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Bob the Drag Queen & Monet X Change: How NYC drag queens helped revolutionize queer health care

Sibling rivalry, podcast Bob the Drag Queen, Bob the Drag Queen & Monet X Change: How NYC drag queens helped revolutionize queer health care, Chevy, LGBTQ Nation, queer healthcare, New York City, drag queens, AIDS/HIV epidemic

While many remember New York City as the epicenter of the AIDS/HIV epidemic during the 1980s and ’90s, not everyone recalls the important role that drag queens and other performers played as merrymakers and fundraisers during that time. Their leadership helped bring queer entertainment into the mainstream, united the community during years of hardship, and provided a model for health activism that endures to this day.

RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Bob the Drag Queen and Monet X Change discussed this in a recent special episode of their Sibling Rivalry podcast for Authentic Voices of Pride, presented by Chevrolet.

In the early 1980s, ignorance and fear about the epidemic ran high, Bob the Drag Queen noted. Doctors were still learning about the virus, and leaders wouldn’t even say the word “AIDS” in public broadcasts, reluctant to appear sympathetic towards the gay men disproportionately affected by the virus.

So, to keep our community empowered and informed, New York queers founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GHMC), the world’s first HIV/AIDS service organization, in 1982; the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) in 1985; and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. 

The GMHC and amFAR organized to educate the public about HIV, and ACT UP grabbed headlines with its protests for increased education and medication access at the New York Stock Exchange, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the offices of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan’s East Village, activists of another sort were also feeling the epidemic’s effects.

In 1983, drag performer Lady Bunny and her roommate RuPaul worked as performers at various venues including the Pyramid Club — a gritty East Village lounge, popular among outcasts, where live performers combined punk rock and experimental art into their shows.

Monet X Change said Lady Bunny told him, “In the course of her gigs in one week… each night, people would not come to work. You’d hear they were sick, but by the next week, they were gone. A lot of the bartenders, the bar backs, the DJs, they would just disappear because all her friends were dying from this disease.”

Other parts of queer culture were dying too. HIV put an iron wall between the gay and straight folks who mingled freely during the Studio 54 disco-era of the 1960s. Gay Pride marches and “female impersonators” were also viewed suspiciously by queer people who were afraid of standing out and who were embracing “macho culture” to fight anti-gay stereotypes, New York City drag queen Linda Simpson said.

However, a queer cultural revolution was brewing. After a night performing with fellow Pyramid club employees at the nearby Tompkins Square Park, Lady Bunny was inspired to co-create Wigstock, a 1984 drag queen festival that, until its end in 2005, became the annual must-attend end-of-summer event.

The event not only took drag out of the gay nightclubs and into the public daylight, it also provided a liberating beacon of joy for the queer community as well as an example of how to rally queer people and allies through art. 

Wigstock performers — like RuPaul, Jackie Beat, Varla Jean Merman, Kevin Aviance, and Sherry Vine — all went on to fundraise and raise awareness in the fight against AIDS.

RuPaul became a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics and its AIDS Fund in 1994 and she has since used her platform to highlight HIV and other issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. Beat, Aviance and the other aforementioned stars went on to perform at numerous HIV/AIDS fundraisers and continue to raise awareness about PrEP and other forms of HIV prevention today.

The GMHC still operates today as well. In her podcast, Monet X Change said she and others even performed at the GMHC’s annual Latex Ball event.

“They are like handing out condoms… and you see tools and vehicles they have to educate people about how you can protect yourself and protect others, which I love,” X Change said.

Even Wigstock reemerged in 2018, when Lady Bunny teamed up with gay actor Neil Patrick Harris to resurrect the gender-bending event. The GMHC partnered with Wigstock as its 2018 nonprofit partner.

While queer New York activists during the ‘80s and ‘90s helped change the face of LGBTQ healthcare activism, they also built a political platform that still stands, a platform upon which today’s queer performers continue to advocate for our health, dignity, and well-being.

Listen to the phenomenal full episode here: