20 Queer Q’s with Matt Rogers

The 20 Queer Qs series seeks to capture LGBTQ+ individuals (and allies) in a moment of authenticity. We get to know the subjects, what makes them who they are, and what they value. These intimate conversations aim to leave you, the reader, feeling like you just gained a new friend or a new perspective.

This week, get to know comedian, entertainer, and co-host of the Las Culturistas podcast, Matt Rogers. Learn about his hopes for the LGBTQ+ community in the future, what his queerness has given him, what he feels insecure about, and more.

Name: Matt Rogers

Age: 28

Preferred Pronouns: He/Him/His

Sexually Identifies As: Gay

1. What do you love about the LGBT community? The various point of views you get within it. I think something you think before you’re actually in the community, is that everyone is the same. You see a kind of antiquated image of the gay community on television, especially in the 90’s when I grew up. The community is so varied, interesting, dynamic, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

 

2. Do you think it’s hard to make queer friends? I don’t think it’s hard, but I definitely think you have to get over yourself. We make it harder for ourselves, and I think one of the symptoms of being gay is that you second guess yourself all the time because that’s what we’ve been told to do and that doesn’t make friendships easy. I’m lucky I’ve had my friends that I’ve been close with for 10 years and having people to go out with and meet people with has made it easier, but when you meet someone new when their super interesting, you feel like you want to make sure you’re good enough for them and I think the insecurity that we all have that is ingrained in us just due to the experiences we’ve been through. That’s what makes it hard to open up to people in terms of friendships and romance.

3. What does pride mean to you? It’s the sense of safety in operating in your full potential as a human being and that’s expressing your joy to the max and having that received by the people around you.

4. Do you think LGBTQ+ youth have it easier now? I don’t like this hierarchy of struggle. Every individual is going through something and I think we need more compassion across the board. I don’t like it when my generation scolds the younger LGBT community. I think we have a lot more in common than we think. I’m so reverent and appreciative of the older generation. They had to go through something I couldn’t even imagine. It’s tragic what this community went through during the AIDS crisis and I think that’s trauma that’s with this generation and they’re angry because they never had to go through that.

I think we look at the younger generation and think, “Wow you’re allowed to be gay at 11 years old.” But at the same time, we don’t know what it’s like to have social media surround us at all times. When I say I don’t like the hierarchy of struggle, I don’t like to compete in terms of pain. I think everyone is entitled to their experience and what’s important is that we have compassion, it’s not that we remind each other that we’ve had it harder than anyone else, even if it’s true. Because it is, there are sects of this community that have had it extremely difficult. Specifically speaking about trans women of color, [they] are the most persecuted, disrespected, berated, and pursued negatively people on this planet. I think it would be ridiculous on this planet to say that they didn’t have it rough every single day. But I also think we should have compassion for everyone. In terms of these younger kids, they’re still grappling with their identity and are still in the minority and still need compassion.

5. What advice do you have for LGBTQ+ youth? Don’t be afraid of other individuals that are also different. Foster relationships with people that you find a connection with. If you feel a connection, foster that, because your community is going to be your family one day.

6. Do you believe in love? Yes.

7. What are values that you look for in an ideal partner? Patient, non-judgemental, gets it in terms of humor. You don’t have to be funny, you just have to get it.

8. Describe what being queer is like in 3-5 words. Girl, we are getting there.

9. What are your thoughts on people who say “masc4masc”? They’re people who are not going to get my attention or anyone’s attention who’s worthwhile. It’s a ridiculous thing to say which is a gross symptom of our community which is the app culture. It’s one of the ways in which the ugliness in our community is living out loud. It’s so gross and we’re so much better and [more] beautiful than that.

10. What hopes do you have for the LGBTQ+ community in the future? Happiness. I hope that for everyone, I hope that everyone can just get to a point where they say I love myself as much as I pretend to or as much as I see. I hope we can walk the world and be safe.

 

11. Is there a LGBTQ+ TV show or movie that has had a great impact on you? RuPaul’s Drag Race had the greatest impact on me, because the concept of “You’re born naked and the rest is drag” changed my life. … I realized that there are no rules, the only rules that you make are the ones that you impose on yourself. And that is so liberating.

12. What’s your earliest memory that you felt you were different? When I was little, the characters that I wanted to act out in the yard were all female — and my parents acted weird about it. My mom even asked our doctor about why I was doing that and the doctor said,  “It’s because he’s very smart, he wants to take on different personas.” I was perceptive enough to understand that my instincts were not “normal,” and it was gauging that from the reaction they had.

13. What do you feel most insecure about? My body,

14. What do you feel the most confident about? My sense of humor.

15. What’s your relationship with your family like? Very good, very positive, I’m very lucky in that regard and I see them often.

16. Have you found your chosen family? How do they make you feel? Absolutely 100%, and I’m so lucky. Oftentimes when I’m at Thanksgiving with extended family I’m like, “Why aren’t i with my real family?” It’s so true what they say, it’s such an integral thing for a gay person is to find those people

17. On a grading scale from F-A, how is life for you right now? A-. In the grand scheme of things, I can eat, I’m out here pursuing my goals, I do what I want, I have good family, my family and friends are healthy.

18. Have you ever felt/do you still feel uncomfortable holding another guys hand in public? Yes, unfortunately because no matter where you go, you are exposed and you hear horror stories. This is something I think people need to understand. You cannot fully understand the full experience of someone who is different or a minority because you don’t have those small instincts. Like when I hold someone’s hand in public, that’s marking yourself vulnerable and there’s a lot of crazy people out there.

19. Who is someone in your life who gets you? Bowen Yang, my best friend understands me 100%. We have a sort of sixth sense with each other, we’re very empathetic to each other, we often speak in the same cadences at the same time.

20. What value/quality has being queer given you? What have you gained? It’s given me my sense of humor and that’s everything to me. It’s given me my point of view which is great to pair with a sense of humor.

Listen to Matt’s podcast Las Culturistas wherever you listen to podcasts. Keep up with him and his upcoming shows in NYC and LA on Twitter and Instagram.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4’ Recap: Nobody Was Killed at Lady Bunny’s Funeral?

Usually I prefer to proceed somewhat chronologically in my RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 recaps, but this week, I think we have to start at the end. And what an end it was! Double lip sync win! Non-elimination! All Star rules finally suspended! A mirror message from Ru herself! Lady Bunny recreating the mirror gag from All Stars 2! And, of course, the inevitable return of the eliminated queens.

It was kind of the kitchen sink approach to reality TV production, and I wasn’t not entertained by it! It was just, you know, a lot. I’m still processing. Here, let’s process together.

Drag Race

The main challenge this week (well, only challenge, the mini-challenge drought continues) is a roast of Lady Bunny framed as a funeral. It’s a fun twist on the RuPaul Roast challenge, which previously appeared in seasons 5 and 9. Season 5’s roast episode was one of the all-time great Drag Race episodes, while season 9’s was … mostly just okay. Better than you’d expect in a season with zero comedy queens.

Two of the worst performers in that roast, however, were Trinity the Tuck (back in her days as Trinity Taylor) and Valentina. Trinity was bottom three, while Valentina was, ahem, lucky to be safe. The stakes are high for both of them going into this week, and they promptly make all the same mistakes they did the first time — despite guest judge Cecily Strong’s attempts to help them during rehearsal. Valentina completely ignores Cecily’s notes to avoid starting too mean, starting her set bitter and never letting up. Trinity, on the other hand, never gets a handle on her comic timing. The two contestants barely elicit a sincere laugh from the judges or audience.

I’m not going to lie to you, dear reader: It’s extremely satisfying to watch the season 9 alliance fail this week. While I enjoy Valentina tremendously as a TV character, and I think Trinity is playing in this competition with a level of technical prowess only previously matched by Alaska and BenDeLaCreme, they’re both carrying around big egos. Valentina has a warped sense of how she performs; she thought her performance in the season 9 roast was good (to quote Ru, “Was it?”), and completely misinterprets the judges’ comments this week. Meanwhile, Trinity once again whines about Manila Luzon’s deliberation process, after the season 3 queen reveals she would’ve sent Monét X Change home last week. It’s satisfying to see them brought back down to earth a bit. I think they both have what it takes to win this season, but I prefer a more self-aware Valentina and a laser-focused Trinity.

Speaking of Manila: She may never be my favorite in the challenges, but I am firmly Team Manila at this point in the race. Positively ridden with guilt that she once again couldn’t save Latrice Royale in a lip sync, Manila cries trying to explain her reasoning for wanting to eliminate Monét. Monét refuses to show Manila even an ounce of empathy for wanting to save her friend, and all but tells Manila that she’s not allowed to sit at the cool girls’ lunch table anymore. Seriously, she and the other girls all join hands in front of Manila as she’s crying, and don’t get up to leave when she does. It makes them look so damn petty.

The girls gang up on Manila again in the workroom, when she says she’ll choose who she wants to eliminate moving forward on a case-by-case basis. (Getting to choose who you want to send home if you win is, you may recall, the literal format of All Stars.) I admire Manila for sticking to her guns — but then again, it’s pretty easy to do when you keep winning. She does again this week, and it’s probably her hardest-earned win of the season. (Though I would’ve also given Manila the win way back in week 1, when she was just safe.) Her roast performance is perfectly pitched, with just enough sight gags — the umbrella! the will! — to balance out her battery of jokes. Her look is perfect, and she’s the only queen to roast most of her fellow competitors plus the judges. It’s surprising that she’s the only one to turn that trick, considering that roasting the full assemblage is usually a staple of these challenges.

