A bizarre constellation of cultural products for a gay man, drag and soccer, occupy most of my waking thoughts; but, now, this is where I’m ironic: modern gay life prides itself on contradictions. We adore five* gay men who transform schlubs into LinkedIn headshots, all the while complaining of superficial Grindr guys. We throw off the shackles of monogamy, while making marriage equality the centerpiece of our legislative agenda at home and abroad. We don’t send nudes because we don’t want men to have power over us or our bodies, well, unless you want a daddy or you’re drunk, then nudes fly in iMessages better than anything Boeing sells. These contradictions I’ve mentioned are for gay men, and I’m not so naive or shackled to the radiator in the Ivory Tower as to assume gay and queer have substantive implications in my personal life, though they are good cultural aesthetic and historical terms. Indeed, dear reader, though Chris Kraus is correct in arguing that confession are standards in gay, queer life, she didn’t consider that “lonely faggot phenomenology” is a far less tantalizing project than her own, “lonely girl” iteration. Confession at some point can be grotesque, even dare I say neoliberal, but I must confess finally that my two loves, drag and soccer, I know nothing about. Zilch.
Here is what I know about soccer, or “socca” or football or footy: I love Chelsea FC. Founded in 1914, probably, the west London club has been one of the most successful clubs of the Premier League era, beginning in 1991. I think. Most of this success has come bursting forth from the pocketbook of former Russian oligarch, now Israeli citizen for visa purposes, Roman Abramovich. He made his money being ruthless during the liberalizing 1990s of post-Soviet Russia and since then has guided Chelsea FC slashing and burning their way to the tippity top of both English and European soccer. This strategy has cost him billions of dollars but alas, the trophy cabinet looks pretty full doesn’t it?
I’ve been to Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC three times now, but only to the fan shop where I can glitter and gaze at the sparkling silverware and spend 80 quid (what is that in USD again?) on replica shirts from my favorite current stars. There’s a statue of Steven Osgood out front, I guess, and a smattering of posters detailing the stats of Chelsea legends from John Terry and Frank Lampard to Marcel Desailly and Gianfranco Zola, the former assistant and interim manager in waiting. I’ve never been inside Stamford Bridge though I’ve been near the stadium on two game days when either friends had tickets or I wanted to be alone with a pint and a bunch of drunk men singing songs I pretend to know the words to long enough to fake communion.
This is the present. What I really don’t know anything of is the history of Chelsea FC, and the Scouse-cry from rival Liverpool fans of “you ain’t got no history,” as well as the cheeky fan website of the same title, ensconces that truth for me, flush against my flat screen tv, coffee in hand, NBC-Sports turned loud, Rebecca Lowe guiding me to the pitch for either a turgid draw or expansive win. Communion.
This brings me, then, to drag. What brought me to this essay was remembrance of a Tweet from RuPaul’s Drag Race season 8 finalist KimChi, which read (in)famously “if you can’t name 10 drags queens in your hometown you’re a fan of Drag Race not drag.” If you ain’t got no drag history, then you’re not a real fan, you’re a product. Drag once was a radical act of gender bending (did you know drag queens led the Stonewall Riots?), an artistic representation of the insanity of gender conformity and rules. I will again admit that my knowledge of these things ends here in the present. From what I can glean from watching and learning about drag from Drag Race, drag began in the early 1990s, when Rupaul released the song “Supermodel,” it’s famous refrain, “you better work” seared into my mind like a good brand, then around 2009, Rupaul emerged as gay-Tyra Banks on a lesser Viacom network called “LOGO,” for a competition show about a cultural artifact which like Rupaul himself, appears haggard and fuzzy in standard definition.
But, the show stuck and by Season 3, reached a larger audience of Tumblr Teens that production value went up, the prize money skyrocketed and a new form of drag emerges, Drag Race Drag. The contours of this aesthetic in the early years were a bit of a joke, “She’s a Drag Race queen,” or “Her style doesn’t fit with what the judges were looking for.” It had rules and those rules of the game emerged by fiat from Rupaul, wigged and bejeweled to the gods by her team of stylists. Yet, as The Documentarian ought to say, a strange thing happened in 2016: Drag Race migrated to the much higher budget VH1, and the culture and aesthetic of Drag Race flattened. This flattening from the introduction of funds will come as no surprise to English soccer fans who bemoan the loss of “proper English football” to the money-bags clubs, which in the years of Brexit should be read as skepticism for Johnny Foreigner rather than differences in playing style.
You must sense that for me, history is just that, a thing of the past. I certainly could learn a great deal about “Drag Race Drag,” and “Proper English Football,” if I learned the history of such things, read up on Lady Bunny and Glenn Hoodle. But frankly, I don’t give a damn. The history, flat text on a page is not what draws me to these cultural products. The joy I glean from Drag Race and Chelsea FC comes from the absurd characters and narrative in the present.
