Photo by Greg Endries /HBO
Photo by Greg Endries/HBO
Eureka, Bob the Drag Queen, and Shangela arrive in style in Grand Junction, Colorado, on "We're Here."
HBO's "We're Here" teaches us to slow down, listen, and leave places we visit the better for it.
Sometimes a reality show is more than a reality show. Just as sometimes a drag show is more than a drag show. And then there’s HBO’s We’re Here—an under-the-radar series in which three queens produce one-night-only drag shows—starring locals—in small-town America. It’s a reality show, drag show, and on top of that, the best travel show in the United States. We’re Here does what I believe we should all strive to do as travelers—not only get to know the places we’re visiting but also leave them better off for our presence.
The premise of We’re Here is simple: Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka O’Hara, three drag queens who became famous as contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, go to small towns and cities like Ruston, Louisiana (p. 22,000) to put on drag shows starring three local residents. The costumes and pageantry and makeup are big-city worthy—the glitter-per-capita ratio of each episode might break any prior records for each town. But the real magic of the show is beneath the makeup.
Like the queens themselves, the residents featured in each episode have varying life stories. Some are LGBTQ folks struggling with their identities—or struggling to feel seen and celebrated in their communities. Some are straight people looking for a more robust way to show allyship with LGBTQ family members or colleagues. Although the stories of the individual “heroes” of each episode are foregrounded, the small-town communities are the source of the show’s poignancy. The confederate merchandise stores. The rows and rows of churches. The rows and rows of trailer parks. Throughout history, LGBTQ people often fled towns like these for big cities—and still do—but it’s powerful to get a glimpse into the simultaneous beauty and challenges of small-town queer life, such as how everyone has your back, even if they’re also talking behind it. And it’s powerful to watch Eureka, Bob, and Shangela try to grow that queer space, even a little, with their outsized personalities.
“It changed the way I travel,” Shangela told me over the phone recently. “I’m an avid traveler, I’ve performed on six out of seven continents. Antarctica might be next!” But like a lot of us, Shangela has mostly traveled to get something out of a place, not thinking about what to give back or leave behind. Do a show, get paid, move on. Or, as many of us might visit a museum, shop, eat, and move on. There’s something implicitly exploitative about that default model of travel—the communities give, the tourists take. We’re Here challenges us to consider a different model.
“We’re in these locations for at least two weeks,” says Shangela. “As a queer person and a drag entertainer, I think visibility is very powerful. We can have great influence as a source of inspiration for people in the community.” This isn’t just “a circus coming to town,” she adds. “We partner with locals who experience these communities every day and empower and really highlight who they are in these spaces.” And, says Shangela, hopefully leave the spaces being more welcoming than they were before.
Indeed, the show portrays its settings with as much nuance as its characters. People who throw hate at the hosts are definitely thrown some judgmental shade in return, but town folk who are quizzical and curious are treated equally quizzically by the production, as if to say, “You’re curious about the queer drag queens? That’s OK, we’re curious about you, too.” For instance, each time the queens enter a town—which they do in full drag for maximum effect—the camera often lingers on the staring locals, a choice that turns everyone into an oddity in a way. What results is a series that avoids caricatures of people or places. The towns aren’t reduced to stereotypes and neither are the people in them—just as queer people are more than stereotypes, too.
One episode features a man in Branson, Missouri, whose version of Christianity condemns his same-sex attractions. He’s juxtaposed with his mother, who is desperate for her son to live an out and proud life. The queens don’t lecture this young man, but simply listen and encourage him to find his own way to his own truth in his own time. The show—like queerness, like Christianity, like America—is complex and multifaceted.
Yes, a reality show that builds up to a performance is, by its very nature, performative. But during Pride Month, it makes me think about how in places like New York City or San Francisco, we might take pride marches, and queer visibility in general, for granted. We’re Here takes its name from the old gay rights march chant, after all: ”We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” And for the most part, liberal big cities did get used to it. Not so in Del Rio, Texas, and Watertown, South Dakota, which is important for us liberal big-city queers to remember.
The We’re Here queens aren’t just venturing to these towns as their larger-than-life authentic selves; they’re connecting more deeply with human beings and communities. In a small but significant way, they’re mobilizing the towns to change. And maybe encouraging those of us watching to bring our full selves to our own travel journeys and leave communities better for our having been there, too.
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