Bob the Drag Queen knows a thing or two about the south. As a native of Columbus, GA and with family from Alabama, he was very familiar with the lay of the land when traveling with fellow drag queens Shangela and Eureka! to Selma, AL in Monday's episode of We're Here.
In the episode, the queens help Akeelah, a trans woman who is ready to express herself beyond her fears; Joseph, a successful realtor who wants to move past a traumatic point in his life; and Deborah, the matriarch for her queer family members who is ready to start healing from grief.
Bob talked to Shadow and Act about what it's like to take part in an episode that hit close to home.
"As you probably know, I used to live in Alabama for a few years and my father is from Alabama. So I have a lot of families for Alabama," he said. "It was really interesting to be back in the south as an adult as a famous drag queen. ...I've been to Alabama a few times in drag, but when we do these tours, you're in town for one day you leave. So you're not really in Alabama or in any of these towns we're in, but when we're filming We're Here, we're there for like sometimes 15 days, depending on the episode, you know? It was really wonderful to be there. I just really loved the experience. It was a bit cathartic in a very emotional way."
Bob's catharsis can be seen primarily in a scene involving the queens sitting down with some of Selma's civil rights footsoldiers.
Selma, the place where the iconic Bloody Sunday happened in the 1960s, still holds living history in its buildings, architecture like the infamous Edmund Pettis Bridge, and of course within the people who participated in that fateful day. Meeting the footsoldiers–women who look like unassuming grandmothers, mothers and aunts–brought Bob to tears. He talked about what it was like to share the room with those women.
“I’ve been like only in the past five years of like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin been pushed to the forefront, or their spirit has been, uh, acknowledged publicly, you know?” he said. “And I felt like that would have really helped me a lot at the kid. As a kid growing up, I grew up in Atlanta, where every[thing] is Martin Luther King this, Martin Luther King that….In one part of my head, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I love Martin Luther King.’ And in another part of my head, it’s like, ‘Would Martin Luther King approve of my lifestyle?'”
“…I feel like that’s not an uncommon experience for young Black people, queer people…that is a common feeling for me,” he continued. “And to have these footsoldiers sit there knowing that I’m queer and validating me and letting you know that I would have been not only welcomed, but encouraged in the space was really moving. As you could see, it was really moving.”
Like every episode of We’re Here shows, small towns like Selma have much more diversity–and much more acceptance–than people give them credit for. Yes, there are still issues within those towns. But there is a lot to applaud as well. Bob said that the series is showing how Black queerness has thrived in forgotten places of America, not just in the big metropolises.
“[Being queer] is a very different experience from being Black. And then [as a Black queer person], you’re having these two experiences at the same time,” he said. “For example, you would need at least one Black person to make another person, you know what I mean? But…that is not the same with queerness. You know, queer people could pop up anywhere–out of nowhere in a vacuum, people can just show up and be queer…I think that people forget that people think that the cities like New York and LA and Atlanta make queer people, but that’s not the case. Most of the queer people are actually from other places and they move. [But] there are a lot of people who decide to stay in their own towns and [are] cultivating a space for themselves in these small towns.”
Like the footsoldiers who welcomed Bob, Shangela and Eureka, every small town has a community of allies ready to help and support their queer neighbors.
Bob said that allies can make themselves known so queer people know who to turn to.
“I think we can start with acknowledgement of each other…Letting people know that you see them can have such a profound effect on people [in a way] you don’t even know,” they said. “Or even little stuff like when you go into a store and see a little, tiny rainbow sticker where you see all the credit cards? Even a little thing like that, I would think, ‘Okay, I feel like this is a place I can be safe in,’ because of this tiny little gesture that other people might not have even noticed. I think that using whatever privilege you have to show that you are an ally is another thing [people] can do as well.”
“Well, I wasn’t shocked because luckily with RuPaul’s Drag Race I’ve been lucky enough to travel all around the world and see just some truly, I mean, in the, in the smallest of towns. I mean, I, I actually did Selma Pride a couple of years ago, so I wasn’t shocked to find that there was queer acceptance, but I also wasn’t shocked when Akeelah told me that there were people who weren’t accepting in this space as well because I’ve dealt with that and I’ve had those experiences as well,” he continued. “Being from a small town I know that there are [queer] people there–I’m one of them. So more than anything, I was happy to get a chance to shine a light on or amplify the voices of the queer people and the allies in the towns, so you will know that you’re not alone. That’s why we’re calling the show We’re Here because we want people to know that we’re not hiding in the shadows and [for] people out there who are like-minded, [we] want you to know that you’re not alone. We’re here. We’re with you.
Bob’s experience as a southerner helps him meld with Eureka and Shangela, who are also from small southern towns. Together, he can immediately relate to the issues the participants are facing in their daily lives.
“Eureka’s from Johnson City, Tennessee, I am from Columbus, GA and Shangela’s from Paris, Texas. And I think that as part of why we were selected for the show is because we are all from small towns and we do have the experience of what it’s like to be a queer tradition in a very small town,” he said. “…I was one of those southerners who really felt the need to leave the south…but maybe that was also from my trauma response–growing up queer in the south had me feeling like I had to get out of there. I think it’s been really beautiful to see people in these towns thriving being themselves, being accepted, and I do think it’s a direct result of of shows like We’re Here, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose, Legendary. I think it’s a direct result of it. [It’s] exposure.”
At the time of our interview, Bob had recently traveled to Birmingham, AL to do a comedy show at the Stardome, a prominent comedy club in Hoover, AL, about a half-hour's drive outside of Birmingham.
The Stardome has grown its drag presence in recent months, with a regular drag brunch show. Within Birmingham, drag has also become more popularized with local restaurants like Tropicaleo featuring drag performances. Al’s on Seventh, a longstanding drag hangout and LGBTQ+ bar, is now finally not the only safe haven for queer performers.
Bob talked about how the changes he’s seen in the south directly relate to the types of exposure people are now getting to the LGBTQ+ experience.
“You know, there were times when people had no exposure to queerness with the exception of Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake, which had some really problematic expressions. I don’t want to engage in respectability politics and say that queer people aren’t allowed to behave in however they want. In terms of saying it’s problematic it’s that its a single, short-sighted, one sided view of queer people. I do want to express that those queer people in those shows are valid and they can express themselves however they want,” he said. “But I think that when there’s just one lens of queerness being shown in the media over and over again, it makes it very hard for people to have a well-rounded and respectable opinion of marginalized people. I think that because of shows like We’re Here, and Pose and Legendary, and Dragnificent!, we’re moving the needle forward and that’s why we have a brunch at a comedy club in Hoover, AL. It’s why we have a show on HBO called We’re Here. And it’s why people feel comfortable coming out younger.”
“People think there are some that “the gay agenda” is making kids gay. No, it’s just that people finally feel comfortable coming out,” he continued. “And [people] saying ‘Why are there all these trans people?’ There’s always been this many trans people. They just never felt comfortable being themselves around people. And that’s what we should be discussing. Why is that? Why is that not a topic of discussion?…I’m really proud of the representation [of We’re Here], the places we go, the stories we tell. This is legit one of the best shows I have ever been a part of. I can not express how important it is for people to get into this show. It’s really, really good.”
The Selma episode of We’re Here airs Monday at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on HBO.