Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram’s Emmy and GLAAD Award-winning unscripted series We’re Here, directed and executive produced by Peter LoGreco, returns to HBO and HBO Max for its third season this Friday, November 25th, with even deeper, richer storytelling. Drag icons, Shangela Laquifa Wadley, Eureka O’Hara, and Bob the Drag Queen, continue their journey to conservative towns across the US, finding pockets of queer resistance and allyship wherever they go, that are often larger and more vocal than one might expect. Each episode sees the queens paired with a local drag daughter for the week, preparing them for a performance in a drag show staged by the production, which usually becomes the talk of the town. As Bob says at one point this season though, it’s not so much about drag as it is about “amplifying the voices” of their drag kids and enabling them to tell their stories through this artistic, often cathartic—and of course entertaining—form of self-expression. “We don’t hide in drag, we become even more in drag”, Shangela tells one of her drag daughters.
Since the series launched back in April 2020, there has been a relentless demonization of drag performers by right-wing extremist policymakers and media commentators. Apparently enraged by the mainstreaming of drag (along with a greater societal acceptance of queer folks), they have sought to characterize drag queens as a threat to children, with drag brunches and drag story hours becoming a particular target. Drag performers, along with LGBTQ+ folks and their families, have frequently been labelled “groomers”, a term usually associated with pedophiles. Essentially, their message is that they don’t want drag performers—and let’s face it, any queer people—let loose outside of our bars and clubs into the daylight. If they can’t erase us, they at least want us out of sight. Those loud voices have consequences. This week GLAAD published a report detailing 124 known incidents of protests and threats targeting specific drag events in 47 states this year so far, with the highest number occurring in Texas. We are all too aware of the devastating loss of life from atrocities like the massacres at Pulse in Florida and Club Q in Colorado, that hatred towards our community can lead to.
GLAAD also tracked eight pieces of proposed legislation in 2022 aimed at restricting or banning drag. This anti-drag offensive is of course connected to a larger wave of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies. 225 anti-LGBTQ+ state bills have been introduced this year alone, many targeting trans youth and their families. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law has inspired House Republicans who would like to see something similar apply not just to schools but to any federally funded institution. While Justice Clarence Thomas has indicated that the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality should be reconsidered following the overturning following Roe v. Wade.
What makes We’re Here such a special, vital series is that it confronts the impact of many of these issues—going beyond the attention-grabbing headlines, to examine how they affect the everyday lives of those living in conservative communities—while ultimately being an uplifting and hopeful show. Not because it’s contrived or superficially feel-good, but because it offers a way forward. We witness the strength of individuals, and of the queer community coming together in all its diversity and expansiveness, buoyed by and building upon the support of its allies, to fight for our right to exist and thrive right where we are. At a time when so many openly disparage us, use us to score political points, threaten our safety, or try to send us back into the closet—spoiler alert—We’re Here, and we’re not going anywhere.
The first episode of the season opens right in the thick of the anti-drag hysteria which has been sparked by a local Facebook page even before the queens’ arrival in Granbury, Texas—a town Bob describes as “the most contentious” place they’ve visited so far—with rumours swirling that the queens will take part in the town’s July 4th parade. Shangela’s drag daughter Adrienne, a cat-loving hair stylist and the county’s Democratic chair, is used to being targeted for her liberal views, and even faces backlash from some fellow Democrats for decorating their July 4th float with rainbow coloured ribbon. Adrienne demonstrated her solidarity with the town’s LGBTQ+ youth by organizing a pride event following the implementation of a book ban that saw the removal of titles highlighted by Texas lawmaker Matt Krause. It was a ban that had a direct impact Eureka’s drag kid in Granbury, nonbinary teen Lou, an activist who describes themselves as an “out and proud queer person” who founded their school’s GSA. According to Lou, 75% of the titles on the Krause banned list are queer themed. It’s particularly meaningful and touching to see Lou’s empowering drag performance with Eureka address the ban. Meanwhile Shangela’s planned Drag Story Hour in Granbury, to read some kids a children’s story about a bat, is cancelled amid security concerns following a threatening call and a new venue has to be found at the last minute.
