A series of book covers surrounding the contestants of RuPaul's Drag Race UK series 2
A series of book covers surrounding the contestants of RuPaul's Drag Race UK series 2

When the people who created RuPaul’s Drag Race first pitched the show to networks back in the 2000s, they couldn’t get a green light – drag just seemed too underground, too edgy, even if the queen of charisma, RuPaul, already had his own popular talk show on VH1.

It was only after LogoTV, an LGBTQ+ pay per view channel, eventually went for the idea that in 2009 Drag Race first hit screens. A lot like America’s Next Top Model, it was a reality show that invited a cast of young, hopeful contestants to take part in (sometimes demeaning) weekly challenges in order to compete for a shot at superstardom. In Drag Race’s case, this meant the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, and to win, queens were invited to lip-sync for their lives. 

 

After countless seasons, and a decade later, RuPaul’s Drag Race can be credited with catapulting drag from a side art to a mainstream phenomenon. Drag Race is shown in over 70 countries – including most recently, with the debut of RuPaul's Drag Race UK – and DragCon, the show’s accompanying convention, invited tens of thousands through its doors in Los Angeles, New York and Europe.

Having been to DragCon myself (to research my book, Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture), and spoken to its guests, I can tell you not everyone there was LGBTQ+. One couple from the American South told me that their only two weekly rituals were to go to church and pray, and to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race

In this sense, Drag Race has introduced a hugely broad audience to LGBTQ+ people’s stories, and for that, we have to thank it. But there are many, many more stories of drag queens and kings, gender-nonconforming people and camp icons out there waiting to be discovered. So, as RuPaul’s Drag Race has now sashayed to the UK (had to!) for two successful series, we've gathered a selection of books to keep learning about and celebrating drag culture and the LGBTQ+ community.

 

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (1602)

Drag in Britain is often traced back to the late 16th Century, when rules in the Church meant that only men could perform on stage, and so had to play the female roles in theatre. This was the case in many of William Shakespeare's plays that were performed at the time they were written.

Yet Twelfth Night really is the original drag story, since the entire plot revolves around a brother and sister who are mistaken for one another, swapping gender roles. One of Shakespeare’s lighter plays, it’s a rom-com (if you will), and follows what happens after twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a shipwreck. Viola impersonates her brother to work for a Duke called Orsino, who she falls in love with. Then, when Orsino sends Viola to court a countess for him, the countess falls in love with Viola. Then Sebastian shows up, and everyone thinks he is Viola – you get the idea. This one still looks queer today. 

 

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. (1964) 

Met with outrage in America, subject to an obscenity trial in the UK, and banned in Italy, Last Exit to Brooklyn really pushed the envelope when it was first released in the 1960s. A look at working-class lives in the New York borough of the title, it’s written in vignettes, with six stories focussing on six key characters.

One of these sections, 'The Queen Is Dead', meets Georgette (who at the time of writing, and in the book, is described as a "transvestite hooker") as she is thrown out of her family home and heads to a party where she spends the night wired on Benzedrine while trying to seduce a man named Vinnie. Hubert Selby Jr.'s writing reflects Georgette’s mental state: speedy, with dialogue and action melding into one another. Brusque and full of slang, Last Exit to Brooklyn feels harsh, but the characters are totally convincing. 

Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag (1964)

You know how there’s no smoke without fire? Well, there’s no drag without camp, which makes Susan Sontag’s famous essay feel important here. Notes on Camp is credited with being the piece of writing that best puts into words what the slippery concept of camp means. Sontag explains that camp is a sensibility, "a private code" and "a badge of identity, even". She writes: "Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," continuing, "camp sees everything in quotation marks." Camp is at the core of all good drag because it ties together theatricality, irony, and sometimes, a certain self-awareness. It is that knowing kind of humour and silliness that pervades RuPaul’s Drag Race, and really, much of queer culture more broadly. 
 

Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)

What is perhaps most remarkable about Virginia Woolf’s gender-shifting and time-traversing experimental novel is that, at over 90 years old, it still feels utterly radical today. Often described as a “romp”, Orlando follows our eponymous protagonist from Knole (the family home of Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West) through 400 years of history, multiple continents, and across genders (Orlando morphs from male to female).