Joining Manila in the top is Monét, who maybe wouldn’t be my choice, but I get why she wins. From a pure comedy perspective, she has the most jokes, and they all land. I prefer the Southern preacher caricature her season 10 sister Monique Heart puts on, even though Monique swallows a few of her jokes in her delivery. Monique was the emotional choice; Monét was the comedy-as-art choice. The panel is particularly technical this week — more on that in the final thoughts — so their decision makes sense.

That leaves us with Naomi Smalls, who is just a disaster this week. I’ve been high on Naomi all season, but her lack of wins has left me wondering if she’s really cut out to win this competition. Sadly for the leggy season 8 queen, she falls into the bottom before ever rising to the top, on the back of a one-note performance and shockingly underwhelming funeral drag look. Luckily for her, she is one of four queens in the bottom, as RuPaul puts everyone who didn’t win onto the chopping block. This is likely done for two reasons: to scare the girls, and because Ru already knows no one is going home this week.

Bottom Four

Deliberations are, to be frank, a fucking mess. Trinity immediately seems to realize she’s screwed up by being so aggressive with Manila, and both firmly stands on the strength of her report card while also being conciliatory toward the queen with the power. Naomi is clearly bummed to be in the bottom, and worries her lack of wins will take her out. Despite this, Monét and Manila don’t really seem to consider her a legitimate choice for elimination, though — in fact, the winners practically ask the other one to take on the responsibility of sending someone home this week instead of them.

The consensus choice among the other queens, though, is for Valentina to go home. Trinity immediately names her as the correct option (guess that season 9 alliance only goes so far), while Monique — who outright refuses to do one-on-ones, that’s how certain she is she doesn’t deserve to go home — goes off on Valentina in her confessional for not having a full face of makeup for the main challenge.

I personally don’t care about the makeup issue that much, though it is worth noting how it comes about, and how she responds to Ross Mathews’ criticism. Apparently Val runs out of time in the workroom, unable to finish her set and her face. So she wears sunglasses as part of her costume — but then tempts fate by making a Maskgate callback. She practically dares RuPaul to tell her to take the glasses off, which RuPaul promptly does. This backfires big time, revealing her face is incomplete.

Upon presenting her excuses to Ross, he promptly takes no shit. “I still wish your eyes had been done,” Ross says with the exact right blend of sweetness and bitchiness. The look Valentina shoots back at him could kill, and probably has. So, yeah, Monique’s pissed about that, and while it doesn’t matter as much to me, I can understand being mad if you think you might go home over someone who didn’t even finish beating their mug.

It is hilarious to watch the other queens insist that eliminating Valentina is the only fair thing to do, when just two weeks ago they were lecturing Manila for even considering sending Val home. My guess is Trinity fans will justify her throwing Valentina under the bus by citing Val’s record, but that doesn’t wash for two reasons. One, Val has a win, which should conceivably put her ahead of the winless Naomi. Two, Trinity insisted in that episode that she wanted to take Valentina with her all the way to the top four. Now she wants Valentina to go home in sixth?

The truth is, there is no “fair” when it comes to making elimination decisions on All Stars, and it behooves no one to pretend like there is a particularly “moral” way to do it. Alaska eliminated Tatianna twice and Alyssa Edwards once over Roxxxy Andrews in All Stars 2. Kennedy Davenport eliminated Milk the second she got the chance during All Stars 3 because, to put it bluntly, she just didn’t like Milk. Manila saying she doesn’t want to adhere to one kind of elimination style is not new or novel, and she shouldn’t be ostracized or judged by the other queens because she doesn’t want to pretend.

The lip sync to Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” isn’t exactly a close one. Manila has a couple of good moments, but clearly fumbles words here and there, and Monét just really nails it. However, Ru declares a joint win — a head-scratcher of a decision that makes more sense if you look at the other lip sync ties in All Stars seasons. Be it Raven and Jujubee on “Dancing on My Own,” Tatianna and Alyssa Edwards on “Shut Up and Drive,” or Shangela and BenDeLaCreme on “I Kissed a Girl,” double wins tend to come when the performers mostly work together versus against each other. Considering the amount of interplay between Manila and Monét on “Jump to It,” the tie makes a bit more sense. (But make no mistake: If one girl was winning, it’d have been Monét.)

Ru’s other big motivation for declaring two winners is that ultimately, who they chose to go home doesn’t matter. No one goes home this week, and All Star rules are promptly put on hold. What that means — and what the returning queens’ challenge to get back in will be — will have to wait for next week. A return for Latrice or we riot!

Dearly beloved, we have gathered our thoughts here today:

• Cecily Strong and Yvette Nicole Brown both make for good guest judges this week. Alongside Michelle Visage and Ross, they really turn the judging session into an artist’s critique, getting granular about both jokes and looks in a way I love. I’m still holding onto Jenifer Lewis as the best guest judge of the season, but these two are easily the runners-up right now.

• I didn’t talk about the angelic-themed runway this week, but the girls are uniformly very good! Special shout-outs go to Naomi for a Prince-inspired getup, Monét for a gorgeous bleeding heart detail on her chest, and Manila’s dewy Grecian outfit, which makes her look younger than anyone else on the stage. Age 37 looks really damn good on her.

• I have some thoughts about Valentina naming Monique and Naomi as the worst of the week, but I’ll be as generous in my reading as possible and say she just didn’t want to name her friend Trinity. (Even though Trinity didn’t exactly show her the same kindness.)

• With “Jump to It,” Aretha joins Paula Abdul, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Whitney Houston with four songs performed as lip syncs. Getting crowded at the top! (After I included this stat in a previous recap, someone asked why Ariana Grande doesn’t also have four, the long and short of it being that she’s just a featured artist on “Bang Bang.” So you can place her in the same echelon, but definitely give her an asterisk.)

• Naomi’s shade that she’s the only queen left who can give a millennial’s point of view is funnier than any of her roast jokes.

• Monique practically racing off the stage after Ru saves them all, saying “She ain’t gotta tell me twice,” is the biggest mood.

• In the preview for next week’s episode, we see each of the eliminated queens picking a lipstick from one box. My guess? We’re getting a full set of Lip Syncs for Your Life next week, with the eliminated queens getting to choose who they want to face off against. Winners earn their way back into the competition; losers face elimination. That might be too complicated — plus, Drag Race always seems reticent to shell out more money for lip sync song royalties — but we’ll see!

• So both Monét and Manila were going to eliminate Valentina, right? That would certainly make a certain piece of intel season 4 bad girl Willam leaked before the season started airing more interesting…

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 will air Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. Eastern on VH1.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4’ Recap: The Fourth Cut Is the Deepest

I said last week that the top seven queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 were so unbelievably evenly matched, every cut from here on out would be tough. I just couldn’t imagine exactly how brutal this first one would be.

This episode was a tough one, with relatively little fun to go around and a lot of heavy hearts. I don’t think it bodes poorly for the rest of the season, but it is the first All Stars 4 episode to disappoint me — and I’m not even talking about the eliminated queen yet.

MIchelle Visage

This week, RuPaul challenges the queens to compete in a Judge Judy-style improv challenge, Jersey Justice, aptly titled for its lead character, Judge Michelle Visage. The challenge is a complex one: create a cartoonish Jerseyite in look and voice, execute the actual story of the case in pairs (or in one case, as a trio), and make it all funny. Simple, right? Heh.

Somewhat surprisingly, Manila Luzon and Latrice Royale don’t team up for this challenge, with Latrice instead joining the ultra-close Monique Heart/Monét X Change duo and Manila pairing with the free agent of the season, Naomi Smalls. Though this isn’t a paired season like All Stars 1, Team Latrila has been close in spirit and energy, so I’d have expected them to work as a team. You have to imagine Latrice regrets her choice when Monique and Monét immediately start riffing, leaving Latrice all but cut out of their dynamic.

Each team gets a different legal scenario: a suit over a cake, a suit over a celebrity impersonator, and a suit over a botched makeover job. I like these improv challenges — including The Bitchelor in All Stars 3 and Bossy Rossy in season 10 — because they’re faithful to the core spirit of Drag Race. The most interesting thing about Drag Race as a competition has always been the sheer scope of skills that it requires. You can’t just be a fashionista. You can’t just be a comedian. You can’t just be an actor, a singer, a makeup artist, a writer. You have to be everything. The improv challenges adequately test for a wide range of skills. If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.

Appropriately enough, everyone fucks up somewhere this week, even when their performance is otherwise stellar. Winners Manila and Monique are both very funny in the challenge, riffing with Michelle particularly well, but Manila’s curves and swerves runway look underwhelms and doesn’t quite nail the prompt. Monique gets major praise for her runway look, which, yes, is structurally impressive. But it’s yet another brown cow look, no matter how stunning it may be. And her voice in the challenge is irritatingly shrill, which Michelle does note (though ultimately doesn’t care).

Valentina seemingly comes in third, if my interpretation of judge impressions is correct. She absolutely slays the main challenge as “the OG Snooki,” nailing both the character and the comedy. Judging solely based on the challenge, I’d have placed her in the top with Monique. However, she goes a little too high-concept for the runway, serving a deconstructed look that’s more interesting in concept than execution. (It also doesn’t quite fit the runway prompt for the week.) Guest judge Erica Ash rips into the look with a sharp “I don’t get it,” which inspires some, ahem, strong words from Valentina. More on those in a bit.

