Yvie Oddly’s win on season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race was not herstoric in and of itself. No, there have certainly been black queens to win before her like Bob the Drag Queen in season 8, or Bebe Zahara in season 1. And there was no last minute competition gaggery like when, in All Stars 4 Ru did a double crowning. But, the fact that it comes as the latest in a string of title wins by black queer and trans people in drag pageants and even leather competitions, makes it a reversal of the histories we have seen in our community.
Drag Race is not a pageant in the classic sense, but it is no doubt a modern iteration of the drag pageant. And as such, is the most well known drag pageant in the world, presided over by a Black queen in RuPaul, and now with its latest winner being Black herself. But last Friday, the “Dancing Diva of Texas” Kennedy Davenport, who made it to top 4 of Drag Race season seven and top two of All Stars season 3, took home the top title at the Miss Gay USofA pageant.
Entering the competition with the title of Miss Lonestar USofA, Davenport participated in five days of competition with interview, evening gown, and talent categories. For her group of competitors, ahead of the final crowning, Davenport was given the Best Interview and Best Evening Gown trophies for her group, posting that she was “humbled and anxious” for the wins. The top title was a longtime dream of the Texan queen, and she had competed for it previously.
“Congratulations to Kennedy for winning Miss Gay USofA!” Trinity the Tuck wrote on Twitter. “I know how much u have wanted this over the years! So happy for your success gal!” But she wasn’t the only winner that weekend. Jack Thompson, a Black trans man, beat out 67 other leathermen to take home the International Mr. Leather sash on Sunday — that title is the highest ranking in the world for leather competitions. He became the fifth Black IML and the second openly trans IML in history to do so. But the pair join at least five other major Black queer and trans people currently holding major titles.
In addition to Oddly, Thompson, Davenport, and Monet X Change (courtesy of her double win with Trinity the Tuck in All Stars 4) reigning Black title holders include Miss International Queen 2019 Jazell Barbie Royale, who was the first Black woman to be crowned in that pageant for transgender women, beating out 19 other contestants. And the entire current lineup of Continental pageants is occupied by Black beauty: Miss Continental Stasha Sanchez, Miss Continental Plus Darcel Stevens, Miss Continental Elite Kayla Chanel Dupree, and Mr. Continental Sir’Twon Brown.
“It’s a great thing for Black people, but it’s a step forward for pageantry period,” Drag Race season 11 finalist A’Keria C. Davenport told Out in an interview. “Many may not know years ago, for people of color it was very hard to win a pageant because of what the system was looking for and the image that they wanted. So a lot of systems came about, like Miss Black Universe and Miss Black America, so that people of color could showcase their talents in a place where they actually have a chance.” A’Keria won the Miss Black Universe title in 2017, adding to her long résumé of titles.
As the mostly oral history of the ballroom community goes, this idea of creativity in the face of exclusion is integral to that scene’s creation. Though balls trace their legacy back to the 1920s, the most modern iteration of the community, which is centered around houses, looks most neatly to the early 1970s for its inception. At the time, drag queens competed in pageants and many times queens of color were expected to whiten their skin with makeup and diminish physical markers of their race. A story that is often times credited to Pepper LaBeija, but sometimes Crystal LaBeija, says that when judges would say they had “negroid features” they would respond with “That’s all right, I have white eyes.”
The 1967 film The Queen chronicles the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant put on by Miss Flawless Sabrina. Crystal Labeija, a popular drag queen who was then Miss Manhattan and one of the few Black queens to ever win Queen of the Ball at a white-run event (she was also the first drag queen RuPaul saw perform in New York) competed and won third runner-up. During the crowning she walked off the podium, delivering a blistering read to the camera accusing Sabrina of rigging the proceedings, and later vowing to never walk in a white pageant again — this read was referenced heavily in Aja’s impersonation of Crystal in her All Stars Snatch Game appearance. As the story goes, her friend Lottie LaBeija, came up with the idea to start throwing their own ball for Black queens (Black queens had already been throwing balls and pageants) but have it put on by a “house” as a bit of a marketing ploy. To appease Crystal, she took on the name of LaBeija and in 1972 the pair started a legacy that traces through to today.
“To see that those other systems that don’t have the word Black in front of them [or weren’t made specifically for people of color] are actually recognizing our talents, it shows that there’s growth going on in the community,” A’keria said. And it’s not just in the queer and trans communities: in beauty pageants the current Miss Teen USA, Miss America and Miss USA, held by Kaleigh Garris, Nia Franklin, and Cheslie Kryst respectively, are all Black.
There are some outside the pageant world that may think or say “it’s just a title,” or “it’s not that serious,” and for those people maybe it’s not — but usually for those people, they have always had or seen people they identify with achieve these titles. For them it means little. But for those who haven’t historically seen themselves in those positions, affirmed as a standard of beauty to the entire world, seeing someone that looks like you or mirrors your life experience — whether you’re canonized as the perfect leatherman, or even America’s Next Drag Superstar — can be the difference between finding comfort and confidence in one’s own body as one who endlessly pursued a benchmark that never considered you.