By Evan Ross Katz
A quick stroll through the crowd of thousands at the Los Angeles Convention Center last weekend at RuPaul’s DragCon will give your eyes a buffet of delights: Some of the most famous drag queens working today including Trixie Mattel, Alyssa Edwards, and Monet X Change; an array of queer-owned businesses including Drag Queen March and BoobsForQueens; and kids — kids everywhere.
From babies in tulle dresses to pre-teens in fully fainted faces (often flanked by parents, some of whom in various states of drag themselves), DragCon, now in its fifth year, once again proved itself to be not just a safe space for but a celebration of young people wanting to experiment or express themselves freely from a culture that often polices — consciously and subconsciously — gender presentation.
DragCon by its very construct is revolutionary in the access it gives young people to drag. An art form that is often relegated to nightclubs for a 21+ crowd, this three-day convention, open to anyone of any age, gives young people access to their favorite queens. Through RuPaul's Drag Race, audiences have been able to watch and get to know contestants who help more wholly round out the vast array of gender expressions and sexualities that exist within the spectrum. But DragCon gives them the opportunity to exist in a room full of people like them, and if not exactly like them, a room full of people devoid of judgement. This is not to say the LGBTQ community is without judgment of one another, as was the case in a now-viral tweet seeking to ban kink and fetishes at Pride, but to spotlight the power in normalizing otherness from a young age by subverting that which can often be deemed "other."
Kids walk the runway at RuPaul's DragCon LA 2019 at the Los Angeles Convention Center
For Nemis Quinn Mélançon-Golden, a 10-year-old drag performer from Canada, the event is an opportunity to express himself freely in front of his peers. "Because of my age, there aren't a lot of places I can go in drag or be in drag or even see drag performances. DragCon lets me show up in drag, as Lactatia, as myself, and just be who I am," he tells MTV News. "It lets me be part of a culture that people think I shouldn't know about or be a part of. When I go to DragCon, I get support for my drag even though I'm just a kid. All of us kids get support and we get to support each other."
It’s a kind of utopia that for many adults seemed like idealistic fantasy growing up.
“I’m always inspired by it and I love that this is a family affair because the kids bring the parents or the parents bring the kids and we all get to see this crazy thing called drag,” Alaska Thunderfuck, the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 2, tells MTV News. “I can’t imagine if I was a kid and had this. The closest thing we had was seeing cats on water skis at SeaWorld. That was drag to a child. With this art form, these kids get to express themselves, whatever that is, and they get to play around with gender which I think is something we shouldn’t be strict about. Gender is something to play around with.”
“I couldn’t even imagine this as a child because I’m still here — my old 47-year-old self — overwhelmed, and can’t believe what I’m looking at around me,” Latrice Royale, star of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 and All Stars 4, says. “It definitely would have given me a sense of ‘I found my tribe.’ There are people that understand me and get me. And I wouldn’t have felt so alone and isolated and scared all the time in not knowing who I was. This really gives all these kids growing up the answers that folks like me didn’t have and the support."
Still, Royale admits she sometimes gets mixed emotions about it all, asking herself if these kids are too young to know. “But no, ’cause I remember when I was that young, I knew that I was different and I knew I felt a certain way and I didn’t have a safe place to express it.”
Jack Berkowtiz, 27, and Daniel Cohen, 33, who brought their 5-month old twins Ava and Ezra to DragCon certainly don’t think so. According to Berkowitz, they came out to see their favorite queens and "be surrounded by our community and share that with our children and friends." For the occasion, the dads outfitted their twins in wigs and Trixie Mattel onesies. "They were living their French Vanilla Fantasy," Berkowitz tells MTV News. "Even though they're small, they were very stimulated by all the colorful displays and sounds. One day, they will be able to look back at pictures they took at DragCon and marvel that they met Milk!"
Drag queen Nina West with young fans at RuPaul's DragCon LA 2019
For Drag Race Season 6 and All Stars 4 contestant Gia Gunn, who revealed her transgender identity publicly in 2017 between her stints on the show, having a convention like this in her youth could have been life-changing. "I think if there was something like this around when I was little, I would have been able to connect with others like me from an early age and perhaps would have been able to discover myself sooner," she says.
With the series and cultural events like DragCon — as well as Lady Bunny’s Wigstock and Horrorchata’s Bushwig — drag has undeniably cultivated new, global audiences. For World of Wonder co-founders Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, co-creators of the the convention and executive producers of the television show that inspired it, seeing a younger generation embrace drag isn't just a sign of the art form's popularity; it's a testament to their relationship with gender and identity.
"Younger generations are way beyond the confines of the binary. Let’s not forget, they are growing up to become the broader society. It’s so exciting that we are moving beyond the stereotypical norms that have wrought so much harm to previous generations," they tell MTV News, noting that looking and living beyond the confines of the gender binary is hardly a new idea, making reference to Native Americans, who valued the contributions of two-spirited people.
"Our own experience growing up was that there were restrictive expectations about what was male and what was female," they add. "The myth of normal and the straight jacket of conformity not only benefits no one, but also fails to adequately describe any single one of us — gay or straight. The audiences at DragCon show that the time is up for these obsolete ideas."