By night, Orlando’s drag queens entertain the masses. By day, they lead the fight for LGBTQ rights


By now, the majority of America knows the difference between being told, "Shanté, you stay," and the heartbreak of "Sashay away." Drag in its various forms has been around for centuries, but no one can deny RuPaul Andre Charles' Emmy award-winning phenomenon of a show, RuPaul's Drag Race, has managed to overwrite the mischaracterization of drag queens as deviants, replacing it with the real-life dreams of queer performers trying to artistically combine the perfect lashes, wig and glittery gown into an iconic look for the gods. Not only does Drag Race challenge the gender binary and elevate queer gender expression in between quote-worthy reads and messy shade – it's also deeply infused drag culture into the mainstream world's fashion, music, dance and video – even infiltrating the everyday slang lexicon.

But drag has always been about more than just lip-sync performances, expensive makeup palettes and dazzling costumes. For decades, drag activists have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ liberation movement – their eye-catching outfits make the protest march behind them hard to ignore. Self-described drag queens Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two transgender women of color, were both key figures in the 1969 uprising against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York City and later became tireless advocates for homeless LGBTQ youth, transwomen of color and gender-nonconforming people. Sometimes, that even meant railing against their own, as when Rivera called out mainstream gay rights activists who sought to exclude those who didn't fit into the neat, "acceptable" categories of the straight world during New York City's Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973.

click to enlarge By night, Orlando’s drag queens entertain the masses. By day, they lead the fight for LGBTQ rights
Photo by David Lawrence

"Y'all better quiet down," she yelled at them. "I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck's wrong with you all? ... The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle-class, white club."

Although LGBTQ advocates have recently won hard-fought, decades-long nationwide battles for civil rights and marriage equality, the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando that ended the lives of 49 people and the election of President Donald Trump last year have pushed queer leaders to protest against homophobic and transphobic policies, racial discrimination and gun violence.

For this year's Pride issue, we profile several of Orlando's iconic drag queens (and drag nuns), who not only entertain and inspire with their beauty, talent, art, comedy and charm, but also use their status in the community to challenge inequality on the front lines.