for the pageantry of the Queen’s Walk, a yearly tradition where queens turn the Pink Carpet into full runway fantasy that has been the site of iconic moments like Trixie Mattel zooming down the aisle in a Barbie Car and Yyvie Oddly spider-walking the length convention hall. Barbato and Bailey gush about the 70 confirmed international queens who will be joining from as far as the Philippines, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, and France, how Ts Madison will be hosting “Bring Back My Girls,” one of WoW‘s hit shows, live from the convention floor. This year will boast not one but two stages in the main convention hall, which will host live events like Bianca Del Rio’s kickoff show, two DJ sets by queen mother RuPaul, and countless performances by drag icons like Jaida Essence Hall (appearing with Tinky Winky, Po, Dipsy and Laa-Laa of Teletubbies fame), Baga Chipz, Shea Couleé, Pangina Heals, Alaska, Kylie Sonique Love, Sasha Colby andmore.

But along with all the excitement of the biggest DragCon ever, the looming cloud of the biggest year of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is never far from thought. This year, far right extremists have waged a war against the art of drag, as well as against LGBTQ+ people and rights.

“DragCon is the mecca of a political statement when it comes to showcasing trans, queer, and drag joy,” says Kerri Colby, an L.A.-based performer and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 14 contestant who will be at the convention this year. “DragCon presents an outlet and an avenue to safely, fully, and authentically express oneself, I say that with such fervency, because I myself was that person who needed that space.”

Kerri Colby
(Martha Glavan)

As a member of the iconic House of Colby (yes, she is Sasha’s drag daughter), Kerri is known for being an incredible performer, fashionista, host of her own comedy series “Kerri Kares,” and a trans rights activist. The convention was a pivotal moment in Colby’s own journey. “DragCon was one of the few times I felt super safe, super motivated, and super encouraged to present in a more feminine manner that helped me connect [to] and ultimately find myself when I started my transition two years later,” she said.

That first year walking the Pink Carpet at the L.A. Convention Center as an attendee, Colby had an experience as a fan that would affirm her in life-altering ways.

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“I’m from Dallas, so Alyssa Edwards is everything to me” Colby says. “I don’t oftentimes get starstruck, but she is one of the girls that will do it for me. She walked by and said, “Oh my God, you’re so beautiful!” just as she was passing by. I felt like I looked crazy, but for her to say something nice, I was like, ‘wow, I’m gonna put some more work into my craft.‘” And it just made me feel more motivated.”

Pangina Heals
(Yellow Channel)

Pangina Heals will be performing on the main stage at DragCon this year, and walking the Pink Carpet in a campy yellow look that she promises will surprise fans. Heals is a beloved Bangkok-based drag performer who is sometimes called the RuPaul of Asia. She is the host of “Drag Race Thailand,” as well as a new web series called “Tongue Thai’d,” the owner of queer club House of Heals, a safe space with good lighting that seeks to showcase the best drag and nightlife that Thailand has to offer. She’s also the first international queen to have a drag residency at the Drag Race Live show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. Heals says she loves meeting fans and being part of the community, given how important her visibility has become for queer Asian representation internationally.

“It so important, not just for the sake of representation, but we feel connected, we understand the same types of experiences,” she said. “In order for the world to be better, you have to see yourself in that world. If they can see me, they feel a sense of belonging. And that’s really important.”

“It’s really important that people can gather,” Bailey says, emphasizing that attempts by lawmakers to stop drag performances is a civil rights issue. “The key thing is not to become invisible. Visibility is important. [Drag] is not a threat, it’s not dangerous, or any of the things that it has been deliberately mischaracterized as.”

In March, World of Wonder, Viacom, and RuPaul’s Drag Race joined forces with the ACLU to create the Drag Defense Fund, an initiative that supports legal defenses of queer, trans and drag rights in the United States in strategic ways. The ACLU will be present at DragCon, educating attendees about their work fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, the recent wave of legislative attacks and ways individuals can fight back.

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“Drag has a historic place in the queer rights movement,” says Gillian Branstetter, communications strategist at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and LGBTQ & HIV Project. Branstetter says the organization has been defending drag since 1967 when it advocated for Sir Lady Java, an L.A.-based drag queen and trans activist, who was arrested by LAPD for violating “Rule No. 9,” a local cross-dressing ordinance much like the ones used against patrons at the famous 1969 riots at New York City’s Stonewall Inn that Pride now commemorates.

As attacks on drag performers have escalated across the country, including threats and actual violence, Branstetter urges that we integrate that into that broader discussion about attacks on queer people and rights nationally. “How are they going to limit regulation of gender performances onstage? When all gender is performance, and all the world is a stage?”

Attendees enter the 2022 Rupaul DragCon, Day 1, held at the L.A. Convention Center.
(Jennifer Graylock / World of Wonder)

This year, the ACLU has been tracking and challenging the increasing number of laws which seek to limit the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ people in the US. Just this year, 474 bills and laws have been introduced that seek to ban drag according to the ACLU, restrict and outlaw gender-affirming care for trans youth and adults, limit trans sports participation, criminalize queer-affirming education, and bar transgender people from using public restrooms, making 2023 the most legislatively hostile year toward LGBTQ+ people in U.S. history. Many of these bills have been defeated because of the dedicated work of local activists and the ACLU. But while most of these bills don’t survive, they set a damning precedent and alarming temperature check of the rise in hate as a legislative tactic, and have impacted many of the contours of queer life in this country. Branstetter says that according to a recent NBC News study, about 10% of these bills have made it to into law, which is 10% too many.

“These laws, they’re dangerous, and they’re baseless,” Branstetter says. “They’re openly discriminatory and unconstitutional. They were written by hateful amateurs, and they’re going to be undone by transgender professionals.”

In addition to the ACLU, organizations working for trans and queer advocacy, health, and families like Out Here Sexual Health, and Extraordinary Families, an adoption agency that helps same sex couples adopt and foster, will be present.

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It was important for Colby to partner with the Trans Wellness Center, a local organization and the first of its kind in the U.S., offering comprehensive resources and services for trans and non-binary people all under one roof. She’ll be at their table doing a meet-and-greet and talking about services trans people can access in Los Angeles, that she herself has also used. “If you have questions or if you just want to vent about how you feel or be educated on how to better treat people in our society and in our lives, now you have a resource where you can set an appointment or talk to someone,” Colby said.

At its core DragCon is a space built out of the love of drag and queer community, with many opportunities for shopping of course in the true spirit of RuPaul. While there are certainly a lot of serious things to contend with this year, the event is set to be the most fun, exciting, and exuberant in the history of the convention.

“All you got is the present, baby, and we already deal with enough chicken scratch,” Colby says. “We owe it to ourselves to have joy, to take it for ourselves because we know nobody else is gonna give it to us.”

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