The murmur spread through the crowd at the Lincoln Theatre, but not because the headliner, Sasha Velour - the Season 9 winner of "RuPaul's Drag Race" - was about to take the stage. Everyone was looking at the balcony seats on the right, where a ponytailed woman in a navy pantsuit was taking her seat.
"AOC!" someone yelled from below. The audience rose to give Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. - who has been outspoken about her appreciation for drag on Twitter - a standing ovation.
Two days later, in another Washington mash-up of work and werk, drag queen Pissi Myles clacked down the halls of the Longworth Building in shiny red pumps. Myles was there as a journalist and commentator, covering the impeachment for live-streaming, crowdsourced news company Happs, though she quickly became a story herself: It's not often that a drag queen sashays her way through Official Washington, at 6 feet 8 inches in heels and a wig, serving looks and political analysis in equal measure.The following week, she was reporting again, this time from the spin room at the Democratic debate in Atlanta.
Drag and politics have always been intertwined, ever since the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York, where drag queens and transgender women, notably the performer Marsha P. Johnson, were among the foremothers of the gay rights movement. And in the lead-up to 2020, with drag enjoying more mainstream popularity than ever before, drag queens are becoming a perfect foil to President Donald Trump.
"In the queer community - and this is something that a more broad audience might not know - drag queens are kind of looked at as community leaders and mouthpieces," said Myles. They "ride out first with their sword in the air."
The act of dressing in drag has long been a political statement - it's an act of rebellion against societal norms, and an art form that elevates the voices of disenfranchised communities. And as drag has attracted a new, mainstream audience - one that might see it purely as entertainment - there have been efforts to make the connection more overt.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has appeared on "Drag Race," and the show has hosted political challenges for the contestants, asking them to participate in a mock presidential debate and a Trump-themed musical. DragCon, a convention for fans of the Emmy-winning show, has hosted panels on "The Art of Resistance" and "Drag in Trump's America."
In Los Angeles last April, Maebe A. Girl became possibly the first drag queen to hold public office, when she was elected to the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. (San Francisco's José Sarria was the first drag queen to run for office, way back in 1961.) The genderfluid performer, known for her satirical impressions of Melania Trump, Betsy DeVos, and Sarah Sanders, announced her plans to run for California's 28th Congressional District. And the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of drag nuns, have been politically active since their founding in 1979.
No one commands attention quite like a drag queen. It's a matter of channeling that attention into important causes, said Velour.
"The queer community . . . especially the drag community, is made up of many people who fall below the poverty line," and "many black and brown people" said Velour. "I think the popularity of drag and popularity of those kinds of stories and narratives is going to shift people's minds, hopefully."
Myles had no reporting experience prior to her gig with Happs. She was recruited by one of the company's contributors, who thought she would be an eye-catching addition to their coverage, which targets younger viewers. She didn't realize she would get so much attention.
"When I got out of the car . . . 20 cameras on the stairs all just turned and pointed at me," she said. The Capitol Police made her go through the metal detector three times.
It's notable that a drag queen was sent to cover an event that wasn't overtly about LGBTQ policy. (Though one could argue that impeachment is the ultimate case of - to repurpose one of RuPaul's catchphrases - "I'm sorry, my dear, but you are up for elimination.")
"To our audience, she's another person - an unusual person, a theatrical person," said David Neuman, Happs' co-founder and chief content officer. He's talking to Myles about covering other news events throughout 2020.
For Velour, AOC's appearance in the audience wasn't a total surprise. The performer had reached out to the congresswoman ahead of the show, asking her to attend.
"The whole time I was painting my face, I was thinking about her," said Velour, 32, of Brooklyn. Audience members were doubly star-struck by the juxtaposition, and even tried to form a selfie line to the balcony, until security shut it down. The congresswoman met Velour backstage, filming a short video where they "fan-girled over each other, said Velour." Dressed in a pink gown, Velour thanked her for "facing the kind of online bullying and rabid surreal hate from some right wing people."
Drag's ascension into the political conversation has not been without challenges.
Drag Queen Storytime, a national program that encourages queens to read to children in libraries, has sparked protests across the country. Founders say that it teaches children empathy and inclusiveness, but Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum told viewers that the program aimed to "indoctrinate and unnecessarily expose children to sexuality." Some conservative groups have sued libraries for hosting the events.
A meme widely shared in 2017 featured a photo of a woman in hijab sitting on the New York subway next to drag performer Gilda Wabbit, which Twitter user @polNewsNetwork1 derisively captioned, "This is the future liberals want." Liberals responded that they did, in fact, want that future - and mocked the sentiment by turning it into a meme, sharing nonsensical photos with the same caption.
A similar thing happened to Velour, after she posted her video with Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. Conservative gay political commentator Dave Rubin reposted the video with the caption, "Your Democratic 2024 ticket, ladies, gentlemen and other." Another Twitter user with the handle @BrWrecked responded, "If she wins in 2024 that pink tall person will be our supreme court judge." Velour appropriated the insult, changing her name on Twitter to "Pink Tall Person."