BY SCOTT STIFFLER | The mirror has four faces—in front of it, that is, as two maskless BFFs breeze through an ask-me-anything exchange with a worldwide audience, while gazing into a reflective surface as they apply the makeup that transforms them into NYC-based drag queens Jackie Cox and Chelsea Piers.
Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, the frequently-tested-for-COVID-19 bubblemates participated in last month’s It Gets Better 2020 Global Summit, by helming a session in which makeup’s ability to alter and empower provided the metaphorical foundation for a frank, shame-free discussion of mental health issues within context of LGBTQ+ identity and COVID-19-caused isolation.
More on that momentarily—but first, a little about the Summit’s sponsor, in the form an accessory no drag queen is never fully dressed without: A damn good backstory.
The It Gets Better Project was founded in 2010 by Terry Miller and sex-positive advice columnist/activist Dan Savage—a couple whose prior collaborations included the 1999 adoption of a child and a 2005 Canadian marriage. Conceived as a counterargument to suicide among teens struggling with their sexual identity, the “It Gets Better” slogan struck a chord with its target audience by projecting nothing for the future beyond a basic, measurable improvement over their present state of being. The Project reinforced that message by offering YouTube videos featuring well-adjusted LGBTQ+ adults. The testimonials grew in number and variety, fast-tracking “It Gets Better” into popular use as an underpromising, overdelivering perseverance tactic.
A decade later, the It Gets Better Project supports a Global Affiliate Network spanning 17 countries on four continents, each working to uplift, empower, and connect their local LGBTQ+ youth. Their annual Global Summit is a way for the nonprofit’s volunteers and friends to make personal connections and apply the successes of other Affiliates to their own work back home.
But at a unique point in time when one small sneeze can turn a group trust exercise into a superspreader event, the 2020 Summit took place entirely online. That was a first for the Summit, which further distinguished itself with a never-before offer that gave the general public free access to six events, including December 9’s “Drag Talk.”
Clocking in at just over an hour, the segment has “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (RPDR) Season 12 contestant Cox and her frequent on stage co-writer/co-star Piers putting their own spin on the It Gets Better brand of refreshing candor.
Broadcasting from a workroom complete with flattering backlighting crafted by Jackie (“If it were me, we’d be sitting on milk crates,” deadpanned Chelsea), the gals answered chat room questions from fans by referencing everything from their childhood to how they met to their decade-long “overnight success” career trajectory. As steeped in the past as the duo often found themselves, the conversation was never fully free of that long shadow cast by COVID-19.
“A lot of this experience,” said Chelsea, of the shelter-in-place protocol that dominated most of 2020, “has been relearning things through a different lens.” Working out at the gym with a trainer, she noted, has been replaced by solo sessions with a borrowed kettlebell—and in-person weekly appointments with a therapist turned into virtual sessions.
“What I find most empowering and therapeutic,” said Chelsea, “is talking candidly, to let young queer people know that vulnerability is actually a really powerful thing. I’ve found a lot of clarity and strength in being transparent with my own struggles with depression and anxiety.”
For Jackie, life in lockdown quickly became a matter of finding a workable answer to the question, “ ‘How do I keep going, knowing that drag is something we traditionally do in places where lots of people are packed together?’ You have to find ways to reconfigure the things that bring you joy.” After months of digital content creation challenges, noted Jackie, “We’ve all learned a lot about ourselves and what we can do.”
Commenting on the advent of an unprecedented worldwide shutdown at the exact time she would have been touring the world as a TPDR alum, Jackie invoked wisdom by way of “What Not to Wear.”
“What they tell people who are struggling with fashion,” she noted, “is to dress for the body you have, not the body you want. Make the most of whatever your current circumstance is, because you actually have no other choice… There’s a certain amount of surrender that’s required in all of this.”
To see “Drag Talk” in its entirety, click here.
What follows are excerpts from an interview conducted just before the event.
Scott Stiffler for Chelsea Community News (CCN): What made you want to work with the organization and support its message?
Chelsea Piers: I think that it’s now more important than ever—especially considering the state of our world and the state of politics in this country—that we empower queer youth, marginalized youth who feel that they might not have a fighting chance at a better future. I love that IGB gives queer people a safe space to feel empowered, to do great things with their future
Jackie Cox: It Gets Better is such a simple idea, but it’s powerful because it really reminds kids of the future. You know, when you’re between the ages of 13 and 17, there’s a lot of really intense feelings—and as you come into adolescence and adulthood, for queer youth to feel alone in that experience?
Our entire our entire society is built around, still, this idea of a heteronormative kind of existence and certainly high school is no exception. So to give kids that safe space? It’s [the It Gets Better Project] more than just knowing gay people exist. I think most kids today know that, but to know that they’re not alone in some of their really unique struggles? That is so important.
CCN: Can both of you imagine if you had grown up with “RuPaul’s Drag Race?”
Jackie: Well, I’ll start on a light note. Certainly my makeup would be better. Oh, my goodness. We have so much access to amazing queer artistry. You know, when Chelsea and I started doing drag 10 years ago, it wasn’t like that. And on a more serious note, I think it takes visibility for people to see themselves represented and then believe in themselves… Our generation is the first generation to survive into real adulthood, coming after the terror that was AIDS and HIV in the ’80s and ’90s. We were a little bit alone. You know, there just weren’t enough [gay male] adults kind of “there.” And now that we’re in our 30s, we can be there for young people.
Chelsea: I think if I had seen positive, multifaceted representations of queer people in media, a lot of the shame that we internalize as queer people—we wouldn’t see that much of in our generation. I mean, I had the Spice Girls, and they were pretty much drag queens, but that’s another story… But for queer youth to see themselves in rich, layered roles, to see themselves in politics, like Marti Gould Cummings, or to see a queer Iranian person like Jackie on “Drag Race.” That‘s very encouraging, because it doesn’t demonize us. It doesn’t make us seem like caricatures. The more empathy we can lend to all subcultures within the queer community, the more empathy we can create in the general consciousness.
Jackie: And I think that’s going to keep evolving as we move foreword. Look how much the discourse has changed in the last, not 10 years, but five years, around gender identity, and how important that is to validate, as part of the ongoing conversation around mental health. So our job is to keep that going. And to see kids who are about to come out as trans or non-binary at a young age? The power of that is just incredible.
To learn more about It Gets Better, visit:
NOTE: This article first appeared on the website of the Los Angeles Blade, and appears here via the author, with thanks to Los Angeles Blade publisher/editor Troy Masters. To access the original Blade version, click here.
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