Consider this story: Alvaro Morata, Spanish striker, Champions League winner at the great Real Madrid, signed for Chelsea FC in 2017, then a club record signing. He cost a butt-load and began with a delightful smile and a smattering of goals to boot, donning the number nine shirt, which for Chelsea players has been cursed for over a decade. Sure enough, the goals dried up and Morata’s smile stoned over. He shaved his head and the coach was fired. He pulled a 2007 Britney: got serious and promised better work. Well, that didn’t help the pop star either. He seemed to have lost all joy, despite Chelsea returning to their winning ways in the early part of 2018. He scored a winning goal in the Europa League and didn’t smile, simply plastered an angry expression across his Madridista visage and yelled at the booing Chelsea fans. He appeared to be more of a Time Magazine cover about goth, Gen-X kids more than a footballer. He was loaned back to Spain, still on a Chelsea contract, unlikely to return.
His story possesses the magnificent flailing of potential found in literature. But, his character isn’t round just yet. In January 2019, he gathered the Spanish contingent of Chelsea players because he wanted to prove the impossible to them. Morata argued that if he threw a raw egg onto the pitch as hard and as high as he could, it would not shatter. Well, it did. And no single scene of great literature, not Dostoevsky, not Morrison, not Shakespeare could have rendered the abjection and joylessness Morata’s face expressed when he was wrong. He left Chelsea for good less than a week later.
The story of Morata then recalls Laganga Estranga, season 6 Drag Race contestant, whose line “I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now,” has become a staple of gay memes since, and whose collapse came from something she referred to as “marijuana withdraw.” Sure, Jan. Laganga possessed so much potential, but viewers reveled in her fall, her slow burn elimination from the competition. She has mostly given up drag all together and is a yoga instructor in Colorado, where they grow weed like Vietnamese rice farmers, tumbling down the Rockies.
But just as all great narrative possess the darkest depths of human suffering, they must possess the great joys of human triumph. Remember Katya, Season 7 competitor, recovering drug addict and triumphant spirit in the Drag Race work room. She relapsed as a result of over-scheduling and gave up drag for a while, but emerged honest about her struggles and the lapses in Drag Race culture.
Then, on the footballing end of things consider John Terry and Frank Lampard, proper English soccer thugs, whose partying was as legendary as their play on the field. Terry suffered the ignominy of having his English National Team captaincy removed for sleeping with his Chelsea and National teammate’s wife. Meanwhile, Lampard possessed a cocaine habit that would make Chris Farley blush, and I’m certain, encouraged his late scoring runs into the box. This past year, Terry helped guide Aston Villa back to the Premier League and Lampard’s name is linked with the vacant Chelsea job. Revival.
These stories, these characters, make up my personal history of these cultural products, and despite claims that the sport and drag culture has been flattened by finance, I hold these products to my heart. Though, maybe KimChi and the “Old Proper English Football” club are right. What we see now are products, not the real thing, money slayed the Real Thing. I want to disagree with them, but I also want the traditions of drag culture, those extending from geishas to men-playing-women in Shakespeare, and I want to remember the halcyon days of Chelsea FC when losing meant the pain of relegation to the Second Division, not the difference between $150 million and $90 million.
And yet, I can’t resist the opposite impulse, to remind the older scolds that history ended in 1991 and maybe tradition never actually existed. Maybe nostalgia can be anathema to the agenda of the scolds. Someone once told me one of his intellectual goals is to do just this, rescue nostalgia from those reactionary elements of our art and politics, who weaponize the non-existent past to promote white nationalism, or revanchist economic policy or even reactionary art. A worthy goal.
My question, then, is why can’t my nostalgia, my tradition, begin in 2004 for Chelsea FC, when Jose Mourinho declared himself “The Special One,” his team conceded fifteen goals all year, and they walked to the title by being bullies, anti-heroes, villains? Why can’t my Osgood, be my first darlings, Frank Lampard and John Terry? In Drag Race, why can’t I yearn for the days of Santino Rice and his dog face? Or, why can’t I believe that Sharon Needles surmounted the pinnacle of drag when she strutted onto the stage as a post-apocalyptic zombie, then a few weeks later called Phi Phi O’Hara a “tired ass show-girl?”
But, that was my childhood and I don’t yearn for that time, that life. I don’t want to be a perpetual child, strapped down, eye lids held open, watching highlights from the mid-aughts or the early 2010’s. I’m too tired for that, too consumed by my own ironic disposition, too nihilistic in an artistic sense and hopeful in a political one. Joan Didion, when writing about the women’s movement in The White Album suggests that the movement reflected a desire not to interrogate the world of men, not actually to engage with it, but instead, sought to retreat backwards into childhood, into the lives women had before the domestic sphere became consumptive. I see similar desires creep up in my own opinions about art and life, and I want to fight them, I actually want to interrogate the world around me, really attempt to reckon with art and politics and culture, in the present, situated in history. I don’t want to become the scold in twenty years bemoaning whatever style of football Chelsea play or the drag looks queens turn, though, I may. I certainly like to complain. This leaves me then in a tough spot, consumed by my dual desires to be correct and to enjoy good art. I have never learned how to reconcile those two desires of mine and I may never. For now, I think I’ll stay in the present.
*the original post said “six gay men” but there are only five in Queer Eye. I’ve never seen the show. Sue me.