As the queens walk around Jackson, Mississippi in the second episode of the season, we witness the kind of extreme attitudes that queer folks who live there are up against. Out of drag, Caldwell Tidicue aka Bob the Drag Queen who partly grew up in the state, is minding his own business looking for some ice cream when he’s verbally harassed on the street, called “an abomination” and a “pedophile”. It’s in Jackson where Bob is paired with the remarkable De’Bronksi. Over the course of the series, the three queens have all brought their own experiences to help them form a bond with their drag daughters, encouraging them to be self-reflective and De’Bronski’s story is a striking example of that. Although he’s clearly out of his comfort zone, he shows a lot of courage in how open and vulnerable he’s prepared to be on camera with Bob, a fellow Black Southerner. De’Bronski has some severe reservations about drag, in fact drag was actually the cause of a temporary rift in his relationship when he discovered that his fiancé James was a veteran drag performer, something that he’d somehow managed to hide from him for several years. Raised in an Apostolic Pentecostal household, De’Bronksi describes his childhood as “very hard and very dark”. His immediate family arranged an exorcism for him when they found out that he was gay and the trauma and lasting damage of that rejection of him as a teen because of his sexuality is something that he’s still working through. His We’re Here experience seems to have come into his life at just the right moment and the change within him feels profound, leading to an emotional breakthrough channeled into an incredibly powerful drag performance, which Bob rightly describes as “next level”.
Over the summer, the filming of this season of We’re Here became a news story when a public hearing was called in St. George, Utah to decide whether the city council should withdraw the permit it had already granted the production to stage their drag show outdoors. In the third episode, with all the tension of a court room drama, we hear the voices against the show parrot the words of right-wing lawmakers and media outlets, concerned for child safety. As the proceedings continue however, in one of the most moving sequences of the season, we see a stream of residents, both queer folks and allies, bravely speak up about the importance of the show happening in Granbury, despite the hostility from many in the room. Far from “corrupting” impressionable minds, they argue, the only influence the drag show might have on young people there is to make them feel more loved and accepted. With an alarming, disproportionately high suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth in the US, as one member of the community puts it without hyperbole, “having this drag show will save lives”.
St. George is dominated by a large Mormon temple, both physically and figuratively, with the Church’s influence recently leading to a proposed high school production of Rent being nixed. While Gaby, a young bisexual woman, opens up to Eureka about the struggle she had to accept herself in that environment, given the Mormon’s Church’s judgement of homosexuality, as well as the racism and sexism that she’s experienced.
At a time when there’s a push from some to separate the LGB from the T and other identities embraced by the LGBTQ+ umbrella, We’re Here continues to create much-needed and nuanced representation for those who are often sidelined, not just by society at large, but often within our own community. The series continues to open conversations about the expansiveness of gender identity and gender expression, not conceptually, but through lived experience. It’s subtle, not preachy, and often about the small moments. We see Eureka gently ask her motorcyclist drag daughter in Jackson, ally Chris, not to use ‘bro’ when referring to her which he quickly takes on board. While in St. George, Bob’s nonbinary drag daughter, Micah—whose own daughter has faced discrimination because of having a queer parent—offers their thoughts on the importance of using people’s correct pronouns in a local queer community forum. The show also takes time to look into the experiences of the parents of LGBTQ+ folks without judging their journeys towards acceptance, such as the mom of a young trans man, Toni, Shangela’s drag child in St. George.
As ever, there’s a lot of laughter to be had, along with the inevitable tears. As well as more scenes of Bob, Shangela, and Eureka interacting together this season, we also get a greater insight into what goes into shaping the final drag performances with their daughters, in terms of making decisions about the hair and makeup design, and creating the choreography. While each episode opens with the queens revealing some fierce, gag-worthy lewks as they arrive in town, they also have some phenomenal solo show-stoppers in the drag shows. Eureka’s lip-synch to the Kelly Clarkson cover of Radiohead’s Creep in a “freakish” creature ensemble is breathtaking and, along with Shangela’s take on Beyoncé’s Break My Soul, is one of this season’s highlights. We’re also looking forward’s to Bob’s solo moment, after last season’s hair-raisingly memorable one. In addition to an eclectic selection of performance tracks, there’s also a gorgeous score by Duncan Thum that effectively adds to the tension at times, while offering us a warm hug at the most emotional moments, but—unusually for a reality series—never feels manipulative.
This is first-rate storytelling that beautifully encapsulates and celebrates the defiant power of queer joy through the art of drag. Rather than resting in its award-winning formula, this show has sharpened and evolved to become even more pressingly current. We’re Here has always been a compelling and entertaining show, now it’s an urgent one that everyone needs to watch.
By James Kleinmann
We’re Here returns for its six-episode third season on Friday, November 25th at 10pm ET/PT. Episodes debut weekly on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max. Season 1 and 2 are streaming on HBO Max now.