Exclusive Interview: creators of HBO’s Emmy-winning We’re Here Stephen Warren & Johnnie Ingram “drag can save lives”

With the first two episodes of season three of the Emmy & GLAAD Award-winning unscripted series We’re Here now streaming on HBO Max—and new episodes airing on Fridays at 10pm ET/PT on HBO—The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with its creators and executive producers, Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram. They discuss the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes and the brave people speaking up to bigotry that they encountered as they continued to document their road trip to small towns across the USA. This season sees drag legends, Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela Laquifa Wadley head to Texas, Mississippi, Utah, New Jersey, and Florida, helping to unite the queer community that they find there, while spreading love and acceptance through the art of drag. Confronted by more open hostility than ever, the queens’ presence proves to be urgently needed. In each town, the iconic trio inspire their “drag kids” to express their authentic selves in front of their families, friends, and communities by performing in empowering one-night-only drag shows. Read our ★★★★★ review.

We’re Here. Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I’ve seen the first three episodes of the season so far and it already feels like deeper, richer storytelling this time around. I was so involved in the lives of all of the people who we meet and their stories. What was your approach going into this third season?

Stephen Warren: “We didn’t know what we were going to come up against, but we could feel that there was a general sense that this country was going into a very dark place. Knowing where we were going, we thought that we may find things to be a bit different, but we didn’t have any real clue until we actually got there just how depressing, violent, and rageful some of these places could be. We wanted to continue to tell people’s stories in the most authentic way possible, but we also wanted to be able to document the resistance and the hate that we encountered. The juxtaposition of the beauty of people wanting to express their true selves with the weight of society and this theocracy that people in many of these towns want to impose—wanting to quash every ounce of queerness imaginable—has made this season more important than ever. I think it takes the show to a new place of not being just entertainment, but something that people need to watch. They need to see what happens in small-town America, and all throughout America, if we don’t stand up. We’re showing the stories of people who are standing up and willing to sacrifice their privacy and their personal safety. I’m very proud of this season.”

We’re Here. Shangela and her drag daughter Adrienne in Granbury, Texas. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

Johnnie Ingram: “In the previous seasons, you’ve generally seen resistance to our presence online, but what’s really shifted is that people have become more vocal offline and taken it into the real world. We wanted to continue to feature community leaders and we tried to find people who were willing to share their voices, their stories, and their particular struggles and, hopefully, how they overcame them. As we saw with Pastor Craig in season two, it’s not an easy choice to make because the consequences in these towns can be difficult. We have championed and supported the community leaders from our previous seasons wherever we can. Thankfully, Pastor Craig is now thriving and has definitely overcome the retaliation that he faced for being part of the show and has opened up a congregation that’s inclusive. He’s the happiest that he’s ever been and we’re so grateful for that.”

We’re Here. Eureka O’Hara and Lou in Granbury, Texas. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.
We’re Here. Lou performs in Granbury, Texas. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

“This season, in Utah for example, you see an entire town show up for us. In Texas, you see Lou standing up in their high school for queer books that are being banned locally and you see Adrienne fighting for the separation of church and state in her community, as well as the book ban. Not all of the drag kids this season are community leaders, but there are a few that we were able to highlight and we’re so proud of them. Hopefully sharing their stories will help to teach others how they can become community leaders themselves.”

We’re Here. Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, Eureka O’Hara in St. George, Utah. Courtesy of HBO.

One thing that makes We’re Here so special, is that although you take us to some dark places thematically, showing what the repercussions of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies are on people’s everyday lives, when an episode ends we’re feeling hopeful and empowered to take action ourselves. In the St. George, Utah episode that’s because we see all of those people who bravely speak up at the city council meeting when your drag show’s permit was in danger of being pulled. What what was that like to witness?

Stephen: “On the one hand, it was terrifying because I was looking around the room, which was absolutely packed, and I could see people with Bibles in their hands. I had no idea what was going to happen. All we knew was that there was a possibility that they were going to pull our permit with less than 24 hours before our show. There were certain people who were spewing vile hate and I couldn’t believe I was actually listening to it. These people were only five feet away from me saying these things about me. On the other hand, I made some wrong assumptions. There were certain people who I saw and thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to say something really negative’, but then they stood up and surprised me and said the most beautiful things imaginable. They weren’t queer, they were allies. I’ve never cried at a city council meeting before, but I did at this one. People were talking about how drag can saves lives, and someone said that this show was going to save lives. I hadn’t thought about it that like that before. It meant so much to me that they were not going to be stopped by bigoted people with crazy arguments. It was such a powerful experience. Walking out of the meeting, there was this sense of triumph as a result of people exercising their right to speak, and to speak the truth. It energized everybody and it was really beautiful to see.”

We’re Here. Eureka and their drag daughter Chris in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.
We’re Here. Eureka and their drag daughter Chris in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

Johnnie: “In St. George, we learned that being able to congregate as queer people and celebrate as a community and even the art of drag, can save lives, especially in a community where there a lot of people who have taken their own lives based on being raised in a religion that has been oppressive towards queer people. I think there’s a huge struggle in the Mormon Church right now on how to deal with LGBTQ+ life. People are standing up for LGBTQ+ folks and they really need to because the local government and the institutions in and around St. George are predominantly Christian-operated. How do you stand up against all of that oppression? I think that this drag show was a real opportunity. We could come from an outside perspective, but also come with love. There was this rhetoric happening in and around town that we were something to be afraid of and hopefully when they see the episode, they’ll see that there is absolutely nothing to fear. This is a community that’s all about love and support, and that’s similar to what the Mormon Church hopes to ignite within their communities. We hope that they can see the LGBTQ+ community in a different light. I know that they’ve got a long way to go, but that’s really what the purpose of We’re Here is, to show that there is nothing to fear.”