In a break from how she’s been doing so far, Trinity the Tuck, Not the Taylor mostly fails to impress. She teams up with Valentina, keeping the season 9 alliance together, but for the first time is fully outshone by her sister. Trinity actually forgets her character’s name at the start of their scene (a truly awkward moment) and otherwise essentially plays straight woman for Valentina. Her runway is incredibly strong, though, with one of the best wigs I’ve ever seen on Drag Race. That seems to keep her firmly in the safe group, where Naomi joins her after receiving her first real criticisms of the season. She couldn’t quite keep up with Manila in the scene, and a strong ’50s housewife look on the runway doesn’t help her. That said, I did love Naomi’s season 2 shout-out: Her Nicole Paige Brooks impression while yelling “cherry pie” is flawless.

That leaves Latrice and Monét in the bottom two. Neither Latrice’s elegant runway nor Monét’s Kim Kardashian-allusion look can save them from being utterly flattened by Monique in the challenge. The one who clearly belongs in the bottom is Latrice; Monét isn’t great in the challenge, but I might’ve put Trinity in the bottom instead. Nonetheless, this is the bottom two we get, and it feels like a goddamn funeral the second Ru announces they’re up for elimination.

Latrice is a beloved icon, and the idea of her even possibly going home makes the air in the room thicken like soup. She monologues emotionally about spending 25 years doing drag, and expresses dismay that she’s not able to fulfill a “prophecy” for herself on Drag Race. Back in season 4, it was almost universally understood that Latrice was cheated out of the top three in favor of season villain Phi Phi O’Hara — never mind that Phi Phi did legitimately beat Latrice out in the final challenge, and Chad Michaels out-lipsynced Latrice at the last second. It was a robbery in fans’ minds, as was hers and Manila’s loss on All Stars 1.

Something about this has clearly taken hold in Latrice’s mind. She believes she deserves this crown, even if her performance record so far hasn’t indicated that to be true. This separation between expectation and reality makes deliberations a nightmare. Manila is absolutely devastated by the idea of Latrice going home, throwing herself onto her best friend while sobbing and pledging to keep her safe in the lip sync. Monique is wrecked, clearly wanting to keep Monét, but worrying about the implications of sending Latrice home. She knows how much fans love Latrice, because she is one of those fans. She even outright states how much Latrice means to black queers and queens in particular — something that’s unmistakably true, but rarely stated on the show itself.

Trinity, meanwhile, has no problem saying Latrice deserves to go home. And honestly? It’s a bad look! In fact, Trinity comes off as kind of an ass all episode. She all but lectures Manila for even considering sending Valentina home at the start of the episode. Later, when Valentina indicates she’d have a hard time saving Trinity over Latrice if they were the bottom two, she gives a dramatic confessional that feels either faked or just plain whiny. Then, she moans about “morals” when Manila and Monique weigh whether or not to save Latrice. It’s all quite obnoxious, like the best student in the class protesting about the rules when the kids she sees as below her don’t act the way she wants them to. No one likes that kid, Trinity.

What’s especially perplexing is that Trinity clearly doesn’t mind being cutthroat — she’ll eliminate beloved legend Latrice if she has to — but only likes her form of being cutthroat. Eliminating a strong competitor? That’s immoral to Trinity. In Big Brother, which this season reminds me of more than any other Drag Race season, they call someone like Trinity a “game bot.” She’s too fixated on her own game and can’t see outside of it. It’s likely going to take her very far in this season, but will also likely make her unpleasant to watch if she keeps the unpleasantness up.

The season 9 girls both behave strangely this week. After she gets some criticism for her runway look, Valentina throws what seems like a joking fit about it during deliberations. It seems too exaggerated to be honest, but also not funny enough to be a very good joke. Worse, she chooses to unleash right after Latrice and Monét emotionally plead to be kept in the competition. Monique rolls her eyes and all but tells Valentina to calm down. To quote Trixie Mattel, “That’s a lot of emotion for safe.”

It illustrates the main problem I still have with Valentina, who has otherwise been such a delight this season: She’s still not behaving like a human being. It’s clear she had a plan to be funny and have a diva moment this week, but couldn’t read the room and realize it would play horribly in the emotional moment. For better or worse, Drag Race is won by those who can, at least once or twice, let their guard down and be themselves. We’re not getting that from Valentina right now. I remain skeptical about whether she can actually go all the way in All Stars 4.

Ultimately, all the hissy fits in the world can’t distract from the ultimate choice: Latrice or Monét? Manila, like Trinity last week, makes her intentions known (“After all these years, I am still Team Latrila”), while Monique holds her cards closer to chest. After an evenly matched (and, admittedly, somewhat low-energy) lip sync to Tina Turner’s cover of “The Bitch Is Back,” Monique wins. Does she win mostly because there’s no narrative tension to Manila winning? Perhaps. Does she win because she keeps her hair on for the first time? Also perhaps! Regardless, win she does, and through tears, she eliminates Latrice.

Latrice Royale is, next to Alyssa Edwards, my all-time favorite Drag Race queen. She is a living legend. Her final speech to RuPaul on the runway in season 4 ranks among the best moments in Drag Race herstory. It sucks to see her go home in 7th place. But I cannot deny that she was the worst in the challenge, and didn’t stun on the runway. Her going home is an entirely fair call. That doesn’t mean it can’t feel like shit, because it does. But Monique made the right decision.

One can only hope that Latrice will find her way back into the competition during whatever inevitable comeback challenge is on the horizon. All Stars 4 should be a chance for every queen to prove they’re sickening — even if it takes a little bit longer than we expected.

Drying our tears with some final thoughts:

• I’ve alluded to it in this and other recaps, but it intrigues me that, despite this not being a teams season, our remaining queens have mostly settled into pairs. Monique and Monét are united, as are Valentina and Trinity (though I wouldn’t put it past Valentina to eliminate Trinity if she gets the chance). With Latrice gone, and Naomi unaffiliated, I wonder if the two fashion queens will team up moving forward. They could each use an ally right now.

• Record check-in: Manila and Trinity each have two challenge wins, with one lip sync win each, and neither has hit the bottom two. Monique has two challenge wins and one lip sync win as well, but hit the bottom two once. Valentina won one challenge and one lip sync. Monét X Change also won one challenge, but has not won a lip sync. Both have hit the bottom two once. Naomi, queen of safe, has never won, nor hit the bottom two. My guess is she does not stay safe for another week — either for good or for ill.

• Manila bowing to Trinity’s dominance during Snatch Game, but insisting that she’ll still be listed as the winner of the episode on Wikipedia, is delightfully nerdy.

• The main stage critiques are edited strangely this week, with a ton of shady noises thrown in even when the judges give positive feedback. Monique’s entire critique sounds like the judges are trashing her simply because the sounds are wrong.

• Love Monique, but I can no longer defend her getting praised for brown cow callbacks when Monét got trashed for doing sponge callbacks. It’s an absurdly unequal standard.

• Strange that the show specifically uses the Tina Turner cover of “The Bitch Is Back” for the lip sync while emphasizing that it’s originally an Elton John song, no? While most Lip Sync for Your Life/Legacy songs are by women, there have been plenty of songs with at least some male vocals: “Love Shack,” “Macho Man,” “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” every RuPaul song, etc. Might’ve been a rights issue, though considering Elton John himself appears in a pretaped message to say “don’t fuck it up,” I doubt that.

• I don’t care how fake-mad she was, Valentina calling MadTV alum Erica Ash “that judge with the bun” is disrespectful. That entire staged hissy fit was so ill-advised. And Val’s been so charming and enjoyable so far!

• Even though Stacy Layne Matthews’ cameo shots as the court reporter were clearly not shot on the Jersey Justice set, I still like seeing her pop up with reactions. More Henny!

• Speaking of: While I don’t entirely agree with her critique of Valentina’s look, Erica Ash is otherwise a good guest judge this week. She gives insightful notes and appropriately drags Trinity for blaming her reserved performance on trying to make room for Valentina. Zoe Kravitz is a good bit quieter as a judge, but still gets some good notes in. (Perennial reminder that Jenifer Lewis remains the best guest judge of the season.)

• Best guess for the next queen out the door: Monét. Could be Naomi if she doesn’t get a win soon. Although the person I’d maybe be the least surprised to see go next? Valentina.

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 will air Friday, Jan. 11, at 8 p.m. Eastern on VH1.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4’ Recap: “Win, and Beat Me”

The Lip Sync for Your Legacy format is broken. Of that, there is little doubt; it inspires fairly lackluster lip syncs and fails to conjure up the kind of drama one would hope sending home a fellow queen would. RuPaul and the RuPaul’s Drag Race production team designed Lip Sync for Your Legacy to make All Stars more strategic, but on the whole, it doesn’t work that way.

Until Manila Luzon gets her hands on it, that is.

Manila and Trinity

I am of very mixed emotions regarding Manila: I usually don’t love her performances in Drag Race‘s challenges, and her runways — while usually stunning — can’t close the gap for me. And while I think her “MacArthur Park” lip sync in season 3 is one of the all-time greats, her follow-up efforts have been far less impressive.

What I do think Manila is fantastic at, however, is being a reality TV character. She is immensely watchable, and is terrific at driving story without self-producing. Her instigation skills are without peer — without her, the Heathers vs. Boogers arc in season 3 likely never heats up as much as it did.

So I’m thrilled to see her win the challenge this week (although I do think that win is somewhat dubious) and immediately get to scheming. What follows is the best deliberation session since Alaska’s temper tantrum in All Stars, and some of the very best TV of the year.

