Looking to ‘Drag Race’ for some queer history

Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez

Philadelphia-based authors Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez planned to spend the spring on a book tour to promote “Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life.” Instead, they’re stuck inside, weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. But necessity is the mother of invention, and the pair have found a way to educate and entertain, while also supporting a good cause.

In partnership with Airbnb and in honor of World Book Day, for a limited time, Fitzgerald and Marquez will host an informal reading and discussion of the history of queer culture and aesthetics covered by their book. All proceeds will be donated to the Ali Forney Center, which protects and supports LGBTQ+ youth. The event is currently sold out.

PGN spoke with Fitzgerald and Marquez about the inspiration for “Legendary Children,” life in quarantine and the importance of history. Some responses have been condensed and edited.

How did you become involved in this project with Airbnb?

TF: It was a real whirlwind. Airbnb contacted our publisher, said they were doing this event and specifically asked for us. Of course, we said yes. We had a book tour planned for all of March and most of April, which obviously had to be canceled. A lot of our promotional work since then has had to be virtual. We were thrilled for the opportunity — and, I have to admit, completely confused by it in the beginning. We had about 36 hours to pull the whole thing together, come up with a format for the experience, upload pictures. We devised a little program that we’re going to do: a little reading, taking questions and, because the book deals with drag and queer cultural history, there’s going to be a lot of video.

LM: We’re excited about it because this is the new reality now. Everything is done on the computer now. So, we had a whole thing organized for our promotional tour, but we have been able to do virtual interviews and things like that since. When we got this opportunity, we actually loved it, because we’re comfortable with it now. We’re going to be sharing this experience in a different way.

Obviously you have certain expectations that come up when you’re planning a book tour. How have you found it adapting to the new normal?

TF: It was an adjustment in the beginning. Our book came out on March 3, and basically everything was in lockdown by March 13. It happened so quickly, and to be perfectly honest, we were both kind of depressed. We planned it for a year, and then it’s all over. The first few times we did Instagram Live events, I wasn’t sure if we were connecting with people at all. But I think we got our groove, figured out what our expectations should be. When our book tour got cut short, I said to Lorenzo that all I wanted to do was get out in front of people and read and answer their questions. It was hard to let go of that. These virtual events will never take the place of face-to-face events in my mind, so what you have to do is find a way to turn them into something else.

LM: The great thing about this new experience is because, to me, it’s actually a little more personal. We were doing an interview about our book on Instagram, and our cats were walking around. At one point, I had to pick up the cat and show him to everyone. What I’m trying to say is that you can get a little more intimate, a little more personal, and I kind of like that. It’s not as formal as an in-person meeting.

What inspired you to write “Legendary Children”?

TF: The first thing I have to tell people who assume otherwise is that this is not a book about RuPaul, and it’s only nominally about “Drag Race.” It takes the format of “Drag Race” and the traditions in that — the library challenge, the snatch game, the runway — and explains how they were all traditions that arose out of queer cultural history. It allows us to go back and look at people like Crystal LaBeija, Marsha P. Johnson, all of these legendary figures in our cultural history. And it was very important for us to have the book be not just about drag queens but about queer people. So we have stories about lesbians, trans women, drag kings, bisexual and pansexual people who were in our history and developed our culture. It looks at things like lesbian pulp fiction and physic magazines from the 1950s, high glamour Hollywood female impersonation revues of the midcentury, and of course things like Stonewall and the AIDS crisis — and it ties all these things, in some ways, to “Drag Race.” The reason we did that is because we know “Drag Race” has a lot of young fans — some of them are queer, some of them are allies — and they may not know this stuff. We are middle-aged gay men, and we’re literally trying to teach the children all the stuff we know the show is alluding to.

LM: We tend to watch the show while following social media and seeing what people are saying about it. One of the things we noticed was that some people, especially the young viewers, didn’t get all the references made on the show. If you watch “Drag Race,” you can tell they pull a lot from the queer community, with references to movies, characters and many things. So some people might not get the joke, and that was one of the ideas behind the book — to get people to read a name or an event in the book, go to Google, and learn about that person and find out more. 

TF: It’s essentially Queer Cultural Studies 101, using “Drag Race” as the template. That’s the elevator pitch right there!

“Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life” ($17) is available wherever books are sold. For more information on the Airbnb experience, visit https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/1702068.