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The Emmy-winning show "RuPaul's Drag Race" has encouraged a new generation of LGBTQ+ fans to come out.
The casting of Gottmik, the drag persona of the first trans man to compete, was a "watershed" moment, an academic said.
But more could be done to support female, nonbinary, and trans viewers, two former contestants said.
Brandon Austin struggled with feeling different in high school.
"I wasn't myself at all. Nobody was gay, and I was an easy target for bullies. I felt abnormal," he told Insider. "Then, at 16, my best friend introduced me to 'RuPaul's Drag Race.'"
Austin, a 20-year-old from Kent, England, is one of many young LGBTQ+ people whose coming-out story involves "RuPaul's Drag Race."
"Without 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' I wouldn't have had the confidence to come out as gay," Austin told Insider. "I think I'd still be a few years away from coming out."
The Emmy-winning reality show, broadcast on VH1 and Paramount+ in the US, follows RuPaul Charles' search for "America's next drag superstar." It's been described as "the closest gay culture gets to a sports league."
Throughout its 14 seasons — and numerous spin-offs — it has shed light on issues important to LGBTQ+ communities, such as HIV, substance use, transgender identities, family abandonment, and coming out.
It has also brought the art of female impersonation into the mainstream.
Drag's place in the zeitgeist means that more young LGBTQ+ people watching the show have visible queer icons they can look up to. This representation is significant for many Gen Zers who have grown up with the show over its 12 years. For several, it has been integral to their being out and proud about their identities.
"Seeing people being accepted for who they are made me realize that I am normal," Austin told Insider.
'It helped me to accept myself'
By day, Austin works in an Amazon warehouse. By night, he moonlights as a "glitterific" drag queen called Sophia Stardust.
Austin, who has been performing as Sophia Stardust for four years, credited the show with helping him to embrace his sexuality and giving him the confidence to pursue drag.
Austin had grown up with little exposure to gay culture. But "RuPaul's Drag Race" was a revelation.
"I was living in an area where all I saw was straight people," he said. "Then, watching this show, I saw a new world — a world where people were getting recognition and praise for existing as these magical creatures.
"It helped me to accept myself," he continued. "Shortly after, I came out as gay. Then a week after that, I got a cheap wig from my neighbor's attic, bought some Superdrug makeup, and got into drag for the very first time."
'I'd definitely still be struggling with my gender identity'
Like Austin, 17-year-old Neptune is thankful for "RuPaul's Drag Race's" role in their coming-out story.
The nonbinary drag queen, who was assigned female at birth, said they became confident after being introduced to the show.
"Without 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' I probably wouldn't be calling myself nonbinary," they said. "I'd definitely still be struggling with my gender identity."
Neptune began watching the show when they were 11 years old. At first, they said, they thought drag was "just for men."
After watching a few seasons of the show, Neptune went to Pride Glasgow, Scotland's largest LGBTQ+ festival, where they met a drag queen for the first time.
"I found out from them that there were loads of AFAB and gender-nonconforming queens," Neptune said. "This gave me the confidence to start doing drag myself."
They said the show introduced them to a world that allowed them to explore their gender. Neptune came out as nonbinary this year.
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"'Drag Race' was a huge inspiration and was my entry into a community," Neptune told Insider. "My life would be very different without the show."
One queen who Neptune said was an important part of their journey is Gottmik, the drag persona of 24-year-old Kade Gottlieb, the first trans man cast on the show.
"Having Gottmik on the show is incredibly important," they said. "Casting trans queens introduces and normalizes transness."
Gottlieb, aka Gottmik, is the first trans man to compete on the show
Gottmik broadened the show's scope of what constitutes a drag queen.
Gottlieb was the show's first transgender man to compete, its first queen to be assigned female at birth, and its first contestant to have had top surgery, a procedure that trans men can undergo to remove breast tissue.
For many of the show's fans, Gottmik's casting was a major turning point.
