Tune in to Logo's RuPaul's Drag Race season eight marathon tomorrow, and you won't see any of RuPaul's stunning outfits, hear queen Robbie Turner talk of growing up gay in a tiny rural town, or gaze into judge Carson Kressley's soulful eyes.
Just in time for Coming Out Day, Logo is temporarily censoring all queer people and dialogue from the show. It's "a show of solidarity with LGBT people living in countries where such images are blocked entirely and where coming out is not safe or legal," the network said in a statement. The goal: "providing a glimpse at what life could be like in countries where LGBT people can't turn on the television, open the newspaper, or go to social media to see positive and relatable images."
But drag queens have always been on the cutting edge of activism, from the Compton's Cafeteria riots and the long history of protest-fueled clashes between drag queens and police to Pantigate, in which the Irish drag queen Panti Bliss sparked a national conversation in 2014 over homophobia in her home country's media. And though LGBTQ activists may have more of a platform than ever in the United States, their people remain oppressed around the world.
Depending on how you define your terms, there are around 13 countries where "homosexual acts" are associated with the death penalty. Additionally, Iraq has no laws against homosexuality, but militias are known to execute suspected gays. In 74 countries, LGBTQ relationships are outlawed—not including Russia, where same-sex couples are barred from adopting children and public displays of homosexuality are prohibited.
Even in the United States, research by GLAAD, an LGBTQ media watchdog group, shows that LGBTQ media visibility is lacking. Only 4 percent of regular characters on primetime broadcast programming are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. There are no trans characters on broadcast, and only three recurring trans characters on cable.
That visibility matters because depictions of queer people are often cited as a means to move public opinion. "I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far," said Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.
Around the world, visibility has started to slowly improve. Chilean reality show Happy Together recently featured same-sex couple Julio and Juan Pablo, and LGBTQ media portrayals are improving in China, for example.
Ross Murray, the director of global and southern US programs at GLAAD, is particularly intrigued by an Indonesian web series called CONQ, as well as the possible cautionary tale that it provides. "It's about two gay best friends and their lives," he said. "It started getting attention, and started getting threats. [The makers] wound up pulling it."
In other words, visibility can be a double-edged sword. "The overall trajectory for a lot of LGBTIQ people is positive, but we're also seeing an acute backlash around the world," Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, a human rights organization, told the LA Times this June. "The backlash is akin to what happens to many communities and movements when they stand up and advocate for their rights."
"There is also a strong presence of gay characters as comic relief based strongly on stereotyping, and often with racist undertones," said Thomás Levy of gay characters in Brazilian programming. "We're also going through a 'politically incorrect' humor phase, which is just... not good."
As such, there's an overseas market for US shows with authentic LGBTQ representations.
"Empire is very popular in Africa," GLAAD's Ross Murray said. "Modern Family is very popular in South America," thanks in part to the casting of Sofia Vergara. "When people can see a character that they can identify and recognize, that makes the US show more popular. If you're in a culture that has really negative stereotypes—and the US has been that country—you have preconceived notions of what LGBT people are like. And then if you can get a good nuanced depiction or storyline or emotional way of getting caught up with them as a person, it starts to challenge those notions."
By way of example, one Reddit user wrote of Drag Race last year, "I am from Morocco, and me and my friends watch on internet every ep + Untucked. RPDR is the best TV show ever. Simply the best. I hope one day homosexuality would not be a crime and gay bars become less of a secret."
"At its core, it is the story of the tenacity of the human spirit," said RuPaul of his show in an ABC interview. The show's appeal certainly reaches beyond national borders: "We get to see these kids who have been pushed aside by society, who've made a way for themselves to be seen and to be great. And watching them thrive throughout these challenges is captivating, especially knowing their stories. And I know their stories because it's my story. It really is the story of really everyone who thinks outside the box."