Tonight’s episode of the Emmy-nominated We’re Here, the fourth in season two, sees drag superstars Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka arrive in Selma, Alabama. It’s a town that is of course known internationally for its prominent place in the US civil rights struggle partly because of the more than six hundred foot soldiers, including the late John Lewis, who were brutally beaten by State Troopers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7th 1965.
Paying homage to those freedom marchers, the queens walk through town in 2021 in 1960s inspired looks and later meet with four women who were on the bridge that day. As always, each queen takes on a drag kid to prepare them for a memorable show, including Bob’s drag daughter, dance instructor Akleelah who shares that “Selma is a dangerous place for trans women” such as herself. The town does have a support and resource centre for Black Trans and LGBTQ+ folks in rural Alabama though, The Knights & Orchids Society.
Ahead of the episode airing on HBO at 9pm ET/PT on Monday November 1st, and streaming on HBO Max, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Bob the Drag Queen about the profound impact being in Selma had on him, the importance of acknowledging that the Black and queer struggles for equality are inextricably linked, Bob’s enthusiasm for officiating weddings, and what it was like to be reunited with her We’re Here siblings, Eureka and Shangela.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: condragulations on season two, I was a little bit nervous before watching the new episodes because I enjoyed the first season so much, but I’m happy to report that I love this season just as much and in fact it’s even richer and deeper I think.
Bob the Drag Queen: “Thank you James, that’s great to hear! I definitely think we did a great job with season one, but we really found our groove with season two and I think it’s even better. I’m very proud of this show.”
Did you have a different approach or attitude going into season two, either from your experience of having made the first season or just from this crazy year and half that we’ve all had?
“Maybe a better understanding of what it means to make the show. I mean, with episode one, season one, we went in blind, we didn’t know what we were doing. This is HBO’s first unstructured television show, they’d never done a show like this before, so in a way we were all going in blind, but I think we’re really doing a good job of figuring it out.”
One of the most powerful episodes this season is in Selma, Alabama. You say towards the beginning that ‘people’s queerness is really diminished’ there, what did you hope that Selma might get out of We’re Here being there and that the audience would get from seeing the town?
“I hope that people can see the amazing things that communities like the The Knights and Orchids Society are doing over in Selma, Alabama. We call the show We’re Here so people can realize that there are queer people in all these communities, all these towns; we are here, we’re everywhere you are. You don’t need queer people to make queer people, we will pop up anywhere, invited or not, queer people will show up to the party!”
“I don’t think that a show like We’re Here is going to fix all of Selma’s problems and I think that’d be short-sighted and probably a bit of a savior complex approach to think that it would. But I certainly hope that it can help in any way that it can. Selma has given the world so much and if I can give back even an iota of what Selma’s given us, then that’s a step in the right direction.”
What do you admire about the people who you meet on We’re Here, like Akeelah in Selma, who are visible, living their truths, despite as she describes it, her town being a potentially hostile environment?
“As she said on the show, she was just sick of living in the shadows and she didn’t want to live in corners and be someone’s secret hook up. That’s why it was so beautiful to see Akeelah and Derrick on TV. To see a Black man, openly loving a Black trans woman on TV is so profound, it is so huge. I am trying to think of another time that I’ve seen that and I don’t know that I have anything to call on. I think that talking about the DL scene, the down-low scene, is so vital because it is one of the biggest threats to Black trans women, who are quite possibly our most vulnerable population.”
I love that moment where Derrick is talking about Akeelah and he breaks into a huge smile.
“They’re a really beautiful couple. I have a lot of love for Derrick and Akeelah.”
How important is it for you as a drag mom on the show to encourage the drag daughters to express them themselves rather than you imposing ideas on them?
“I hope I’m not imposing anything on the drag kids because we really try to cater the numbers to them. Some of our drag kids do not have any notion about performing. There are people like Akeelah in Selma who is a lifelong performer versus someone like Barbara and Yvon in Indiana who have no experience performing whatsoever. So sometimes we have to do a lot more guiding and leading towards the performance, whereas Akeelah was a choreographer on her own number.”
I know you had already officiated a wedding, but I imagine it was probably not a full scale drag wedding as we got to see on We’re Here with Barbara and Yvon in Indiana?
“That was the biggest wedding I’d ever officiated and it was really a blast! I’m always down to officiate more weddings. To be able to celebrate people’s love, especially queer love, in front of their community and to make it seen and known and heard and to claim our seat at the table as queer people is so powerful. Especially when it is people like Barbara and Yvon who have been shifting the needle for progress in their communities for 50 years, and not just for other queer people, they are just amazing people in that area of the country. So listen baby, if you’re out there and you want Bob the Drag Queen to officiate your wedding hit me up honey, go to BobTheDragQueen.com. I would love to officiate your wedding! Are you married, James?”
