Faith-based

Contouring for Christ

RuPaul’s Drag Race has recently begun insisting that queerness and religion can be reconciled. But is that good for queer people?

The contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4.
RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4.
VH1

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

When the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 walked into the workroom on the season premiere on Friday, you might have thought they were processing into a house of worship rather than a drag competition reality show set. Our Lady of Guadalupe embroidered tops, Sacred Heart of Jesus hats, cross appliques, rosary-adorned boots, and a crown of thorns were just some of the looks served. From these opening salvos to RuPaul’s customary closing catchphrase “Can I get an amen up in here?” it was clear the girls of Season 4 intended to take us viewers to church.

As an art form defined by aesthetic promiscuity, it’s not surprising that drag would irreverently borrow from and make allusions to religious traditions. But direct engagement with religious faiths and institutions is a trickier matter. On Drag Race, religion has historically hovered around the margins—inflecting Ru’s “prosperity gospel” philosophizing, lurking in a queen’s backstory as the unnamed cause of queer antagonism, or serving as inspiration for a particular queen, look, or phrase. Over the past several seasons, however, there has been a shift to explicit attempts to reconcile queer identity with religion. Given the dearth of positive representations of queer people relating to religion, it is tempting to laud this move. But, the shift comes at a cost. Drag Race’s religious turn sets up unrealistic expectations for queer people, placing the onus on queer people to do the often painful and unreciprocated work of reconciliation.

Until recently, Latrice Royale’s campy gospel song “Jesus Is a Biscuit, Let Him Sop You Up” from Season 4 was probably the most familiar example of explicit religious reference on the show. But things ratcheted up in Season 10. Miz Cracker, an occasional Slate contributor, coined catchphrases like “Shabbat Shablam” and described her aesthetic as “a Jewish Barbie on bath salts.” Aquaria referenced mosaic iconography in a runway look featuring a bejeweled halo and almond-shaped eyes. Most notably, in Episode 3, viewers learn about several queens’ previous experiences with religion. Blair St. Clair begins, describing her upbringing in an “extremely Christian household.” Surprised Blair’s parents are so supportive, Dusty Ray Bottoms shares how, after learning about her sexuality, her Christian parents brought her to church for an exorcism, later subjecting her to conversion therapy. Despite these negative experiences with religion, Dusty has not rejected her faith. Referencing the day her parents confronted her about her sexuality, Dusty says, “I still believe in God because I cried out and I was heard. My whole life is different because of that day.” In response, Monét X Change shares her gratitude that she feels no conflict between her faith, her sexuality, and her drag. She even goes to choir rehearsal in full face.

The queens’ discussion of religion does not end there. Separately, in Untucked, Monique Heart details her own tortured relationship with religion and with her mother, who she’s afraid will see her on the show. “You just can’t be black and gay,” she says referring to herself. “This is heresy.” Monique explains through tears how she comes from five generations of ministers, went to seminary, and prayed for God to change her sexuality.

When the topic resurfaces in the Season 10 reunion episode, Monique explains she is not interested in relinquishing her religious background: “I still kind of love this one we call God and that goes by the name of Jesus.” Even in the depths of her loneliness, she did not abandon her faith. “There wasn’t nobody but me, Jesus, and glitter and rhinestones,” she explains. She found freedom, not in prayer or confession, but when she “put on a wig and a dress” and became a role model for “young black gay youth.” Despite the pain she experienced, Monique claims “it was all worth it,” a line RuPaul repeats back. Later, quoting the book of Psalms, Monique riffs on one of her catchphrases, claiming that God, “lives for the ooh-ah-ah sensation. So when you know that, you’re free.”

RuPaul latches on to this concept, launching into a small sermon about the relationship between religion and drag. “This is it right here,” he explains. “Because what you’re saying is you, through this journey of a lot of pain, you have found what the true meaning is. You just quoted the Bible. You just interpreted it through your own path. You’ve understood what those words really mean, and you’re absolutely right. Dress yourself up and go out there and celebrate. And your ministry helped this kid in Hamburger Mary’s come into the light, walk into his own beauty, into his own light. But this is why this ministry of drag is so powerful. We can speak from so much pain and so much heartache and so much still frustration, but we can walk that walk, and you’re doing it. You are doing it.”