Snatch Game of Love

This week’s challenge is Snatch Game with a twist: This time, it’s the Snatch Game of Love, kind of a cross between Match Game and The Dating Game. Considering how the traditional Snatch Game format has gotten somewhat tired, the change of pace is welcome. Unfortunately, the format is a little wonky. The eight queens are split into two groups, each vying for the heart of a different celebrity: Olympian Gus Kenworthy for group one, and Love, Simon‘s Keiynan Lonsdale for group two. This split means we’re deprived of some characters interacting, and because of one particularly bad performance in group two, three other performers don’t get much of a chance to shine.

Trinity the Tuck (née Taylor) and Gia Gunn have both brought the same character for Snatch Game: Caitlyn Jenner. One might call this a fool’s errand, since Sharon Needles’ Caitlyn Jenner from the Battle of the Seasons tour is a pitch-perfect parody already. But nevertheless, the two queens spar over who should take it. Gia insists that, as a trans woman, she’d be the correct choice. The other queens thoroughly shoot her down, and instead encourage her to do Jenny Bui, Cardi B’s nail technician. (If you didn’t know her before now, don’t worry, I didn’t either.)

Gia’s shit-stirring the last two episodes really comes back to haunt her this week. The other queens form a united front against her, verbally pushing her away from Caitlyn and into Jenny. It’s clear manipulation on their part, a bit of strategy and alliance-making that’s rare on Drag Race, even for All Stars. Gia does make the swap, but not before taking a swipe at Trinity, telling her as both Caucasian and having “a fucked-up nose like her,” she’ll fit Caitlyn much better.

Snatch Game of Love

Trinity knocks it out of the park as Caitlyn, and is the clear winner of the week. She plays Caitlyn as a crotchety old grandma, and sits with her legs cartoonishly parted in a white suit. Most impressively, she utterly dominates group one in Snatch Game of Love, grabbing every possible joke and riffing with her competitors, RuPaul, and Gus Kenworthy. Gus winds up picking her as his bachelorette because she’s the funniest, leaving Naomi Smalls’ terrific Wendy Williams (complete with faint), Monét X Change’s underwhelming Whitney Houston, and Valentina’s misguided Eartha Kitt loveless.

Group two is some “romper-room fuckery,” to quote Latrice Royale circa season 4’s Snatch Game. Monique Heart’s Tiffany Haddish is just Monique, although admittedly she fires off some good jokes. Manila’s Barbra Streisand, complete with rather large nose prosthetic (in questionable taste, in my opinion) and heavy Barb accent, is funny enough, but a distant third to Trinity and Naomi. The true disaster is Gia’s Jenny, simultaneously not humorous and constantly talking. She sucks all the oxygen out of the group, and especially throws off Latrice Royale.

As the late Della Reese, Latrice seems mostly like Latrice, but we never get much chance to see her fully embody the character, because Gia keeps stepping on her. Gia-as-Jenny also calls Latrice fat and says she looks like a man, which especially upsets her. It’s disappointing that a queen as funny and talented as Latrice has now done poorly as three different celebrities — as Aretha Franklin in Snatch Game season 4, as Oprah Winfrey in All Stars 1‘s ill-advised Gaff-In!, and now as Della. It clearly weighs on her, too; you can see it in her face both on the challenge stage and on the runway during critiques.

Latrice Royale

After a fun boots runway — in which Manila knocks it out of the park as an S&M bunny, and Valentina gets knocked by judge Michelle Visage for a nude bodysuit that doesn’t quite fit right — Manila, Naomi, and Trinity land in the top, while Valentina, Gia, and Latrice wind up in the bottom. I’d expect Naomi and Trinity to win the challenge, but it seems the judges dock points because Naomi wore gladiator sandals instead of boots. Manila wins instead, giving her her first win of the season and fifth in her Drag Race career. (I’d argue she deserved one, maybe two of those wins, but I’m trying to be nice today.) Gia winds up in the bottom, sitting next to an unlucky Valentina. Latrice seemingly gets away with Gia being blamed for her performance, and avoids the bottom two.

And here is where the episode transforms from a solid one into a legendary one. Right at the start of deliberations, Trinity calls Manila over to the side to chat about the decision they have to make. Trinity insists that the choice of who should go home this week is obvious. Gia was the clear worst. Manila doesn’t disagree, but also doesn’t see that as the only reason to send someone home. She thinks this could be a chance for her to send home a strong competitor in Valentina. This panics Trinity, as Valentina is her ally and season 9 sister.

Manila and Gia have a heart-to-heart, Gia admitting that she didn’t realize competing on Drag Race as a trans woman would be so difficult. “I just wish there was another way for me to do this,” she says, starting to cry. “To show you can be whoever you want to be as a trans woman.” She shares further in confessional that while drag used to be an outlet for her to feel in touch with her real identity, now it’s frustrating for her to be in this competition. She also expresses major regret for personally insulting Latrice in the game. It’s the most authentic Gia’s been all season, and thus no surprise it’s also the most compelling she’s been all season. And it clearly resonates with a tearful Manila.

At the same time, Trinity meets with a very relaxed-looking Valentina. She’s in the bottom next to Gia; she knows she won’t be going home. Until Trinity warns her about Manila, that is. Valentina’s whole persona shifts as she leans forward. “So you think that i could go home tonight?” she asks. Her voice shakes a little on the last word. She seems both petrified and primed to attack. It’s a fascinating transformation, seeing Valentina go from cool cucumber to focused strategist. She takes that attitude with her to meet with Manila — and inspires an amazing 90-second tête-à-tête.

Valentina drink

Manila starts strong, complimenting Valentina as one of Drag Race‘s strongest competitors. But, she admits, “That scares me, because I think, ‘How can I keep up with these young girls?'” Valentina’s response? Sipping her drink. Manila says she has Valentina in a corner, and admits she’s very much considering sending Valentina home. Valentina says she thinks she’s done well on All Stars, and she wants to stay,. So, Manila says, let’s make a deal.

“How about this: Can you promise me, if you ever land in the top, and I’m in the bottom, [to] show me grace?” she asks. “For an old-ass bitch like me.” The way she poses after making this offer could best be described as “Ursula after telling Ariel she just wants her voice.” It’s delicious.

Valentina immediately turns the deal down, saying she’d never ask Manila to promise the reverse. Instead, she offers Manila a challenge: Keep her in the game, and beat her fair and square. “Can you handle it?” she asks. As she puts it in her confessional: “Win, and beat me, bitch.”

Valentina as cunning strategist is the kind of thing we’d never see on Drag Race‘s flagship series, but All Stars‘ format is perfectly suited for. It’s not her drag skills that help her this week, it’s her social game. It’s Big Brother in heels and wigs. And as a Big Brother fan, I’m certainly thrilled by this development.

Manila Luzon

Manila and Trinity face off in the lip sync to Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” giving Whitney a fourth lip sync song on Drag Race and tying the record held by Paula Abdul, Britney Spears, and Madonna. The two queens give one hell of a battle to commemorate the occasion, with Trinity frenetically bopping to the energy of the music and Manila giving a full acting performance as a young lover. Trinity’s very good, but Manila is spectacular, finally matching the promise of “MacArthur Park.” Most impressively, she kills the lip sync without a single split, trick, or anything. She just fully embodies the spirit of the song, and delivers on every front.

Unlike most Lip Syncs for Your Legacy, this one actually has some real tension. We know Trinity won’t send Valentina home, but Manila just might. So Valentina looks mildly petrified walking to the front of the stage with Gia, who seems far more resigned to her fate. Manila ramps up with a big speech — she wants this more than any of the other girls, and has been competing for longer, too. It really does seem in the moment like she’s going to pull the trigger — but instead eliminates Gia. Valentina gets off with just a warning shot.

It’s farewell to Gia Gunn, a contestant I don’t have much love for, but can still have compassion for. I can only imagine how psychologically taxing it is to compete in a drag competition as a trans woman, and especially to be pummeled with hate online. While I wish she’d come into the competition with more strategy than mere villainy, I trust she’ll continue to succeed outside of the werk room.

So here we have our final seven! Truly, it’s anyone’s game; everyone but Naomi has a win (if you count Latrice’s Reading Is Fundamental mini-challenge win), and she’s been in the top three every single week. Every cut from here is going to be deep. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary folks: It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Show grace for some old-ass thoughts:

• Though Snatch Game of Love wasn’t quite the right fix, I do hope Drag Race continues to experiment with the Snatch Game formula. It’s been the same for so many years, and it really does need freshening up.

• Manila is smashing the runway in a fashion unparalleled by anyone else this season. Naomi’s looks are usually strong, but missing the prompt on the boot this week was a major unforced error. Trinity and Valentina could rise up to challenge them if they really pull out the stops in the next few weeks. Latrice’s runways are too basic, Monét and Monique’s aren’t quite refined enough.

• Naomi nails Wendy Williams’ faint perfectly. I’d have given her the win for it alone, shoes be damned!

• Trinity gets off plenty of great jokes in Snatch Game of Love, but saying that Gus Kenworthy looks “like a Democrat and broke” might be my favorite.

• RuPaul’s runway look this week is amazing, a short, sparkly cocktail dress with killer hair. (I won’t mention the shoes, out of respect.) Her legs look killer, and she sashays down the runway like she knows it. I’m happy to see she’s stepping outside of the long gown and high blonde hair combo she’s become so accustomed to in recent seasons.

• Gia Gunn is now the first and only queen to go home on Snatch Game twice. (No one on this season won their original Snatch Game, so there was no potential to match BenDeLaCreme’s two-win record.)

