This piece was originally published in January as an exclusive for subscribers of pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up here.
Author's note: It feels like a lifetime ago that I wrote this essay, even though it's barely been three months. But in that short time, an avalanche of horrific legislation has made its way through the right-wing pipeline, specifically targeting Black, queer, and transgender folks. On February 20, 2023, "the free state of Florida" effectively banned gender-affirming care for minors, and I have no idea where that leaves the young Ocala woman whose story I share here. The governor is suing venues that have featured drag shows in an attempt to quell queer self-expression and joy. At the same time, Florida's classrooms and libraries are being stripped of books that mention Black, queer, and social justice issues. Florida's governor even pressured the College Board into heavily modifying its African American History AP course, and other educational publishers are following suit like good Nazi footsoldiers. In short, a mess. Rather than updating this essay with all these grotesque developments, I decided to leave it as is: A time capsule of a brief moment in Florida when it was bad, but still not as wretched as it is getting with no bottom in sight. I wish I still had the sense of hope I did when I wrote this piece. But as Florida becomes more and more actively hostile to people of color and queer communities, an exodus out of the state has begun as at-risk folks flee for safety. I hope to join them soon.
"Baby, I am America. Let me make it crystal clear, we're here," trans soul singer Shea Diamond croons in the apropos theme song of HBO's We're Here. The reality show featuring Drag Race alums Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka O'Hara follows this most fabulous trio's ventures through some of the smallest and most conservative towns across America. Every episode packs in drag joy, culminating in a show—sometimes the first ever in the area's history—to help the few queer folks in those spaces build community and confidence.
Unlike Drag Race, its predecessor, We're Here has avoided promoting the police state in any form. Instead, it has found ways to focus on the extra-marginalized queer people whose neighbors (and family in some cases) see it as an actual crime to be gay. That is, until this season's fourth episode, set in Sussex, New Jersey, where Bob's new drag daughter is a second-generation cop named Ashley, who also happens to be a lesbian. There's a striking image in Ashley's intro that includes her Pride flag on her lawn, next to a thin blue line flag—an exercise in cognitive dissonance if there ever was one.
At first, I was shocked at this turn of events. Bob herself has been one of the most vocal anti-cop queens to emerge from Drag Race, featured on podcasts and more discussing the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. How could she take on an actual cop as her drag daughter? My first thought was that the police state is just so insidious in American culture that even We're Here couldn't help but eventually fall prey to its promotion. At first, this felt like a kind of betrayal from We're Here's previous focus on people who face state-sanctioned violence daily, especially because the episode aired in the wake of police inaction during the horrific Club Q shooting in Colorado.
But this sensation would pass once I realized that queer audiences aren't necessarily the target for the third season of We're Here, even though there's so much for us to receive from it emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. In many ways, this third season is for straight audiences, cis folks who hate queer people, and those who have not considered queer allyship a priority. This is clear in the dialogue showcased between the all-star queens and an increasing number of cishet people cast this season. This aspect of We're Here might end up being just as important a function as all the glorious queer and drag representation on screen.
With that in mind, I realized that featuring lesbian cop Ashley wasn't an attempt to rehabilitate the image of police for queer viewers. Instead, I viewed it as an important moment of humanizing queer people for the cops who specifically target queer communities with violence, despite the fact that none of Ashley's colleagues attended the show (Ashley never confirms if she even invited them). Bob doesn't necessarily challenge Ashley on her alignment with the police state, but it's clear that Ashley comes into her own through her time with Bob, especially in feeling comfortable enough to admit to a group of strangers—and the world—that she's planning on top surgery.
While I would have liked to see Ashley's episode end with her quitting the police and moving to the city to open a lesbian bar with her new gay friends, I hold out hope for this turnaround now that Ashley has a queer community to reach out to instead of relying on cops as her in-group. Even amid lingering questions, I still read Ashley's presence as a smart moment of copaganda reversal that propels We're Here's third season into citizen journalism status, rather than a reality show, as the queens continue to navigate some incredibly hostile right-wing havens. The gaze has shifted in order to humanize queer folks for those who would rather us dead, maybe even by their own hands and weapons. And this truly hit home when Bob, Eureka, and Shangela arrived for their two-part episodes in central Florida—more on that in a moment.
This most recent season of We're Here debuted less than five days after a white, gun-toting person walked into a gay nightclub and took five lives, injured scores more, and traumatized countless others. At the same time, the Club Q tragedy ushered in a disturbing shift in the post-mass shooting discourse, particularly from Republicans who would normally share their requisite "thoughts and prayers." The new troll face of the right-wing, Marjorie Taylor Greene, published a stunning statement in lieu of thoughts and prayers that reads:
"Tragically, 300 Americans die of fentanyl poisoning everyday in America and Biden says and does nothing. Tragically, 5 people were killed in a shooting in Colorado and Biden immediately demands a ban on assault weapons."
Aside from the offensive whataboutism, this false equivalency suggests that recreational fentanyl is actually legal, similarly to the possession of firearms. It's not. Worse, underneath Taylor Greene's statement is an unspoken "you asked for it" to the LGBTQIA+ community, one that Republican lawmakers are echoing as they attempt to both-sides the debate around who is to blame when the homophobic, transphobic, and generally queerphobic rhetoric espoused solely by the Republicans turns into real-life violence. Testifying before Congress, the Club Q survivors themselves linked Republican hate speech with the brutal events.
The message that the Club Q victims and survivors got what they deserved has turned into an avalanche of online hate spewed by right-wing pundits, influencers, and the like who have continued to insist that "groomer" activity at places like Club Q is a valid reason for a mass shooting and that we should expect more events like this.
Even the Club Q shooter attempted to muddy the debate by declaring their pronouns to be they/them and identifying as nonbinary, though people who know them claim otherwise. Whether it was to try to avoid hate crime charges by identifying as queer, or to build on the notion that queer people present clear and present dangers to society, the shooter's identity sucked up significant air time and fueled even more right-wing fire against LGBTQIA+ folks.
Wholly absent from this Republican-driven debate over who was to blame for the shooting is the fact that not one, but two of the people who disarmed the shooter and saved dozens of lives were both army veterans who also happened to be gay. Where are the kudos from the right wing for these heroes, these "good guys" who pried the gun from the shooter's hands and used it to beat the shit out of them while the cops, once again, waited outside? If these men had been straight, they'd have received medal recommendations from Republicans by now. All of this is an escalation in anti-queer discourse from the right wing that demonstrates their open war on queer communities.
This is the kind of universe the We're Here queens entered when they came to Kissimmee, Florida. The two-part finale episodes focus on Jaime and her little girl Dempsey, who is trans. In The Villages, an Orlando suburb, we meet Mark, a gay man living in one of the most conservative enclaves in America. In Ocala, Eureka's new drag daughters are Mandy, a trans woman who finally transitioned at 70 and has never been happier, and Mandy's cis wife Lori. We also meet Vico, a survivor of the Pulse shooting.
Experiencing these episodes here in Florida from just three hours south literally brings these issues home for me. They take me to some really painful places that persist even all these years later. As a gun crime survivor myself, I watched Vico's scenes with my heart in my throat, weeping while applauding his bravery in sharing the PTSD that shapes his life in the wake of that tragedy.
As Shangela works with schoolteacher Jaime and her daughter Dempsey, and Eureka has her own eureka moment about her gender identity while working with Mandy, I began to realize this particular season of We're Here has a dual function in its audience:
- On the one hand, it serves queer folks and allies who support and recognize the humanity of our queer family and want to watch them come into their own. For me, it was a full circle moment watching Eureka discover herself in Florida. Since season one, We're Here has helped me figure out the shapes and edges of my own queer identity as I worked through intensive trauma therapy.
- On the other hand, these new episodes also seem to be geared specifically toward anti-queer bigots—like Shangela's daughter Brandon in the Sussex, New Jersey episode—in order to humanize queer individuals who might otherwise be targets.
We see this shift in the Florida episodes, as We're Here really takes its time introducing us to this episode's queens in a way it hasn't with others in the show, giving them an entire introductory episode that doesn't end in a drag show. "Florida, Part 2" continues deep-diving into the lives, struggles, hopes, and dreams of Jaime, Dempsey, Mandy, Lori, and Vico, before the epic dance finale. Also, where previous seasons have danced around conservative politics shaping these communities, this one in Florida rose to the occasion. The episodes highlight the truly horrific anti-queer policies and environment that Governor Ron DeSantis and his rabid supporters have created here, making it an exponentially more dangerous place to be queer on a daily basis. We're Here's scenes of Florida neo-Nazis and proto-fascists in their grotesque communal displays of hatred are sickening, and not in the fabulous drag way. Gagging on horror, but not because it's great. Actual vomit-inducing behavior from my fellow Floridians, many of whom have lost their minds and basic decency through extreme intolerance and bigotry.
There's a scene in the Florida episodes when Jaime and Dempsey openly and honestly address the disgusting right-wing "groomer" label and accusation being lobbed around Florida too much these days when it comes to trans children. Through Dempsey, we see that her mother treats her like a whole person who can make choices about her own future, even though she's a child. Grooming, on the other hand, would manifest in the denial of her truth and not allowing Dempsey to live life in the way that feels right to her.
There's a powerful contrast between Dempsey and Mandy, who almost didn't survive her late-in-life transition, as the suicidal ideation of living her decades as a lie was often too overwhelming. Like Dempsey, who knew who she was at just three years old, Mandy knew that she was trans since she was five, and had been forced to live otherwise until she was 70.
When I first watched the Florida episodes, I was filled with a deep shame at living in such a vile place, populated with venomous white people who would simply gun down anyone who doesn't look or act like them. I've seen the devastation of gun violence firsthand already, and can't help to not only be afraid, but brace myself every time I go out in public for what feels like an inevitability. And like many other queer people of color in the South, I don't have the means to just pick up and move somewhere else, as much as I may wish to. But thanks to We're Here, I found room to shift my thinking. Yes, I'm surrounded by more bigots than allies. However, the allies are around in Jaime, Dempsey, Mandy, Lori, Vico, and so many others who I may not know or meet, but who are out here also doing their best to create queer Florida spaces for themselves, while making room for others.
"Abandonment is state-sanctioned violence," says my Scalawag colleague (and fellow pop justice contributor) Eteng Ettah, and We're Here is attempting to provide an antidote to this through its community-building efforts. Social and cultural isolation of queer folks in small towns is often by design, and in this regard, We're Here is doing the grassroots work of abolition in connecting people in significant ways that will lead to actual visibility and potential local change.
Shangela succinctly puts it: "Girl, the existence of drag is activism." And with season three, We're Here is officially a multilayered political statement humanizing queer folks and drag queens—especially to politicians, law enforcement, terrorists, and other Republicans out there whose hateful rhetoric and lies have put targets on the backs of queer communities.
HBO should make this season free to watch as a public service; it might actually save lives.