In these newer, more direct discussions of faith, Drag Race makes a concerted effort to reconcile queer sexuality with religion. This reconciliation comes easily in the cases of Monét, who goes to church in drag, and Blair, whose Christian parents are highly supportive. In Dusty and Monique’s cases, the task proves more difficult.

Drag Race wants to mine the harm these queens endured from homophobic churches and queer-antagonistic theologies, but these painful experiences cannot have the final word. They must be recuperated. The tension must be resolved, the injuries repackaged for the viewer within some greater purpose. Their stories have to make you cry and feel hopeful at once, demonstrating the possibility of transformation. There is no room for pessimism, negative anthropology, or intractable circumstances in the theology of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

For Dusty, this tension is resolved through the concept of “chosen family,” a common theme on Drag Race. Dusty had to leave her biological family behind after the religious harm they visited upon her, but she has her chosen family and a new fiancé. And, she still believes in God, who heard her cry.

For Monique, God is not the problem. Unlike her family, God never abandoned her. It was only by holding fast to both drag and her faith that Monique came to a deeper sense of freedom. At the reunion, RuPaul puts a fine point on Monique’s story, reframing the problem not in terms of religion, per se, but of interpretation. Monique’s innovation, in turn, is her willingness to reinterpret her faith through her own story—finding freedom and self-worth in religion despite the pain and frustration it caused her. This is not so surprising: In Drag Race logic, all pain must have a purpose. In Monique’s case, religion and queer sexuality are reconciled through the paradigm of sacrifice. “It was all worth it,” RuPaul repeats back to Monique. The pain you experienced is justified for the evangelical promise of your example and your “ministry” as a Jesus-loving drag queen.

Drag Race’s desire to reconcile queer sexuality with religion is understandable, especially given the harm so many queer and trans people experience in religion’s name. We need to open up space for a different narrative to emerge around religion and queer folks. Far too often in our culture, religion and queer sexuality are portrayed as oppositional, a fact pointed out by both scholars of religion and religious leaders. Black queer characters who, like Monét, experience religion in a register beyond simply rejection and harm are even rarer on television. The “God vs. gay” trope needs retiring, especially given the fact that so many queer and trans people practice religion and that there is an entire field of queer theology.

For all these reasons, it could make sense to celebrate Drag Race’s religious turn and its attempt to reconcile queer sexuality with religion. But, Drag Race swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. Queer viewers learn that they, too, can and should make right with religion. Your pain is happening for a reason, RuPaul promises, and it will all be worth it. If you can’t go to church in drag, that’s OK. You can reinterpret the Bible through your pain and discover your true worth, perhaps even the ministry of drag! That may be a hopeful message for some, but for many queers, it’s a weight too heavy to bear.

We see here the limits of Drag Race’s critical edge and the individualistic, bootstraps gospel it preaches. Drag can be transgressive in a domesticated way, as long as it also gives you all the feels, delivers a clear sense of villains and heroes, and serves up stunning emotional reveals. The show is not interested in calling out the system that caused religious harm but in marketing the story of triumph that harm made possible.

This poses an important question of labor, one familiar to many queer people who’ve engaged with institutional religion. Namely, who should do the work of reconciling religion with queer sexuality?

The queens labor to recuperate the problems of anti-LGBTQ religion, not for themselves, but for the cathartic benefit of the viewer. They put religion in drag, lip-syncing to the tunes of capitalist sentimentality, working to deliver enough warm fuzzies to obscure the violence and logics of oppression that still undergird many religious traditions.

Ironically, Drag Race was better off when it said less, not more, about religion. Although stories of religious abuse and harm are important, we should resist the reality TV urge to sanitize them, give them happy endings, or make those harmed into heroes. Reconciling oneself to religion can come at a high personal, social, and political cost, one we must not insist every queer person pay. We need stories not only of queer people who have come to terms with religion, but also of those who have not, who decide to leave, who were forced out, or who have no attachment to religion whatsoever.

But even these calls for more diverse forms of representation fall short, especially since the political edge of drag is partly its refusal of sincerity and authenticity narratives. Perhaps we need fewer backstories of how a queen overcame the odds to become her authentic self and more “Jesus Is a Biscuit.” More unbridled expressions of queer emotions—not formatted for inspiration, mapped onto religious traditions, or explained to viewers—just performed, with joy and pain, religion and irreligion, the reconcilable and the irreconcilable, together in all of their contradiction.