According to the American Civil Liberties Union, legislation targeting LGBTQ+ rights has more than doubled since last year, with more than 500 bills restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ people introduced to state legislatures so far in 2023. But while anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is growing, queer communities and their allies are coming together in resistance.
And for more than a century, one form of resistance is drag.
Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme are two drag artists and activists who became household names after joining the fifth and sixth seasons of the popular reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” But long before that, they were working together in the Pacific Northwest. Monsoon started performing at 15 in her hometown of Portland, while BenDeLaCreme, who also goes by DeLa, started her career in Chicago, before making her way to Seattle in the mid-2000s.
Now, the duo is hitting the road for an international holiday tour, called “The Jinkx & Dela Holiday Show,” starting Tuesday, including four shows in Seattle from Dec. 21-24, and one show in Portland, Oregon, on Dec. 27.
They joined OPB’s “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori to talk about queer joy, drag as resistance and the idea of “chosen family.”
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Crystal Ligori: I wanted to start in an unconventional way by asking about queer joy and how it shows up in your life.
Jinkx Monsoon: I think one big thing that is bringing me a lot of queer joy — not just for myself but knowing that it exists for the community — is representation. It’s kind of funny that at the same time that we are seeing political backlash and societal backlash towards our community, in entertainment and media we’re seeing more representation than I ever imagined possible as a young person who had, you know, “Will & Grace” and “Queer As Folk,” and that was it. Now there’s just so much representation for young people to grow up with and that makes me so happy. It’s not all perfect, it’s not all necessarily hitting the right marks, but it exists. There are queer characters in my video games! As a queer nerd, that brings me a lot of joy.
BenDeLaCreme: I think it’s so hard to talk about the concept of queer joy without talking about all of the more bleak stuff that’s out there. And I think that’s because a lot of, historically, the most joyful queer arts and community events come out of the necessity to gather, because of what we’ve historically been up against. I mean, drag in itself is something that rose out of these spaces that queer folks had to create on the downlow in order to be safe and to have a little respite and a place to laugh and realize that we’re not alone. So I think that, for me, a lot of my queer joy comes from the work we get to make.
Jinkx: Both of us have been doing drag for like two decades, and it was a different thing when we started. It did not assure you a place as a leader or a platform in any kind of mainstream community. And DeLa always says, in fact, it kind of assured you that you wouldn’t have those things in life.
DeLa: Yeah, it’s possible to forget how close the darkness is looming. And so I think it’s really important to stay aware of that so that we can actively fight it as a community. It’s too easy to want to turn away from that, but I think it’s possible to turn away enough to have some joy, but also remain very aware that it’s right there and we need to rally against it.
Ligori: “RuPaul’s Drag Race” made you both household names, but you’ve been doing this a long time before that, specifically in the Pacific Northwest. Does drag feel different here than in other parts of the country?
Jinkx: Drag is very regional both in Portland and Seattle. I found that for smaller cities, they both have something for everyone in the queer community, in the artist community. They’re very vibrant smaller cities, and what I loved about starting in Portland and then continuing my drag work in Seattle is that I found ways to do the drag that I wanted to do because there were places to do that. Because we are in a bubble in the Pacific Northwest, especially in those two cities, other places don’t have as thriving of a queer community, so they don’t get to have as much diversity in what’s offered to that queer community. When you have one gay bar in town, everything is gonna feel a little bit more homogenized. What I love about “Drag Race” is that now it doesn’t matter where you are — you get to see drag from everywhere. We both feel like we really found our voice in Seattle, and it’s because we had a community where there was a place for our voice to begin to be heard.
DeLa: When I moved to Seattle, suddenly I felt like “oh, I was supposed to be born here.” Like this is the place that aligns with my sensibilities. And there was a beautiful, thriving community of artists and even more so a beautiful community of people who would support that art. The audiences in the Northwest are just so hungry, but also loving and generous and there’s just an openness among performers and audiences.
Ligori: I know you have the upcoming “Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show” that kicks off Nov. 7, but the two of you have been working together for long before this. In many LGBTQ+ communities, we talk about the idea of a ”chosen family.” So how does this collaboration reflect that?
Jinkx: I was introduced to the concept of “chosen family” through DaLa’s holiday show in Seattle — she was already producing a holiday show when we met — and shortly after meeting, I started performing in that holiday show. And, you know, I had a chosen family before I knew the words “chosen family,” but it was DeLa’s holiday show that introduced the concept to me and also introduced to me why it’s so important. I was very lucky to have a loving, accepting family, and was able to come out at a very young age and be myself at a very young age. And a lot of DeLa’s work is motivated by not having that at a young age, and creating a space where if you didn’t have that at the holiday time or if you don’t currently have that at the holiday time, we’re gonna provide that space for you.
DeLa: Creating holiday content came out of the necessity of finding my own traditions and my own space after a childhood that did not feel that way to me. And sometimes you start something and looking for something for yourself, and what you find is that so many people also need it, that you’re providing it to others. And that’s a pretty beautiful thing that has come out of our work over the years. Jinkx and I, we’ve known each other for so long, but it’s wild that every year increasingly we become more and more each other’s family. The closeness of working on something that is this much of a challenge, but also feels this important and that people respond to in this way, it’s brought us together in ways that has challenged us and bolstered us. And I’m just so grateful for the family that we have found with our cast and our production company. It’s really a gift.
Jinkx: The phrase “chosen family” is really important when we’re talking about this, because we’re talking about creating a tradition and maintaining that tradition. But also being willing to examine the tradition and see how it might need to morph and change over time. Does it still serve us? And chosen family is like that, ya know? A choice is a very powerful thing, it’s more powerful than something that’s just compulsory, because with a choice you gotta put in the work. If you’re choosing this person, you gotta choose to be a good person for that person. And then it’s the same thing with the community. Like you can be queer and not choose to participate in the community, but when you choose to participate in the community, you have to think of it as “I’m a member of something bigger than just me.”