• Though they both look good this week — especially in wrestling garb — I’m iffy on both Gus Kenworthy and Keiynan Lonsdale as guest judges. Keiynan just doesn’t keep up with the quips on the runway, and has not much insight to add during critiques. Gus is a bit better, but says something clumsy about how important it is for Gia to represent for trans women — well-meaning, but inadequately expressed. Jenifer Lewis’ best guest judge of the season title goes unchallenged for another week.

• God bless Valentina, who strikes a pose even when facing potential elimination in the bottom two. She really has come into this season ready to play the telenovela character to the hilt.

• To address an elephant in the room: Yes, this episode was leaked online in its entirety last Friday. In some countries outside the U.S., RuPaul’s Drag Race streams on the WOW Presents Plus app. Seemingly, the episode was mistakenly uploaded to that app, and was captured and reuploaded across the internet. It’s a rare instance of such a leak, especially from such a notoriously secretive show. That said, no leak can change what an excellent episode this is. To me, it’s the best All Stars episode since “Revenge of the Queens.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars returns next Friday — in fact, next year! — on January 4, at 8 p.m. Eastern on VH1. Have a fun and safe New Year’s Eve!

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4’ Recap: The Redemption of Valentina

Get out your roses and red M&Ms, girls. After a quiet performance in the RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 premiere, Valentina properly explodes onto the scene in episode 2. She wins the challenge, wins the lip sync, and gets some primo confessionals, to boot. Though the episode is framed as being about season 3 legend Stacy Layne Matthews, in reality, this week is All About Val.

Of course, considering what a divisive figure the season 9 Miss Congeniality-cum-Fan Favorite can be, this episode will likely inspire heated disagreements. For example: Her talking heads are plentiful, yes, but also quite extra. (The editors literally stitch in a round of applause for her in one confessional.) An impromptu monologue during deliberations about how difficult choosing someone to go home is mostly makes her fellow queens roll their eyes.

That said, the quality of her performance in the challenge — a girl group music battle that sees the girls writing and recording their own verses, executing group choreography, and incorporating Stacy into their routines — is nearly indisputable. She comes up with a killer verse that is perfectly Valentina, all fire and spice, and sings the hell out of it. Her runway presentation, a gorgeous gown, is also 10s across the board.

Valentina definitely deserves to win this week. The biggest point of dispute, I imagine, will be about her winning the lip sync.

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Watching the Lip Sync for Your Legacy, I knew immediately Ru’s choice of winner would be controversial. Season 10 veteran and fellow challenge winner Monét X Change certainly serves big stunts and moments in her lip sync, which is more immediately impressive. In rewatching it, though, I get why Valentina wins. Monét doesn’t really stitch those big moments together, whereas Val’s is a cohesive performance. Her peaks aren’t just sudden spikes; she builds energy throughout the song, and explodes at the climax. It is a battle reminiscent of the similarly disputed Peppermint-vs.-Trinity Taylor lip sync to “Stronger” in the season 9 finale. I don’t begrudge anyone who thinks Monét deserved the win, but I’d personally also likely go with Valentina.

That said, I’m also certain Valentina wins because it makes for the best story. Redemption on an Ariana Grande lip sync? A year and a half after the Great “Greedy” Massacre? Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to resist that either were I a Drag Race story producer.

Still, any whiff of impropriety is enough to get the fanbase roiled up these days. After Farrah Moan fell in last week’s challenge, some viewers (including season 9 and All Stars 3 veteran Aja) were upset that the show used the take of her All-Star Variety Show Performance in which she fell, as opposed to an alternate take. Trinity the Tuck herself started some drama when she alleged Latrice Royale’s alternate take was worse than the performance we saw (which, in our minds, could have easily been in the top). There was even anger over the shot of season 6 alumna Gia Gunn that the show used after Farrah’s fall. Some eagle-eyed viewers caught that, due to Manila’s unrevealed outfit behind Gia, that shot couldn’t have possibly been Gia’s real reaction to Farrah.

To that last bit of detective work, season 8 queen Kim Chi had the best response imaginable: “Who cares?” Because really, that’s the heart of it. RuPaul’s Drag Race is crafted and curated entertainment. It is not a docuseries, or a live news report. It is reality television, which, despite the name, is under no obligation to present reality exactly as it happened. Producers are telling us a story. Using a hilarious shot of Gia smiling — one that is quite rightfully going viral — to underscore their feud is not malicious. It’s good story editing.

So yeah, Valentina probably wins the lip sync for a combination of her performance, her redemption, and the dramatic narrative potential of her sending former season 9 frenemy Farrah home. That’s not shady or deceptive; to quote Angela Bassett in Mission: Impossible — Fallout, “That’s the job.”

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Speaking of Gia, though, she really leans into that villain edit this week! I’m not sure if Gia purposefully settled on being the bitch when she walked into the workroom to maximize her screen time — as Farrah accuses her of doing in the workroom — or if she’s just this unaware. But she’s unrepentantly unpleasant this week, stirring up drama with Farrah over some nebulous non-story. (Farrah tried to make Gia and another girl make up … while drunk? While Gia was working? And Gia exploded at her? That’s all I got.) She’s blatantly trying to distract Farrah in the workroom, and ignores Farrah’s multiple requests to table the discussion. Even when Monique and Naomi are yelling at Gia to cool it, she still doesn’t listen.

Gia didn’t stop there, though. During deliberations, when Farrah is pleading for her life in the competition with Monét, Gia decides to go over and interrupt the conversation to deliver an insincere apology for any drama she caused. It struck me watching Gia interrupt this one-on-one conversation while wearing opulent eveningwear that Gia is a Bachelor villain in a Drag Race world. She’s all about shady comments behind girls’ backs and inconveniencing them, but that’s not fun to watch. She’s a distraction, in every sense. I deeply empathize with Farrah when she lets out a frustrated, “GOD, I can’t stand her.”

As for Gia’s performance in the challenge, it’s fine. Her verse is unmemorable but enjoyable enough. Honestly, that’s the case across the board this week. Trinity’s verse is fine. Latrice’s is fine too, energetic but lyrically a bit shallow. Season 8 queen Naomi Smalls is actually quite a bit better than fine (guest judge Kacey Musgraves calls her a “great songwriter”), and she looks fantastic to boot. It’s enough to land Naomi in the top three for the second week in a row; one imagines she’ll break through with a win imminently.

Season 3 veteran Manila Luzon, on the other hand, is much worse than fine. Her verse is underwhelming, and nothing she does on the main stage can salvage it. I enjoyed Manila’s painting gag immensely last week, but watching her perform this episode brought back a lot of the problems I have with her. She’s a stunning queen — her runway look this week is nothing short of breathtaking — but she never feels emphatic enough in performance, “MacArthur Park” excepted. Hell, she basically whispers through her verse. For such a big character, Manila’s performances often end with periods, not exclamation points.

The heart of season 10 and winner of last week’s challenge, Monique Heart, is also mostly fine while attempting to pay tribute to Aaliyah in her performance. Unfortunately, she screws up a costume transition in her verse, and worse, she makes excuses for it on the runway. This is truly the most maddening thing about Monique: She has an excuse for everything. And she did the same thing in season 10! I desperately want her to stop, because it so clearly annoys the judges. I can’t watch such a talented queen go out too early again because she won’t just accept critiques on the main stage. If she’d had better humor about the judges’ notes, she may well have swapped placements with Manila.

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Neither Monique nor Manila have much to worry about this week, though. Farrah Moan is just so clearly out of her depth in this group. Her verse isn’t demonstrably worse than Manila’s, but her hesitance in both the vocal performance and dance is obvious. She really does lack the nerve to perform with confidence in this arena. Farrah’s a sweetheart, but her departure this week is entirely fair and deserved.

Valentina and Farrah have a fascinating conversation during deliberations. Val makes no bones about it: She is very much considering sending Farrah home, and wants to know if their friendship will survive it. Farrah says it would be difficult to recover from, considering their relationship is fragile. I’ll give Farrah credit: Whether or not she’s being sincere, that’s pretty good social game. Valentina clearly demonstrates she’s worried about upsetting Farrah, and Farrah doesn’t let her off easy. Even though Valentina ultimately decides to send Farrah home, I’d bet Farrah made the choice a harder one for Val than she expected.

It’s almost certain that Monét would’ve sent Farrah home, too, considering her tight friendship with Monique. Unfortunately, her sending Farrah home is much less compelling narratively — which is kind of the Monét problem all episode. Yeah, she gets her first challenge win, and after absolutely slaying her verse! But she’s not Valentina getting her redemption. Yeah, her runway is a major step up! But it still pales in comparison to everyone else’s gown.

Monét absolutely gets second-fiddle treatment this week — and is even getting it in this recap. I’m hopeful this is only the first win for her, and I’ll get plenty more chances to rant and rave about my fave.

A henny for your thoughts:

• I adore Stacy Layne Matthews, known best simply as “Henny,” and I’m a little bummed to see her backgrounded in a challenge that was designed to feature her. I think the failing here is that she isn’t included in helping the girls develop their verses, so the songs themselves are deeply disconnected from Henny herself. Even during dance rehearsal, she takes a backseat to the group drama. Still, it’s always nice to see Stacy, and to see the show acknowledge its pre-VH1 roots.

• No mini-challenge this week, which is worrying. If these episodes are going to be 90 minutes long, we need weekly mini-challenges. There was a whole lot of time spent in the workroom this episode.

• Sometimes I think Valentina skeptics are off the mark, and then sometimes Valentina shows off her bare ass in the first five minutes of the episode. So, like, I get it.