We’re Here. Shangela, Bob and Eureka with their drag kids Toni, Gaby, Anjanae, and Micah in St. George, Utah. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

Stephen: “When the show happened in St. George, Johnnie and I were standing in that audience of a couple thousand people. Behind us they had pride lights lit up on the mountain, which was absolutely beautiful. Then lit up behind the stage, was the steeple of the of second largest Mormon temple. The juxtaposition of that was so powerful. That moment was special and very beautiful to be part of.”

We’re Here. Eureka and Shangela in Granbury, Texas. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

In the time that you’ve been making the series there’s been a demonization of drag queens by extremist right-wing policymakers and media. In season 3, you take us right into the thick of the real-life repercussions of that. How surprised have you been that drag queens have become such a target of hate and fear-mongering?

Stephen: “This is what we faced this season. We were shocked that because of the midterm elections, for whatever reason, trans people and drag queens became the narrow focus of so much hatred. It was like, ‘let’s get these people’. There’s a scene in the Texas episode where there’s a woman who looks like a perfectly sweet person, who is holding a sign that says “free drag queen repellent prayer”. I was thinking, ‘How is this happening?!’ When Shangela talked to her, she said that she had a queer friend who is fine with her holding that sign and that they don’t mind her doing it because she’s just expressing her views. No, they’re not fine with it! This is what’s got to stop. It makes me so frustrated that people could hold a sign like that and think that. No, what you’re doing is hurting people. You’re causing irreparable damage to people’s psyche and their self-esteem when you do something like that. Don’t do it!”

We’re Here. Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, Eureka O’Hara in St. George, Utah. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

“The other thing that infuriated me that we encountered in St. George—and this happened in South Dakota when we were there too—is that for some reason it’s seen as unacceptable for men to wear women’s clothes in public. There’s the idea that you need to protect children from it. That’s what these people are saying: don’t put people in drag in a public park at night next to a closed children’s museum. But at the same time, let’s have everyone dress up in these incredibly sexual outfits for Halloween, or let’s have women wear bikinis in the park. Are you going to stop that? What are you going to stop next? Why is there a problem with a man wearing feminine clothes and makeup?”

We’re Here. Shangela with her drag daughter Mark in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.
We’re Here. Shangela with her drag daughter Mark in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

Johnnie: “There is this inherent fear of drag from some people. They’re saying that it’s okay for drag to exist in a nightclub under a bridge after-hours because drag queens are these hyper-sexualized beings, but that’s not at all what drag is about. Drag is about self-expression. Yes, there are different types of artists and, sure, we can perform at night, but we should be able to walk the streets whenever we want just like anyone else. A lot of people are afraid of and want to push away and oppress drag by saying that it’s okay to be yourself in that room, in that basement, or in that nightclub, but that it’s not okay to come outside of that space. Times are changing, they’re evolving and the drag arts have become quite evolved as well. Drag queens look great during the day! It’s a different art form for makeup and styling for the day than it is at night because the lighting is different, but drag brings real joy day or night.”

We’re Here. Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela in Granbury, Texas. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

“There are different types of artists, just like there are different types of human beings, and this show is really about human connection. It’s about love and support of each other. That’s what we want to show and we leave behind this beautiful documentary of these individual towns, hoping that people will watch and say, ‘Oh, maybe I misjudged. Maybe, I don’t need to repel drag queens. Perhaps I can actually sit down and talk to my friend and understand our differences or at least agree to disagree, because we all live on this planet together’.”

We’re Here. Bob the Drag Queen, De’Bronski, Gloria, Joshua “Domino” Schwartz, and Laila McQueen in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.
We’re Here. Bob the Drag Queen’s drag daughter De’Bronski gives a powerful solo performance, which Bob describes as “next level” in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

As you know, I’ve loved this series since the first episode, but over the course of its three seasons We’re Here has become even more urgent. I hope we get many more seasons.

Stephen: “You have a unique appreciation of the nuances of so much of what we’ve been trying to do with this show. From the first review that you wrote, I couldn’t believe that you had picked up on so much of what we wanted people to see and feel. We want people to feel the same emotions, the same anger, and the same pride that you did. I think our Florida episodes that are coming up this season may be our best yet. I want We’re Here to be renewed because we have so many more stories to tell that are not being told and God knows what’s going to happen over the next two years in this country.”

We’re Here. Shangela and drag daughter Adrienne in Granbury, Texas. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.
We’re Here. Shangela’s drag daughter Adrienne in Granbury, Texas. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

Johnnie: “You see a lot of queer programing being cancelled and we really need to show up for each other. Eyeballs are votes and watching queer shows and getting people to show up for queer entertainment is important. If you’re already watching We’re Here, then expand who you’re watching it with. Watch it with your parents or watch it with a loved one. I think that’s something that could really go the extra mile in growing the audience. I watch it with my mother and she loves the show. She lives in a small town in East Tennessee and can relate to how difficult it is to exist in these towns. She understands what my struggles were when I was living and growing up in a small town.”

We’re Here season 3. Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka, and Shangela. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand what a drag show can do and what kind of changes it can create in a small town. Yes, it’s a drag show, but it’s not about drag, it’s about human connection and it’s about people who wouldn’t normally sit down and talk to each other actually doing the work and talking it out. Hopefully we can get more people to watch and to see the real change that can happen if you show up for each other.”

By James Kleinmann

The first two episode of We’re Here season 3 are now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes debut on Fridays at 10pm ET/PT on HBO and are available to stream on HBO Max. Season 1 and 2 are streaming on HBO Max now.

We’re Here Season 3 | Official Trailer | HBO

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