With “Children,” the married duo — known for their taste-making takes on television and fashion for over a decade on their blog Tom + Lorenzo — turn in a 250-plus page love letter to queer identity that uses Ru’s successful show as their entry point.
As they explain throughout the book, each piece of the competition show — from its “Werk Room” to its challenges to its successful contestants — comes to the audience rife with LGBT history. As does, of course, the art of drag itself.
There would be no superstardom for RuPaul without transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, drag pioneers like Julian Eltinge, Charles Pierce and Divine, or the countless others who didn’t have a platform like reality TV to change the world. Yet, they did it anyway.
“Children,” however, never preaches to its readers. Fitzgerald and Marquez write as if they’re talking over mimosas at brunch. Their style is littered with drag terminology but remains endearing and honest. The book works hard to be authentic, even if its tone might not speak to everyone.
Take, for instance, their chapter-long discussion of one of the signature challenges of “Drag Races.” The riff on the “Match Game” “challenges your improv skills, your wit, and your impersonation skills,” one contestant explains. “Without these three things, a drag queen might as well not call herself a drag queen.” With the contestants impersonating celebrities, the game is as much a comedy contest as it is one that pushes queens and viewers to do their pop culture homewerk.
For every botched Beyoncé impression (so far, the show’s seen three), viewers are also treated to wildly entertaining depictions of Little Richard, Mae West, Paul Lynde, Marlene Dietrich and others who may be lesser known to younger audiences but have influenced queer identity.
“Legendary Children” is most successful in the moments when it leaves “Drag Race” to make sense of drag as an art form. These moments touch on everything from early American drag figures to a lesson on lip-syncing to the art form’s low-budget origins. The book clearly recognizes what it is not: a read-all, know-all drag opus. From the very first pages, Fitzgerald and Marquez challenge the audience to read their book one-handed, so they can do their own research in tandem.
“It’s important to know these things in order to understand just how brave and. . . fierce our queer forebears actually were,” they write. “[They] just kept on going, surviving and then thriving, creating art, communities, and families — and redefining all three in the process.”
That statement serves as the book’s main takeaway. It took decades of boundary-pushing to get to a place where a show like “Drag Race” can be a wild success. For younger (and perhaps all) fans of the show, this book should be required reading, a fabulous companion that fills in the gaps left off-screen.
The show remains very gay — as pointed out by past contenders — and sparsely centers the lesbian, transgender or bisexual experience. And, while many performers of color are cast, they face a barrage of threats and racist comments online.
Fitzgerald and Marquez do their best to elevate stories from those communities, such as ballroom legend Hector Xtravaganza and the work of the Blood Sisters of San Diego (a lesbian-founded group that helped those struggling with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s). They also rightfully touch on the hate violence directed at transgender women of color.
They give credit where credit is due and, overall, succeed by doing something rather simple: telling the truth. And the truth is that the LGBT civil rights movement was built on far more than the white, cisgender, gay experience.
“Legendary Children” arrives at just the right time — both because season 12 of “Drag Race” just premiered and because the world needs authenticity in its stories. Fitzgerald and Marquez deliver that, giving readers an insight into the important but overlooked people who made our current moment possible.
Ryan Carey-Mahoney previously worked as an editor on The Washington Post’s social media team.
By Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez
Penguin. 288 pp. $17
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