• Monét drops a reference to The Vixen in her verse. Color me not just shocked, but floored, that Drag Race allowed it.

• I shrieked when “Into You” came on as the lip sync song. One more Ariana song in season 11, and she’ll tie the record held for most non-RuPaul lip sync songs by a single artist! (Current record holders: Paula Abdul, Britney Spears, and Madonna.)

• Though Manila’s output this episode is decidedly underwhelming, I do appreciate her commentary on the Gia-Farrah fight. She sees a lot of herself in Gia, and wisely notes that going for the weakest link in the room is only going to look like bullying. As she says, she knows from experience. Heathers vs. Boogers, anyone?

• Kacey Musgraves and Ciara are good-not-great guest judges, though Ciara does get a couple of good notes in during judging. Knocking Monique for making excuses instead of taking responsibility as a performer is the kind of note only another performer can give. And Kacey calling Trinity “Tanya Tuck-er” during the runway is fun.

• God bless Ciara for not just screaming at Naomi when she says she listened to “One, Two Step” in sixth grade. Monét screaming that she loves Ciara is much more respectful.

• Once Gia inevitably goes next week — Snatch Game doesn’t really seem like her forte — we’ll be down to an absurdly tight final seven. I truly think anyone could win this thing, though if I were a betting man, I’d say Valentina, Trinity, Latrice, and Monét will be our final four.

• I will never be over Valentina saying that Monique’s pant fit “is so disrespectful to Aaliyah.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars returns next Friday, December 28, at 8 p.m. Eastern on VH1. (Merry Christmas until then!)

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4’ Premiere Recap: Herstory Never Repeats

RuPaul’s Drag Race has owned 2018. After airing for almost the entire first half of the year, between All Stars 3 (not the best!) and season 10 (incredibly strong first half!), RuPaul decided he could not let his foot off our neck. First, we got the entertaining-if-misguided Holi-slay Spectacular. Now, it’s All Stars season again. Ten veteran girls, one spot in the Drag Race Hall of Fame up for grabs.

I’ll admit, I walked into this week’s premiere with some reticence. All Stars 3 was a pretty stressful experience, what with RuPaul saying transitioning queens shouldn’t compete in an interview, pockets of racist fans repeatedly attacking Bebe Zahara Benet (a personal favorite queen), and a finale that absolutely no one was happy with, even the winner. Suffice it to say I want the jury twist blasted into the next dimension.

All in all, though, this was a good reintroduction to the world of All Stars. This cast is excellent, far more impressive on the whole than All Stars 3’s crop. There are a couple of more dubious inclusions, considering their runs on the show, but the show goes out of its way to explain why they’re there.

For example: Season 9’s Farrah Moan is one of the most beautiful alumni. And season 7’s Jasmine Masters is a meme queen! But even those justifications ultimately don’t mean much, as those are the two queens who wind up in the bottom this week. Excellence outside the show only sometimes translates into improving your performance on the show, after all.

But we’ll get back to them later. We’ve got some other queens to re-meet first.

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The first challenges are, once again, Reading Is Fundamental and the All-Star Variety Show. Which: I get tradition, but can we vary this up a little next season? At this point the All Stars format is getting stale, including the return of Lip Sync for Your Legacy. (I guess that suspension from the supertrailer is coming later in the season, then.) All Stars 2 was so thrilling because it changed up the format; doing the same challenges over and over again is not the way to replicate that season’s success.

Season 4 and All Stars 1 veteran Latrice Royale wins the mini-challenge, marking her second reading challenge win (tying Alaska, who won in season 5 and All Stars 2). She and Manila Luzon, season 3 runner-up, both return from All Stars 1, where a terrible team twist doomed them to a joint 7th/8th-place finish. I adore Latrice, so I’m super excited to see how she’ll do in modern Drag Race. I am of more mixed emotions about Manila, a stunning queen whose challenge wins in season 3 nonetheless feel a bit … shall we say, suspect in retrospect. Let’s just say her QNN correspondent performance would probably not win the challenge today, nor the internet’s favor.

Both Latrice and Manila do just fine in the All-Star Variety Show, though surprising myself, I might have put Manila in my personal top three. She does an odd painting routine with a hell of a twist — she painted a picture upside down! — and adds a costume reveal to boot. It probably didn’t play as well onstage as it did on camera, but I like when these queens don’t just lip-sync for their talent. This is Drag Race. Everyone should have that particular talent.

While Latrice does include color guard moves in her routine, they’re mostly an excuse for her to do a high-energy lip-sync number. Infamous season 9 fan favorite Valentina also lip syncs, but considering she likely just wants to prove she can do it, it’s understandable. Season 8 alumna Naomi Smalls mostly poses through her lip sync, although a good bald head reveal at the end grants her a top three placement from the judges.

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Season 10 sisters Monique Heart and Monét X Change both opt for live vocals in their performances, singing songs tied to their catchphrases from their season. Despite Monét championing herself as a singer in season 10, however, Monique is the winner of this particular battle. “Brown Cow Stunning” is a good Drag Race alumni track, and her outfit — actual brown cow, no giraffe this time! — is just corny enough to work. More to the point, Monique sounds good, and keeps her vocals up while she dances. She’s the clear winner in the main challenge, finally taking home a win after being passed up repeatedly during season 10.

Monét, on the other hand, really whiffs on this one. Her voice is a disaster at the start of the performance, and “Soak It Up” feels like a rehash of all the sponge jokes Monét told during season 10. The key difference between Mo’ and Mo’ is that while Monique did say “Brown cow! Stunning!” in season 10, she said it once. Monét made the sponges a season-long gag. We get it. We need something more. Combined with her technical imperfection, it’s enough to land Monét in the bottom, sitting on the opposite side of the stage as Monique. That said, Monique should probably retire the brown cow jokes for a while after this win.

This being All Stars, Monique cannot win alone, and so she is joined by season 9’s Trinity Taylor — now preferring to go by Trinity the Tuck. Similar to Monét, Trinity relies on a gag from her season, her tucking skills, but puts together a whole new comedy routine to go with it. It’s a lip sync, but to a tucking tutorial, complete with a country-fried teacher character. It’s a smart idea, particularly because the judges have always preferred Trinity’s comedy to her more pageant-friendly skills. (Two of her three wins in season 9 were for comedic performances.)

Trinity’s performance is fun, but more importantly, it’s different. Tatianna won the All Stars 2 talent show because she did spoken word, and she killed it. You’d think more girls would look to her as an example — which is what season 6’s Gia Gunn does, actually. Her kabuki routine isn’t the flashiest, but it’s unique. I finished watching the episode thinking of the talents that took me by surprise, like hers, Trinity’s, and Manila’s, much more than the more expected routines.

Now, that’s Gia in the challenge. Gia out of the challenge is a whole other story. While I appreciate the journey she’s been on in her transition, and am pleasantly surprised to see her here, Gia in both the workroom and confessionals this week is absolutely unbearable. She’s constantly negative, putting down Trinity and Farrah ad nauseam. She even trash-talks the beloved Valentina after the latter’s routine bores her! Gia’s not even trying to avoid being the villain this season! Milk and Phi Phi O’Hara’s villain edits took far more work to put together than this.

Purposeful antagonism isn’t enjoyable to watch, frankly. The best reality TV villains don’t come in to start shit, they think they’re right. Moreover, they don’t let their snark get in the way of their success. As Trinity says in one confessional, maybe she’s got a strategy in mind, but with this attitude, she’s not going to survive long in the Lip Sync for Your Legacy format.

Speaking of, Trinity is the queen whose growth most impresses me in this episode — not as a queen, because she’s always been skilled, but as a person. Trinity was known for being a stone-cold, cutthroat competitor in season 9. She wins the lip sync against Monique, a barnburner set to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions,” and has to send either Farrah or Jasmine home this week. Trinity gets really emotional and reflective about the decision, and even tears up on stage. She’s showing her heart early, which will nicely compliment her challenge and lip sync superiority. Even in the reading mini-challenge, though she didn’t win it, she artfully lobbed failed reads from other queens back at them.

If I had to bet on one queen to be the BenDeLaCreme or Alaska of this season — excelling in nearly every part of the show — Trinity would be my bet.

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And so we return to Farrah and Jasmine, who both make pretty strong cases for sending them home this week. Farrah’s burlesque routine is a literal flop, thus ending the trend of the one burlesque performer each season (Roxxxy Andrews and Ben before this) winning the variety show. It’s interesting that the judges don’t mention Farrah’s fall in their critiques, though I know the show shoots every variety show act twice. That’s why we didn’t see Chi Chi DeVayne drop her baton during All Stars 3. Maybe they weren’t sure if the show would use the take where Farrah falls, and wanted to avoid mentioning it as a result. Still, even if Farrah didn’t fall in both takes, she’s visibly nervous throughout her routine. Winning Drag Race takes Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent, and I could really only make an argument for Farrah’s Charisma at this point.

Jasmine is the opposite of nervous. She’s all Nerve, with very little to back it up. Jasmine’s stand-up routine is completely devoid of good jokes, but even during deliberations, she refuses to admit she wasn’t funny. (Which: She really wasn’t.) That said, between the two choices, I’m much more interested in seeing what Jasmine would bring to All Stars. She’s a different kind of queen, one who could surprise in this more performance-heavy format with more preparation. Farrah, bless her heart, is never going to make a big impression in All Stars.

Trinity ultimately chooses to cut Jasmine, which is defensible, if disappointing. Farrah is likely next out the door unless she can surprise. But there’s not much chaff left after that. That’s when the true battle between the best of the best can begin.