Since then, numerous trans women have appeared on the show.
Season 14, which aired this year, included five trans contestants. Kornbread "The Snack" Jeté and Kerri Colby were out when they entered the workroom, with fellow contestants Bosco, Jasmine Kennedie, and Willow Pill opening up about their identities during or after the season's filming.
Nonbinary contestants have also appeared on the show. And in the third season of the UK spinoff "RuPaul's Drag Race UK," a cisgender woman — Victoria Scone — was featured.
But Gottmik's inclusion in Season 13 represented a seismic shift, marking a widening net of who can compete.
In Gottmik's first appearance on the show, the drag queen spoke frankly about experiencing gender dysphoria and having had top surgery. Pronouns were also discussed: "She" in drag, "he" out of drag.
"Coming out on the episode and talking about gender dysphoria and top surgery was weird for me. I don't even talk about it with my friends," Gottlieb told Insider. "At first, I felt a little bit concerned about my family and how they were going to react to seeing it on TV for the first time.
"But I took a step back and realized this is a real moment for trans people. Trans people go through dysphoria and have top-surgery moments," he added. "I just had to own it, kill it, and be honored to have such a platform."
Gottlieb said he recognized that his being on the show could validate someone's journey to feeling secure in their gender identity.
"I have the most amount of messages I could have ever imagined from young trans guys wanting to explore drag but who are worried it might invalidate their gender or people might look at them in some sort of way," he said. "Seeing that I helped them realize that drag is just an art form, not a gender, is so amazing for me to see."
Gottmik's casting was profound for many young LGBTQ people and particularly trans people, Katie Horowitz, an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at Davidson College, told Insider in 2021.
"Gottmik's casting is a watershed moment," Horowitz said. "To see somebody who was assigned female who then transitioned to identifying as a man performing as a woman is an incredibly new and groundbreaking conversation."
"I think exposure to this sort of thing normalizes both queerness and being transgender to little kids," Horowitz said. "Now kids growing up will see people play with gender, and that affirms that that's something that's OK to do."
This representation is cause for celebration, according to the LGBTQ charity Stonewall. "'Drag Race' shows a kaleidoscope of possibilities of what people can be in a really positive and uplifting way," Jeffrey Ingold, the charity's head of media, told Insider.
"Representation matters, because you can't be what you can't see," he added.
Crystal, a former contestant on the show's UK spinoff, agreed that the show had championed self-expression.
"Young people are seeing that it's freeing to realize that the rule book on gender you've been given by society is not necessarily the one that you need to adhere to," the drag queen said. "I feel like we're now on the verge of getting a generation of kids who don't feel shame about their sexuality or gender."
But Crystal, who famously boasts a chest of hair, argued that too much focus had been placed on "female illusion" instead of dismantling gender norms.
"Hopefully people take the message that drag is about expressing yourself however you want and not just about having giant hips, boobs, and lips," Crystal added.
'I don't think it's done huge amounts for females, women, and for trans people'
Another former contestant, Divina de Campo, also said the show could do more to fully represent LGBTQ communities.
"'Drag Race' has raised the bar on queer visibility," they told Insider. "But we have to be very aware that it's male queer visibility. There's practically no queer female visibility, and there's only one male trans person in over 20 seasons.
"I think it's done great things about opening up conversations about the power of femininity and owning that as a male person, but I don't think it's done huge amounts for women and for trans people," de Campo said.
"The message is that if you're male, you're acceptable. That, to me, is thorny," they added.
While the show has championed queer issues and helped to empower some young LGBTQ+ people, others say more could be done to represent a broader swath of identities.
"'Drag Race' was the representation I needed when I was growing up," Austin said. "But now it's important for the current generations to see more trans and nonbinary people. Then they'll also be able to think, 'This is my time.'"
This article is part of "We/Us/Ours," a series about LGBTQ communities and spaces that inspire queer unity.
Read the original article on Insider