It’s a fantastical exercise in what happens when you take away the constraints of identity or limits placed on gender (particularly, how a woman should act or the spaces she can enter). In that sense, it’s a must-read for any drag enthusiast, but is an especially powerful reference point for any drag kings out there, who – like Orlando – deconstruct the idea of male privilege through the performance of gender. It has also just been reimagined as Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, a brilliant new book from Andrea Lawler that transposes some of the story and ideas of Orlando into '90s punk America. 
 

The Drag King Book by Del LaGrace Volcano (1999) 

Orlando undoubtedly brings us onto The Drag King Book – one of the most rare and wonderful photo essays to ever grace the earth. Del LaGrace Volcano is an intersex photographer from America, living in Sweden, who in the '80s and '90s captured this incredible collection of portraits of drag kings, women and genderqueer people dragging up as men and/or performing masculinity. There are over 100 images in the book, and the introduction is provided by the incredible trans queer theorist Jack Halberstam (author of a number of books that are also worth checking out). As the synopsis promises, the book asks a vital question: “Why have drag kings not been as numerous or as popular as their drag queen counterparts in popular culture?”
 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978-2014)

A series of nine books by the gay American writer Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City follows the life of a woman called Mary Anne Singleton after she decides to up and leave her dreary Ohio life to move to San Francisco, where she embeds herself in a community of eccentric and largely LGBTQ+ characters. The books are funny, but also deeply moving, quick reads that delve into the power of human connection, but also touch upon what straight culture can learn from queer culture. To see the story come alive, watch the '90s TV adaptation recently revamped by Netflix.

 

Diary of a Drag Queen by Crystal Rasmussen (2019)

Tom Rasmussen is a London-based journalist, musician and performer. In Diary of a Drag Queen – written, unsurprisingly, like Bridget Jones’ Diary if she were a drag queen – Tom seamlessly interweaves their own life story with that of Crystal, their drag queen alter ego. Tom is a broke, working-class, gender-nonconforming person from Lancaster; Crystal is a wealthy and gorgeous Russian heiress with a taste for the finer things in life. Together, they are able to find self-acceptance, some degree of fame and even true love. This is, in parts, a truly heartbreaking queer memoir (by a non-binary writer – an experience we still don’t hear much about) but it’s also cry-laugh-inducingly funny, and one of the best love letters to drag that exists.

 

Out of the Shadows by Walt Odets (2020)

In this moving 2020 book, Walt Odets draws on his lifetime of experience as a clinical psychologist – as well as his own experiences of love with other gay men – to explore the nuances of gay life in the modern world: out of stories of tragedy and trauma, oppression and suppression, Odets wrings meaning and definition to what it has meant, what it means, and what it can mean to live as a gay man. That it’s written so beautifully, with warmth and empathy, makes it all the more resonant and compelling.

 

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (2021)

It’s hard enough to grow up queer; in this crucial YA ‘memoir-manifesto’, destined to be a classic, LGBTQ+ activist George M. Johnson illuminates just how much harder it can be to grow up under the duality of being queer and Black. From stories of being beaten up to the loving, vulnerable relationship they developed with their grandmother, Johnson paints a moving portrait that engages with gender identity, toxic masculinity, inequality and consent while making room for brotherhood, family, and Black joy.

 

Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric by Madison Moore (2018)

Building on Sontag’s essay with a smart, sexy and poignant update for the modern day is academic Madison Moore’s book Fabulous. By tracing what “fabulous” means through art, music, fashion and other forms of pop culture, Moore begins to establish that being fabulous it is not just, well, fabulous, but a political mode of resistance. It is a concept that encapsulates how some of the most marginalised people in society – namely queer, femme, trans and non-binary people of colour – harness creativity, drama and self-belief as a form of empowerment. Just look at voguing balls as a prime example. “It’s about making a spectacle of oneself in a world that seeks to suppress and undervalue fabulous people,” writes Moore, fabulously. 
 

Blame It on Bianca Del Rio by Bianca Del Rio (2018)

Fans of Drag Race: why not hear about it from someone who experienced the competition first-hand? In Blame It on Bianca Del Rio, the no-holds-barred insult comic and winner of the show’s sixth US season takes up Joan Rivers’ mantle, letting her snarky opinions on day-to-day life fly. The first drag queen to ever headline Wembley, and one of the most recognised queens alive – she was dubbed “the most powerful drag queen in America” by New York Magazine in 2019 – it’s a lighter, funnier book that illuminates the wry side of drag.

 

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

Image: BBC

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