Some final thoughts:

• The bitch is back! I’m happy to be joining you all again as the primary recapper for All Stars 4. Mathew Rodriguez, who so wonderfully covered season 10, will be writing about the season in a broader capacity. All Stars 3 nearly broke me, but some time off plus a dynamite first half of season 10 helped rekindle my love of Drag Race. I’m excited to see what these girls can do this season.

• I personally believe in declaring biases, so for the record: I’m heavily rooting for Monét X Change to win this season. I think she’s entertaining as hell, with the intelligence to back it up. That said, this was the worst possible note to start on — literally. Her singing made Phi Phi in All Stars 2 sound on-key. Also? Save the sponges, her look for the variety show was basically Bob the Drag Queen’s final Book Ball look in season 8. Considering she always gets compared to Bob anyway, this misstep is particularly egregious. Get it together, Monét, and fast!

• We’re supposed to believe that Valentina and Farrah are good now, after their iconic reunion fight in season 9. I maybe don’t buy it? Their tone when talking about making up is tense. We’ll see how the rest of this season goes, but I don’t think this is going to be an Alyssa Edwards/Coco Montrese “we have buried the hatch” moment.

• Speaking of Val, I know I didn’t mention her much, but she was surprisingly backgrounded this episode for such a controversial character. Saving the best for later, maybe? Regardless, I appreciate that Valentina is embracing being a more complex character. I gave a cheer when she said she can be both nice and a telenovela villainess. Tea!

• The best read in the mini-challenge is Latrice’s “Valentina! Take that thing off your face. Oh, it is your face. Your other one.” It’s a layered read: first reference, then read, then the full wig-snatch. Runner-up: Naomi’s “Farrah Moan is so dumb, she thought Valentina was her best friend.”

• Naomi says the word “fashion” multiple times in her track, which gave me PTSD flashbacks to Milk’s “Touch the Fashion” last season. (Also, a light conspiracy theory: I think Naomi only got her top three placement because the judges wanted to give her the note that her comedy played better than just posing. It’s a critique that could really benefit her moving forward.)

• There’s a superhero/comic aesthetic to the intro this season, replacing the Handmaid’s Tale theme from last season. Hope this one doesn’t become an overly long gag that never satisfyingly pays off.

• Monique loses her wig during the lip sync, which is irritating, but it becomes a full gag when the wig gets stuck in the stage rafters. Trinity was going to win this lip sync anyway — seriously, she really kills it — but Monique should count herself lucky something fun came from her mistake.

• Jenifer Lewis is a great guest judge, energetic during the performances and giving good notes during critiques. I especially appreciated her rebuke to Farrah’s tears — that crying is boring. Because it is, frankly! I appreciate Farrah’s feelings, but this is All Stars. In the words of Aja, level your pussy up.

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars returns next Friday, December 21, at 8pm Eastern on VH1.

Which ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Guest Judge Is the Best?

If only Judy can judge you, then call us your good Judies. Because The Kiki is here to judge some judges.

In this week’s episode of The Kiki — the penultimate episode of the season! — hosts Kevin O’Keeffe and Mathew Rodriguez dissect the tenures of RuPaul’s Drag Race‘s seven regular judges. Up for examination: Merle Ginsburg, Santino Rice, Michelle Visage, Billy B., Ross Mathews, Carson Kressley, and Todrick Hall. In the video, the hosts even rank them all — using RuPuns, naturally.

The Kiki also gets into how the changing in the judging panel has changed the show itself. What started as a looks-focused series has evolved into more of a performance-based one. You can thank Visage and Mathews for that.

In addition, the hosts get into why Hall is a misfit as a Drag Race judge, the reason why Visage didn’t come on until season 3, and how Mathews and Kressley’s previous TV experience informs their individual approaches to judging.

Watch the full episode below.

Kiss My Astro: Your December Horoscopes

The best piece of wisdom to remember from 2018? There are no guarantees in love.

This year brought us deep into the places in our hearts, minds, and bodies that need to get shaken up and refreshed. For some of us, that means major changes in what seemed like stable relationships — for others, it means powerful new connections that spring up out of nowhere. Maybe you’ve experienced both? In this last month of a year that’s been astrologically focused on transforming our relationships, you get cosmic permission to full release the pain of the past year and start building toward future pleasures. Nothing new can grow without something ending first. With Venus in Scorpio, still, just be aware relationships can take a sudden turn toward deeper issues without much warning. Draw on that optimistic energy of Jupiter in Sagittarius to get you through with your sense of humor intact.

If you’re in need of extra insights or holiday gifts for the astrology fans on your list, hit me up for readings and astrology presents! 

Aries

This year has been extra in so many ways, but you’ve really been feeling it at the deepest levels. The good news is 2019 won’t be nearly as grueling for your heart and body. The bad news is you’ve still get December to deal with. This month, recognize that you know how to survive a lot. You know how to get your needs met, however you can. What do you want, now, to thrive in the new year? You’re moving from a year of limping and slow recovery to a year where you’ll be soaring like a goddamn bird. Don’t expect too much progress all at once, but know you’re on your way out of whatever mess you feel stuck in.

Taurus

This year has introduced you to a theme that will be much more present for you in the coming years: You are learning to appreciate the pleasures of unpredictability. You’ve been letting go of old stories about what partnership means, particularly fixation on a kind of stability that can be stifling and smothering for your own spirit. You’re learning now how to ask for (and keep getting) what you need as life continues to churn and twist and leave us in unexpected situations. Part of how you’re coming back to life right now is through your erotic imagination. Let new desires help you become your next best self.

Gemini

This is a beautiful month for releasing stress from your body, especially stress about your body. Learn to trust your internal sense of joy more than you trust a mirror. The kind of love that is looking for you this month knows that our bodies are the expression of the energy that moves them. What is that energy like for you right now? Are you letting yourself choose the people that light you up when you’re with them? Anyone you feel ugly, small, or invisible with when you’re with them is no longer someone you need to make time for.

Cancer

Let’s talk about desire, darling. You’re someone who can feel it intensely, and this year has been really running you through the gauntlet. Whether you’ve gotten those desires satisfied or remain in a state of frustrated longing, desire itself can be a distraction that prevents you from noticing everything else in your life. Maybe there’s a lot you don’t want to notice? Nevertheless, something is calling you to tend a little more to your core wellbeing. Turn your energy inward, start getting curious about what (else) you need. Desire will still be there when you’re done — and you’ll be much better equipped to handle both satisfaction and disappointment.

Leo

The holidays are generally stressful, but there’s something about family that’s particularly tender for you this year. If you have the energy to explore that, this could be a time for some deep healing. Luckily, you’ve also got a little extra sparkle right now and you’ll find plenty of opportunities for sharing those sparks. Risk being a little more vulnerable and you’ll find it easier to share both grief and celebration. 2019 will be a year of reconnecting with joy — you can get an early start on that right now.

Virgo

As you move toward a year in which your sacred mission is to call in the kind of loving that will make your world feel right, your first assignment is to silence your internal chatter — particularly the part of you that likes to game out what you should say to the difficult people you love, and what they might say back to you, and what you can say next to help explain or solve the problem, etc., as you lay awake at night instead of drifting into mindless oblivion. The love you need right now is the kind that will knock you out and let you rest. What can you do to release your need to explain, justify, persuade, or negotiate with anyone? Who can you reach out to for some soporific tenderness?

Libra

Honey, don’t get too hung up on any one man right now. Even if it’s your life partner, or your kid, or the love of your life that you’re just now getting to notice you. It’s really not about them right now, it’s about all the friends that keep you sane when that man isn’t around or hasn’t done right by you. This month is kindly reminding you that there is a lot of love in your life, and that you can start to hold it in different ways when you start with self-love. Adore yourself first; everyone else can wait in line.

Scorpio

Oh, the things you’ve learned about love this year. It could lead you to cynicism, but you don’t have to get stuck there. Your relationships may have been tough this year, but your response gets to be magical. You get to be the phoenix rising from the flames of 2018. And as you’re reborn into 2019, it’s time welcome yourself back to life with decadent pleasures. Let yourself remember why it’s good to be in a body.

Sagittarius

You are so damn hot right now, no matter what you look like. Maybe you’re in ratty sweatpants and feeling bloated, maybe there’s spinach in your teeth — honestly, it doesn’t matter. You’re radiating a renewed sense of purpose and direction. You’re coming into your own. Do you feel it? Can you trust it? Is it a little scary to imagine growing into a more expansive version of yourself? Remember that you won’t be on this journey alone. You get to be your own hero this year, and there’s something magnetic about that kind of energy.

Capricorn

Dearest stoic Capricorn, repeat after me: Isolation isn’t the answer right now. We all know how tough and capable you are, but that’s not the issue. Everybody needs to know they’re not alone while facing anything they can’t control. What kind of support do you actually want? Let your imagination run wild. Notice where you start to shut down and tell yourself “It’s fine, I can handle this alone.” I’m sure you can. But what if you didn’t have to? Look a little more closely at who’s offering you some sweetness right now, and take a chance by accepting.

Aquarius

Sometimes it’s hard not to get caught between your idealism and your realism: hoping but not wanting to hope, dreaming but not believing in your dreams. This is a month for dreaming big. Believe in the possibilities you’ve talked yourself out of. Start looking for the collaborators you need to make things happen. Remember that you’re part of larger communities, and your voice is needed. What happens when you remember all the ways you’re already connected?

