From the drab post-holiday depression of early January to the peril of April finals, the pop culture indulgence that gets me through these months is always a new season of Rupaul’s Drag Race – the show where drag performers compete in a variety of challenges for weeks on end until one reigns victorious as “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” That being said, many fans of the show, myself included, do not let its uplifting queer atmosphere divert their attention from Drag Race’s problematic past of racist production tactics and perpetuating transphobia. However, when the cast of the show’s fifteenth season was announced in December 2022, queer jaws dropped at the announcement that drag legend Sasha Colby would be competing.
An absolute titan in the world of drag, Sasha Colby is a trans activist with decades of experience. She is both a former winner of the Miss Continental drag pageant and the mother of the Colby dynasty, a legendary and revered drag performance house. So, when she entered the werkroom with the arresting entrance line of “period!” it is unsurprising that the other queens howled with both admiration and intimidation. That “period!” has echoed throughout the season, with Sasha having bodied every challenge. But what makes Sasha’s presence on the show so impactful beyond her fierce resume and undeniable front-runner status is that she is entirely shifting the narrative of trans queens and their visibility on the show. Her transness is shown as a large part of her identity without reducing her to merely “the trans girl.” Sasha brings a previously repressed trans vocabulary to mainstream queer media.
Both Rupaul as an individual and Drag Race have had problematic attitudes toward the more marginalized sectors of the queer community in the past. In recent years, fans have begun calling out this harmful behaviour and demanding change. The show was heavily criticized for perpetuating racist stereotypes of sassy, angry Black women by giving queens of colour the “villain” edit, and the way it treated trans queens followed suit. When the season nine cast was announced in 2018, Rupaul received uproarious – and deserved – backlash for declaring that contestant Peppermint, who identifies as a trans woman, was only able to compete because she had not begun medically transitioning, and even going so far as to compare trans queens on hormones to Olympic athletes on steroids.
It is difficult to count all the ways in which this statement is completely abhorrent coming from a drag queen. Ironically, it perpetuates the idea that gender is bodily, despite drag as an art form existing to subvert this notion. These blatantly transphobic comments are also especially baffling considering Rupaul constantly references and co-opts language from the ballroom scene of Harlem in the ’80s – a scene led by Black trans women that he was immersed in himself. In addition to the backlash, this statement also sparked questions over how someone so prolific in the art of drag could forget its trans roots. Is trans visibility really visibility when it’s projected through a cisgender lens of production?
In the years following this incident, it seems as though Rupaul has received his much-needed education on the importance of having trans representation on the show, even apologizing for his earlier upsetting comments. Yet medically-transitioned trans queens have only really appeared in spin-offs of the show, which don’t generate the same level of viewership or discourse. Last season, the show had two queens who were out as trans before the season aired, and three additional queens either came out as trans on the show itself or while it was airing, for a record of five total trans contestants. However, the show was still guilty of reducing contestant Jasmine Kennedy’s arc on the show to her coming out, giving her the “sympathy edit” and making her transness the central, and arguably only, point of her personality.
Enter Sasha Colby. Sasha had already been name dropped on the show before — her drag daughter Kerri Colby, who appeared on season 14, previously announced that Sasha was in fact her drag mother. When it was Sasha’s turn herself to enter the werkroom, she did not disappoint — so far, she has won three challenges, has never been in the bottom two of the week, and is the heavy fan-favourite for the crown. Sasha’s preceding reputation and incredible run on her season thus far are legendary by the show’s standards in general. But what really sets her apart is the space she is creating for future trans performers on the show.
With Sasha, the show is finally giving us a trans queen whose longevity is not dependent on how much sympathy the producers can squeeze out of her transness. She is able to tell her story and bring attention to trans issues, especially how they manifest in her native state of Hawai’i. She has also referenced other trans performers from outside the mainstream such as Leiomy Maldonado, an Afro-Puerto Rican trans ballroom performer known as the “Wonder Woman of Vogue.” Although she did not give much context on Leiomy, it is important that Sasha acknowledged vanguards of current trans performance like her. Merely referencing the performer also encourages viewers to do their own research and not rely solely on mainstream programs for queer education.
Paradoxically, it is Sasha’s status as a trans icon that allows her to circumvent the narrative usually applied to trans queens, proving that they can have a powerful, multi-dimensional presence on the show. So what does this mean for the future of trans performers in the mainstream, and on Rupaul’s Drag Race in particular? Although the season is not even over, wild theories are already circulating that Sasha will win and then take over for Rupaul. Although this theory is pretty unfathomable, it indicates that there is a ubiquitous desire for people like Sasha to have the power in the industry to bring in a new, more inclusive era of queer media. Regardless of the outcome of the season, Sasha’s impact on the show is undeniable. Not only are we rooting for her but for a future full of people like her. Until the world is filled with incredible trans performers serving up all the talent they have to offer, let’s continue to spotlight trans trailblazers like Sasha Colby.