I am, yes, otherwise I’d be hitting you up to do it for sure! I was just thinking I would have loved you to have officiated, it would have made it even more special.
“Who did you use James? Who did you use?!”
She was a local registrar in Brighton in England, she was lovely though. Have you been there?
“Yes, I have been to Brighton, I went there for Pride.”
Did you see the Royal Pavilion?
“I did, yeah. I took a tour of the Pavilion.”
We got married in there in the Music Room, which is featured in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever the Barbra Streisand movie, the one wear she wears that jewel encrusted egg-shaped hat! It’s a room filled with dragons and other very elaborate decor.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been in that room, it’s really cool. One thing that I loved when I went to Brighton was the way that everyone says, ‘sor-ray‘”. [exaggerated, but very accurate Brighton accent]. “Everyone in Brighton apologizes a lot, no matter what you do. If you bump into them even if it’s your fault, they’re like, ‘sor-ray!'”
Actually, living away from England now I’m more aware that ‘sorry’ is quite passive aggressive, sometimes it’s actually more of an ‘f-you’. But we are generally pretty polite people.
Going back to the Selma episode on We’re Here, it felt like a profound experience for you. I’m glad that the show made time for some of the discussion that you had with four women who had been on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965; Lynda Blackmon Lowery, Joyce O’Neal, JoAnne Bland, and Afriye We-kandodis. What was meeting them like for you?
“As you saw, it was really emotional for me. Sitting across from people who were foot soldiers on Bloody Sunday in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was really profound. I was living in a space of gratitude. I was completely grateful to these women and for what they had done. I am aware that my ability to sit here and have this conversation with you is a direct reflection of the actions that happened on that bridge that day.”
“It was one of those moments where I ended up crying. I lost myself in the midst of that moment because I was just so moved and grateful. I was thinking to myself that so much has happened between not just the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge people, people who have not lived to the year 2021, people who did not even make it out of the 1800s here in America, so that I can be here. I was hit with this notion that I have to make my life impactful because of how much was sacrificed for me to be here today.”
Something that you mentioned in the show is the intersectionality of the queer struggle and the Black struggle, why is it important to you that they are seen as linked?
“People talk about queer people like they’re not talking about Black people, which I find offensive, because if you talk about queer people, you’re talking about me. Here I am. My black ass, my queer ass. And if you talk about Black people, you are talking about queer people, because, hello again, Mary, here I am!”
“In some spaces queerness is like linked to whiteness, which I find really interesting and really odd and really problematic and smacking of white supremacy. I am interested in dismantling that notion and letting people realize that that the queer community is made up of way more than just a bunch of white twinks dancing around on molly. There’s also Black twinks dancing around on molly! And Asian twinks dancing around on molly, and so on and so forth!”
There are more scenes of you three queens together this season and they seem to be more emotional moments too. What was it like reuniting with Shangela and Eureka and did things feel a little different with them this season?
“Yeah, it felt really beautiful to be back together. It was really wonderful to reunite, especially in Spartanburg of all places where we were essentially split up last year. I think that maybe what you’re seeing is gratitude, us being grateful for work and being able to continue our work. Of course we did have contact over the break, it wasn’t radio silence until we got back together, we called each other and we still collaborate on ideas to this day. Obviously Eureka did an entire season of Drag Race All Stars in the in-between time too.”
What did you make of Eureka’s All Stars performance?
“I thought Eureka did a really good job. I’m very proud of Eureka. I’ve known Eureka since they were first on RuPaul’s Drag Race and it’s been really remarkable to see the maturity and the growth that they’ve been through. They’re a whole different person. They’ve really grown up a lot and I think that they were going through a lot during their first season on Drag Race with their mom was passing away. Eureka has been through a lot.”
I love that you included your niece in that big hair moment during the drag show in Selma. I had to rewind that performance and rewatch it because I was like, how did that happen?!
“Yeah, people think it was faking, but we were not faking! There wasn’t a wig replacement, no, that was actually my niece on my shoulders the whole time. That’s my brother’s daughter Neveah. I’m very grateful that that Tashira and Justin allowed Neveah to join me for this wonderful episode. I really love her, she’s so great, and I’m so glad she’s part of it. She’s so cute. How cute is my niece? Like, she’s the fucking cutest!”
By James Kleinmann
Season 2, Episode 4 of We’re Here in Selma, Alabama airs on Monday November 1st 2021 on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.