Gay men have long been perceived as drag’s only true, die-hard audience. But a new wave of young women is challenging that conventional wisdom, joining gays as some of the biggest consumers of drag culture.
At bars, clubs, conventions, and especially across social media, young women “drag fans” are appearing in unprecedented numbers. Many are minors, too young to attend club events—so they wait patiently on sidewalks to glimpse their favorite queens, or view bits of shows on Snapchat. They are determined. Ignoring barriers of age, gender, and sexual orientation, they make enough noise to draw attention from RuPaul’s Drag Race royalty like Michelle Visage and local queens alike. But what accounts for this phenomenon?
When I talked to Katie, a 20-year-old fan from Long Island, New York, she seemed baffled by her own enthusiasm. “I try and get so many friends to watch Drag Race with me, and they just don’t get it,” she told me. “I start to feel down about it, like I’m just weird.” But whatever the source for her fandom, it’s powerful enough that she finds herself sneaking into bars without ID just to see her local queens perform. And she’s part of a growing trend.
I first noticed drag’s young women fans about a year ago, when fellow Manhattan queen Kari Kerning remarked that her Instagram followers were mostly tweens from the Bible Belt. I took the comment as a joke until later that night, when I perused my own followers and saw what she meant. Nearly every profile in my social media landscape aside from gay men belonged to a young girl from a small town. “At first it was other, more popular queens’ feeds. I noticed girls commenting on their posts,” Kerning later recalled. “Then eventually I noticed it on my feed, too.” I had also been aware of the young girls who commented on my photos, but I never would have guessed how many there were. I wondered what so many girls could possibly see in drag queens—especially since drag is often condemned as offensive to women.
In the past few months, I’ve had many conversations about drag’s newest audience, and not just with other queens. Last week, I talked with a contact on Drag Race network Logo’s social media team, who shared his perspective on condition of anonymity. “I spoke with our research team, and they said that the demographics of users are hard to track because the data is unreliable,” he told me. “People make fan accounts and profiles with misleading ages and such.” Even so, it’s hard not to see that young female fans match gay male fans almost one to one. “From what I’ve seen,” my source said, “the demographics seem to be pretty split between younger female teenage fans and gay men from their 20s to 40s.”
But are these young women truly connecting to drag in the way that gay men do? For many queens in the community, it’s easy to dismiss young drag fans. I often hear—and make—jokes about how young fans know nothing about drag beyond Drag Race; that their ardor is mostly an angst-y phase; and that their attention is mostly focused on the makeup and gowns rather than drag’s deeper messages about cultural resistance, gender fuckery, or whatever else they may be.
Among the young women I interviewed, however, none fit these stereotypes. Morgan, a 20-year-old Chicago resident, discovered drag at age 12 when her mother took her to the Kit Kat Lounge, a local drag venue. Katie inherited a love for drag from her gay uncles—one on her mother’s side of the family, one on her father’s. “In a way, drag has always been in my nature,” she told me. And though Mia, age 16, did discover drag through Drag Race star Willam Belli, her story is far from typical. Mia lives in Estonia, where her enthusiasm for drag often makes her feel isolated. “I usually don’t tell people here that I’m into drag,” Mia told me via Facebook phone, “Because we don’t have a drag scene here, which is pretty tragic. Most people here don’t understand drag queens.” Mia is among the fans who must catch a plane in order to pursue her passion—exploring drag scenes whenever she lands in the U.K. or New York—a testament to her commitment.
For all of these young women, drag is about much more than dress-up—even if the glitz and glamour is what drew their interest initially. Though drag’s themes of rebellion and nonconformity may be aimed at gay audiences, they bear just as much significance for young girls struggling to accept and define themselves. For Morgan and Lily, another youg fan, drag’s emphasis on creativity and individuality is deeply inspiring. “When I first got into drag, I just liked it for the fun,” Lily told me. “But then as I learned how many kinds of drag there are, I really began to appreciate how much it reflects an individual, and their style, and how it can be a really effective way to express yourself.” Far from finding drag degrading to women, they find its value of self-fashioning and its “exaggerated version of femininity” to be freeing. Though drag places a heavy emphasis on aesthetics, it does not, in their eyes, promote narrow or restrictive understanding of beauty or femaleness. “Drag empowers me. It says that I can be different and not listen to any beauty standards,” Morgan told me. “For me and a couple of my friends, drag has helped us out of really dark places. It has broadened our horizons.”
For Mia, it is this capacity to broaden horizons and change minds that makes drag universally important, something more than entertainment for gay men or young women alone. When I asked about her biggest goal as a drag fan, she told me: “I want to bring drag to my country. I know that’s not the answer you were expecting—maybe you thought I’d want to meet a specific queen. But I want to bring the drag scene here because if people could see how it’s done, it would bring so much open-mindedness.”
Dedicated to drag despite the many obstacles in their way, female drag fans are beginning to gain acceptance, albeit an uneasy one, within the drag community. Trannika Rex, one of Chicago’s top divas, is often mentioned by drag fans as a sort of mother figure, because she has led other queens in making a place for young people around her. When I ask Trannika if she has noticed the drag-fan trend, she is emphatic. “Absolutely. Go to any drag show at Berlin or Roscoe’s featuring a Drag Race queen, and you’ll see a gaggle of underage girls outside waiting to meet them.” But, though Rex has a reputation for her biting wit, she does not throw any barbs at young fans, or seem unhappy about their growing presence. “I’m happy to show drag to anyone that wants to see it,” she tells me. “It came into my life at a strange time and opened up the windows, let a little sun in. So if it can do that for the children, then I’m in.”
Editor’s Note: First names have been used to respect the privacy of fans, some of whom are minors. Special thanks to Katelyn Groettum for connecting the author with interviewees.