In March 2020, HBO premiered “We’re Here,” a wholehearted documentary series that captures a trio of alums from RuPaul’s Drag Race as they give small-town Americans a dose of drag empowerment. It’s a divine mashup of “Queer Eye” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, with a dash of “Kinky Boots” as an encore.
Each episode features Bob, the drag queen, Eureka, and Shangela descending on a town like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Branson, Missouri; or Farmington, New Mexico to put on a drag show and recruit some of the locals to put on a wig, false eyelashes, and high heels to let go of their fears or prejudices. Many of these people had never seen a drag queen in person and didn’t dream of ever wanting to.
Due to the rampant COVID pandemic, production stopped while filming in Spartanburg, South Carolina. More than a year later, it’s back with Season 2, which aptly premiered on National Coming Out Day, October 11th, on HBO and HBO Max.
In a recent interview with Zoom, creators Johnnie Ingram and Stephen Warren shared how they came up with the concept for We’re Here. They say it rained so much while on vacation in Mexico about three years ago that they watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars”.
“We love RuPaul,” enthused Warren. But they thought, “What if we took these drag queens and took them to small towns? What would the reaction be? We looked at each other and thought it would make a convincing show. “
Neither of them had ever developed a television show, but with Warren’s job as an entertainment attorney and Ingram’s background in advertising and production, they were certainly no strangers to showbiz. During a casual lunch with a close friend who happened to be a big personality on HBO, Warren decided to put the show on on a whim.
“I thought HBO didn’t do that kind of thing, just let me see what he thinks,” Warren recalled. “And he says, ‘I love it! There’s a woman in New York who runs my scriptless department who has always wanted to do something like this. Can I tell her I want this? ‘ And it happened. “
Ingram, who grew up in a small town in eastern Tennessee, has personal experience with the challenges of growing up LGBTQ in these communities. When he went into big city life, he moved to Chicago and worked in drag bars during his school days. When his mother came to visit, she came to these shows.
“For some reason, all of the barriers we had to being gay seemed to be dissolving,” Ingram said. “The shows opened the door to so many questions and conversations that we normally didn’t have.”
Bob, Eureka and Shangela, who refer to themselves as “drag mothers” for the “drag kids” they supervise, also grew up in small communities, so they can immediately identify with the struggles these “people of otherness” go through .
In a separate Zoom call, Bob recalled poignant moments from season two, which were marked by intense ups and downs. In the Del Rio, Texas episode, a young man from Tejano named Esael was so divided about expressing his true self that he refused to invite his parents to see him on stage. In fact, he didn’t even tell them he was gay. He was afraid of how his parents, who are conservative and Mexican, would perceive him.
“It’s not about how they would react,” said Esael. “It’s about how they’re going to look at me. I’m gay, but I’m still Esael, I’m still her son. I don’t want my sexuality to be the only thing they see. “
Bob was convinced that Esael would not come to his parents. “No chance for a snowball in Hell – or in Del Rio, which is very hot.”
“I figured I’d just leave it and maybe he can have this moment with his sister and some friends. But when he announced that he was coming to them and that they would be coming to the show, I was thrilled. It was touching because I know how much I love to share the joy of my success with my mother. “
HBO / JAKE GILES CUTTER
In the Selma, Alabama episode, Bob was overwhelmed with emotion while speaking to a black woman named Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who was beaten by State Troopers on Edmund Pettus Bridge during the fateful Bloody Sunday civil rights march in 1965.
“It was a gratitude for being with someone who had endured so much to be where I am,” explained Bob. “It was also a feeling of guilt for having what I have and not having to go through what she went through.”
Certainly many of these cities are located in ultra-conservative regions with a biblical belt, where “Trump 2020” banners are as common as “Store For Rent” signs. Every drag kid they hire has their own heartbreaking story to tell, and many are traumatized. In Spartanburg, handsome, bearded Noah currently identifies himself as masculine and traditionally wears masculine clothing, but he has grappled with his gender identity. He fears that if he expresses his true nature, he will be persecuted and beaten.
Not all drag kids are LGBTQ. Some of the recruits are allies and include ex-homophobic mothers, Methodist pastors, and tormented brothers. The Spartanburg episode also follows Olin, who is straight with a brother who is a drag performer. By shearing off his beard and putting on himself, not only can he walk in his brother’s shoes (in this case high heels), but also identify with what his brother has been through and show his acceptance and support. At some point, Olin almost retires from the show, but collapses in tears of joy after his boffo drag performance. And so do I as a spectator.
The Drag Mothers help people go through miraculous transformations, and I asked Bob if the experience changed him too.
“I would say yes,” replied Bob. “I have a much deeper respect for these small towns and the queer people who keep their communities afloat.”
Warren stated that it was like a lightning strike when they came up with the show’s title, “We’re Here,” because that was exactly what they wanted to communicate. It pays homage to AIDS activist groups from the 1980s and 90s such as Act Up and Queer Nation, the “We’re Here! We are queer! To get used to something!”
“It makes us immensely proud to be able to honor those who invented this slogan by including it on a series that shows exactly what everyone has been fighting for – visibility and respect,” said Warren. He added that he would like these people to “live their lives as honestly, sincerely and openly as possible”.
What sets the docuseries apart from other drag-themed dishes are the ornate production values. Under the guidance of showrunner Peter Le Greco, the cinematography is breathtaking, beautiful, and often haunting.
“HBO gave us the tools to make this a very high quality show,” Ingram said. “Our goal is to achieve the down-to-earth, cinematic documentary storytelling style of ‘Paris is Burning,’ one of the most iconic documentaries of all time. And that’s a very high bar. “
Many of the “We’re Here” crew are also LGBTQ. Occasionally a member of the “Glam Squad” appears in front of the camera, applies eyeliner or shows one of the drag kids a sketch of a fabulous outfit.
“There’s a shared intent that I think will increase everyone’s work on the show because we know that if we get it right, it will change people’s lives,” Warren said. “It will not open people’s eyes through sermons, but through pure tokens of love.”
The Selma episode was especially powerful because it examined the relationship between black civil rights and LGBTQ civil rights.
“I love to feel, on an intellectual and emotional level, the intersectionality of gay and transgender rights with black people’s civil rights,” said Warren. “We are all part of the same fabric and together we are stronger.”
Bob agrees. In the Selma episode, he explains that the black fight is the queer fight.
“Often times people talk about queerness and really balance it with knowing what extinction is,” said Bob. “It doesn’t take into account that at every step there has been struggles for civil rights for blacks and civil rights for queer people. And often they are exactly the same people. “
HBO / GREG ENDRIES
According to Warren, people in these cities are amazed when the show shows them.
“Nobody thinks they’re special, nobody,” he said. “You just can’t believe we’d choose Twin Falls, Idaho or Del Rio, Texas. Because everyone is special, everyone can tell their story and everyone can influence others. And that’s really the whole point of the show that people interact and connect with those who otherwise would never have them. We show how important love and connection are. “
While their claims about the therapeutic benefits of transformation and liberation from performance in drag are all firsthand, this can indeed be backed by science. A recent deluge of books and articles on trauma suggests that interventions like being active in a supportive community, getting out of your comfort zone, and participating in a physical activity can actually reorganize your brain and help break the negative patterns caused by past trauma. In fact, it’s not difficult to say that being silenced or slandered because of a nontraditional gender or sexual identity is a form of developmental trauma.
When I suggested to Bob that he would in some way deliver some type of pull therapy, he insisted that he was not a licensed therapist.
“We just listen to them and connect on a human level,” he said. “To be honest, the only things I’m an expert at are drag and comedy. Besides that, I’m just a person who has a very human experience in the world. “