The following is an extract from Amelia Abraham's new nonfiction book, Queer Intentions: a (personal) journey through LGBTQ+ culture, out on Picador, 30th May, £14.99.
On Saturday morning, my friend Alix and I woke up early and set off for DragCon. We arrived at a massive, corporate, glass-walled conference centre to find drag queens of all varieties queuing to enter in the LA heat, towering over their non-dragged-up mates. The staff didn’t bat an eyelid, nor did the guests seem to consider this a spectacle. In the cafe, a beautiful older drag queen dressed as a Miss World winner was scoffing fries in a full face of make-up. Drag queens whizzed up and down elevators in saris and leather. There seemed to be an accidental irony to the situation. Alix and I stood in the foyer, agape. Alix went to the bathroom. "There’s no gender-neutral toilet," she said when she came back.
The main room was carpeted with soft pink runways, and stalls were stacked as far as the eye could see, selling wigs and T-shirts and bondage gear. Around us there was a cornucopia of brightly coloured synthetic materials, but if we looked up there was nothing but a grey ceiling with bright strip lighting. It was like Disneyland: drag queens milled around waiting for someone to ask for their photo, people were cramming candy and hot dogs into their mouths, and there was a queue for literally everything except the toilet. "Welcome to America," said Alix, deadpan, for the first forty minutes, each time we saw something of this nature. I wanted to chat to some guests, but a tannoy sounded, RuPaul’s voice announcing the arrival of someone I couldn’t make out – the sound was muffled in the commotion that ensued.
The crowd parted to reveal a sea of pink, and down the main stretch in a golden carriage came a performer I recognised as Bob the Drag Queen. Everyone had their phones out, thousands of people snapping photos for Instagram and Facebook. It was like the gayest red carpet event of the century. Or the queerest. The crowd was wildly varied: young people, old people, people of all races, people with disabilities, people in drag, not in drag, in half drag, or just wearing drag-related merchandise. The only conspicuous absence was drag kings – I must have seen only two. Maybe that was because they had their own conventions, like Austin International Drag Festival’s Kingfest and King Con in Ohio. Or maybe it was because drag kings had not been represented or supported by RuPaul’s Drag Race, so they felt no desire to come along and support the show back.
I approached a family called the Smiths from Fairfax, California. The mom, Erica, dad, David, and nineteen- year-old son, Miles, were all in drag. Miles told me they’d been watching Drag Race as a family since it started, and this was their second DragCon together. Miles was fifteen when he started dressing like a woman, with the inspiration coming from Drag Race along with a couple of his parents’ friends who were part of the gay community of San Francisco. "He’s been wearing dresses since he was one and a half years old," said Erica of her son proudly. "We’ve always been theatre people too, so I taught him how to sew and do make-up. He learned a lot from YouTube tutorials. Now he’s styling his own wigs and making his own costumes. He made everything he’s wearing."
Miles was too young to do drag in bars or clubs, and therefore too young to make money from it, he explained. It was really just a hobby. He had done it at the local town parade though, and in "school drag shows" at his college up in Oregon. But DragCon was something else entirely: "It’s super hectic and super amazing," he gushed. "It’s such a love fest, really, people complimenting each other – 'I love your earrings' or 'I love your wig'."
Alix interrupted: "No one has complimented me yet."
Not only was this a family affair, it was also as kid-friendly as the website had promised. I saw a child dressed as Baby Jane within ten minutes of being there. There was a children’s area with a bouncy castle and face painting, where they were holding Drag Queen Story Hour, which involved drag queens such as fourteen-year-old Amber Jacobs, Panda Dulce, Lil Miss Hot Mess and Pickle reading to the kids. It reminded me of Amrou saying they loved performing at kids’ birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. The Kid Zone was included to ‘publicly advocate the importance of instilling acceptance for all at a very early age, especially in our nation’s most current political climate’. Drag Queen Story Hour was part of a wider initiative started by LA author Michelle Tea, whereby drag queens read to kids at local bookstores and libraries across America.
Elsewhere at the event was a stage for young people to perform in drag. It was covered in branding for Gilead, a global pharmaceutical company that produces HIV-prevention drugs and hepatitis C medication, but price-hikes them to the extent that they weren’t actually affordable to the UK healthcare system.
The publicist for DragCon, the cheerful Kelli, later explained that the Gilead branding was on the Men’s Health Foundation stage, and that the Men’s Health Foundation was one of the sponsors, but Gilead wasn’t. The other official sponsors were World of Wonder, VH1 and Jeffree Star Cosmetics. The brands and companies that could have a stand were also carefully selected; some were for non-profit organisations like the Human Rights Campaign, others were vendors like Boy Butter Lubricants or the offensively titled Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, which has since shut down.
In 2016, $2.3 million was spent on the floor of DragCon, via the two hundred vendors and exhibitors selling ‘DragCon exclusive merchandise’. One drag queen I talked to – Alma Bitches, thirty-six, from Seattle, who’d been doing drag for seven years and was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Pizza and Anal’ on it – said that, besides coming to see the queens from the show, she came for the shopping opportunities: "I bought some one-of-a-kind shoulder pads – they’re like $400 but silver-studded and fierce as hell." She also bought some shirts, and some make-up. All in all, she spent about $700.
I wandered the hall and met Ronaldo, a sweet, earnest guy running a stall for his online kink store Torso and Trunks. Formally a dog walker, he’d had the idea for the brand to promote safe sex at gay men’s underwear parties, by making underwear with pockets so you could carry lube and condoms with you. Then he branched out to what he called everyday kink wear.
"You can’t always wear your leather harness, puppy mask or tail in public, so we’re building a brand so that community can stand out and see each other," he explained, reaching for one of the products. "Like this pup hat – you could wear this in the street and only other pups would recognise it. Anyone else would think you’re just a guy that loves dogs!"
I pointed to a trucker hat that said ‘Help: bottoms wanted’ and suggested that maybe it wasn’t as subtle.
"That actually sells a lot in New York because there are no 'bottoms' there," said Ronaldo enthusiastically. "Everyone in New York is a 'top' and everyone in LA is a 'bottom'." Ronaldo told me that if you booked early as a vendor, it cost $800 for the stall, and later $1,000, which he found reasonable. He wasn’t just here for the business opportunity, though.
"I love Drag Race. Drag is a fun way to express yourself – and that thing where RuPaul says we’re born naked and the rest is drag, well, I really believe that. Businessmen are wearing drag – those are their power suits. For the gay community, the wigs, the dress… that’s a power suit for them as well."