Pisces

Let’s talk about what it means to be sensitive. Toxic rules about masculinity teach us what men can and can’t feel, what they’re allowed to express and what they’re encouraged to repress. You’re one of the special ones who feels more than others usually do — like being an artist who sees a range of subtle differences in color. This sensitivity is a kind of intelligence, and this month asks you to claim it, learn more about it, and learn how to use it. Don’t let anyone shame you out of claiming what’s yours, sweetie. The ones who are worth your time will be grateful to have some of those healing powers directed their way.

On ‘Élite’ and HIV Representation in Pop Culture

Élite, the Spanish teen drama that’s been compared favorably to shows like Gossip Girl, hit Netflix back in October. Produced by Zeta Producciones — giving the company a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for its very first series — Élite features plenty of classic teen show tropes, from slow-motion kisses, epic school brawls, and parents who just don’t understand, to drug use, date rape, and teen pregnancy. The show manages to avoid the feeling of an after-school special, and remains both sexy and thought-provoking. Élite is especially thoughtful, however, when it comes to representing living with HIV.

The story, packed with a huge ensemble cast, follows three impoverished students who are given scholarships to attend an upscale private school after their local school collapses. Most of the rich kids are offended by their presence. They make sure the poor kids remember their status. One manic pixie dream girl, Marina, embraces the new kids because she, too, knows what it feels to be an outsider.

Marina contracted HIV with a sexual partner a year before the story begins. Her brother and his friends beat her boyfriend until he nearly died. Élite‘s writing team has done an excellent job of removing a lot of the stigma surrounding STI’s: Marina works hard to take care of her body, is on meds, attends therapy, and gets regular blood tests to ensure that the infection is undetectable. She gets tested regularly, and knows she has a low chance of passing the disease to any of her sexual partners.

Her family, however, views her disease as a death sentence; if not from life, then from the social elite. Though Marina is adamant that the sex she had when she contracted the disease was consensual, her family is insistent that she was drugged and raped. When she tries to discuss her feelings on what happened, they shut her down. Embarrassed by her need to understand what’s happening to her, they label Marina crazy and avoid her.

When it began in the United States, the HIV and AIDS crisis was ignored by both the government and greater culture. Early contractors were forced to live on the fringe of society. Shame, judgment, and isolation awaited early carriers. Most pop culture references to HIV showcase this era of the disease — films like Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club, and Gia.

In television, HIV+ representation is often limited to guest roles on hospital procedurals. The best representation of positive characters is currently happening on FX’s Pose. Set in the mid-’80s, the show doesn’t lean heavily on despair and death. Instead, survival, friendship, and prevention are the heart of the story.

But Pose isn’t a teen drama, though there are certainly elements of the genre throughout the show. While everyone needs to be practicing safe sex, educating and informing teens early is the best way to prevent further transmission. That’s exactly what Élite does: It encourages teens to educate themselves.

The internet can remove a lot of second-hand embarrassment when trying to understand the ramifications of HIV. Marina’s crush, Samuel, is dedicated to learning everything he can to be a good boyfriend to Marina. When they consummate their relationship, they are both informed and safe.  

Stateside, contributing factors for the rise in STDs include lack of sexual education, doctors see patients without asking them if they’d like to be tested, and patients tend not to ask for the tests. Therefore, many carriers go undiagnosed for years and continue to spread the disease. Worst of all, federal funding for education programs and STD prevention have decreased by 40% over the last fifteen years.

Of course, there are many potential complications that follow unsafe sex. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise globally. According to the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, David Harvey, “The United States continues to have the highest STD rates in the industrialized world. We are in the midst of an absolute STD public health crisis in this country. It’s a crisis that has been in the making for years.”

The last scripted teen drama that explored stories of HIV characters was A Different World in 1991. Since then, safe sex lessons are told through accidental pregnancy. Frequently, women receive the brunt of the punishment for shared transgressions. Entire shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager predicate on that punishment. 

Unfortunately, Marina suffers the same punishment. She has unprotected sex with Samuel’s brother, Nano. Isolated and reckless, Marina falls in love with both brothers. Élite never slut shames Marina for her decision, though. If her family had been willing to listen to her, she wouldn’t have felt the need to search for love in all the wrong places. The escape drugs provided wouldn’t have been so alluring. Love could have led Marina back home.  

Instead, when Marina discovers she’s pregnant, she decides to run away with Nano. They plan to run away to Morocco and live by the sea. Though it sounds romantic, Marina is sixteen and Nano is at least in his early 20s. Nano aggressively pursues her and encourages her to leave everything she knows. Once again, isolation pushes Marina into dangerous situations.

She doesn’t make it to Morocco. Marina is murdered in the high school. She becomes another victim of an insecure and wounded man. There’s no resolution of her death. That will have to wait until season 2.

Elite

While Marina’s death is devastating, she chose to live her life fearlessly. Three times throughout the show, Marina reveals her positive status. The first time Marina tells Samuel as they work on a group project. Marina tells Samuel hoping it will drive him away. On a subconscious level, she believes she’s bad for him. But Samuel is unphased. He loves her and wants to know how to make it work.

Distressed at his reaction to Marina’s status, Samuel tells his brother Nano. What Samuel doesn’t know, of course, is that Nano drunkenly slept with Marina without reaction. Nano drives to Marina’s house and demands to know why she didn’t tell him herself. He says he doesn’t care, but the response isn’t exactly comforting. Marina repeats that the HIV is undetectable.

The final time Marina comes out is in the middle of class. Desperate to talk to Marina, Samuel sends her a text message that includes her status. When he’s caught with his phone out during class, the instructor forces Samuel to read the message out loud. The air evaporates from the classroom. Silently, judgment and disgust bombard Marina in the claustrophobic classroom. The little bit of privacy and control vanishes in an instant.

Marina pushes herself up from her desk and addresses her class. “I was infected a year ago,” she begins. “I suppose people are going to talk about this. I just think you should know all of the facts before you do.” Her voice wavers as she repeats the same facts she’s told every single person who learns of her status.

Her exhaustion is palpable. It’s not the HIV that wears Marina down, it’s a lack of understanding. Even Nadia, a Muslim classmate exhausted by the judgment she receives at school and home, is initially disgusted when she learns of Marina’s status. Later, Nadia admits that she simply hadn’t ever been around someone who was HIV positive. Her ignorance scared her. Ignorance alienated Marina from everyone who wanted to love her. The best thing viewers can take away from Élite is to get to know someone with HIV. It’s not a death sentence, and when managed carefully, there isn’t anything to fear.

Thirty Years of World AIDS Day And Combating HIV Stigma

The first World AIDS Day was observed on December 1, 1988. That year, more than 28,000 people died from AIDS-related causes. I was 12, probably somewhere in Philadelphia dancing and lip-synching to Paula Abdul, blissfully unaware that the epidemic would later alter my life in significant ways. The only HIV prevention that seemed to exist back then for young gay boys like me, were vocal demands to not get AIDS. As we mark the 30th Anniversary of World AIDS Day, the number of annual HIV-related deaths has dropped tremendously to around 6,500. While science has made strides in expanding HIV prevention, systematic stigma and shame continue to prohibit folks from leading safe and healthy lives, especially youth of color.

In many ways, the crack epidemic was the equalizer in our neighborhood. My mother had friends who were lawyers, blue collar workers, and business executives – all of whom were addicts. I watched them come and go as our one-room apartment became a revolving door. I never paid them much attention, choosing to retreat to the sounds of Paula Abdul, Janet, or Donna Summers. That all changed when Miss Tina walked in.

Miss Tina was Black, tall, muscular, and unapologetic about her sometimes revealing five o’clock shadow. Instead of studying for school tests, I studied Miss Tina. I’d ask her questions about her nail color and shoes, but what I desperately wanted to know was how to beat up the boys who called me “faggot” at school.

One night, I woke up to urgent whispers and cries from Miss Tina. “I think you need to go to the hospital,” I heard my mother say. I peeked through the sheet dividing our one-room apartment and saw Miss Tina’s bloodied and swollen face. I wanted to ask what happened, but even then, I knew. She got beat up for being herself, just like I got beat up at school.

As I grew older, Miss Tina and I developed our own friendship. We talked about the night that she showed up bloody in our apartment. She told me about the many times she showed up bloody somewhere. We talked about how she endured. She told me to never do drugs or get AIDS. She made me promise. I promised.

In 1996, Miss Tina died of AIDS complications. There was no wailing, no explicit mourning. People spoke about her death as matter of fact. I can’t say I blame them. By that time, there were an estimated 23 million people living with HIV worldwide. Trauma and shame meant many of us didn’t talk with our families about AIDS or death. Back then, demands to never get AIDS was the only HIV prevention there was to give young gay boys like myself.

It has been more than 20 years since Miss Tina’s passing, and I’ve been living with HIV for more than 10 of those years. Looking back, I now know that I didn’t break Miss Tina’s promise. She wasn’t really asking me to promise to abstain: She was telling me to live. Tina knew, even before I had officially “come out” to her, that I was in need of direction and helpful hints that could, and would, eventually save my life.

Now I have the privilege of providing LGBTQ youth the same direction and guidance that she once gifted me. I’m launching the first-ever National council of youth activists living with HIV, called Engaging Communities around HIV Organizing (ECHO), focused on combating rampant HIV stigma. We must end laws and policies which criminalize people living with HIV, and make sure every young person living with HIV is cared for and valued.

Today, I am older than Tina was when she died. Effective treatment and care have helped to make HIV a survivable diagnosis. We now even have PrEP, the daily pill that helps to prevent HIV infection. It all would seem like science fiction to Miss Tina and the little boy she unknowingly saved.