Photo: Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO
Well, we’ve found the We’re Here’s Emmy submission tape for the year. “Florida, Part 1” is the perfect kind of tear-jerking, socially impactful television that awards voters applaud and audiences love. (I cried three separate times watching this episode.) This week’s episode reminds the world that for gay people, the agenda is to simply exist. (Bob actually says, “there’s nothing on the gay agenda but brunch,” but we’ll set that aside.)
With everything that’s been going on in the country with battles over trans kids, gay rights, school-library book bans, and the rise in hate crimes, it’s increasingly crucial for a show like We’re Here to exist, not just as a piece of entertainment but as a traveling rally to lift up six or so cities every year. Yes, shit is awful for queer people in some of these places, but We’re Here is the kind of production that can bring joy, build community, and change lives.
That’s not to say that it’s also the kind of production that most communities welcome because, as Shangela says at the show’s beginning, “Oh baby, they don’t want us.” Eureka chimes in to say the past year has been “shocking and surprising” in terms of the legal and cultural backlash against queer people, specifically drag entertainers, but all the queens note, Hey, this faux outrage is also nothing new. Even in Florida, all these “Don’t Say Gay” laws are just old hat, with Anita Bryant’s pearl-clutching “Save Our Children” bullshit rising out of Dade County in 1977.
All this is to say that the queens think Florida is, to quote Bob, “a scary place,” and they’re not wrong. That’s quickly apparent when we meet Jaime, a public-school teacher and mother of three. She lives in Kissimmee and has been married to her husband for 18 years. One of their children, a 9-year-old daughter named Dempsey, also happens to be trans. Jaime is justifiably afraid that she’ll lose her job for speaking out for her daughter’s rights or for doing the show. She’s worried she’ll have to move her family out of state lest Dempsey loses the right to basic medical care and respect in her school, and she’s afraid for her child’s basic safety. This poor woman. She is a saint.
Jaime is paired with Shangela, naturally, and she tells her mentor that Dempsey came out around 5 when she told her mother that she knew she was a girl inside despite the gender she’d been assigned at birth. “How do you say no to your child when they tell you exactly who they are?” Jaime asks, and I sob. Later in the episode, when all three queens meet up with the mother-daughter pair at an ice-cream parlor, we hear more about Jaime’s struggles to get her daughter affirming care and Dempsey’s “screw ’em” attitude toward kids at school who shun her. Dempsey is a joy and a light; anyone who would look at that child and her family and say something is wrong is an idiot. Period.
Next is Mark, a 58-year-old resident of the Villages who gets paired with Bob. Mark’s longtime partner Vernon died five years ago, and we get to meet him as he goes cruising for dudes in his golf cart. He’s into older guys and was 28 when he met Vernon, then 67. They were together for decades, and he came out to his mom when he was 30, but his family has never really acknowledged that he’s gay. Mark would bring his “good friend” Vernon to family holidays; his whole life has been pretty hush-hush. He’s never been to a gay bar in Orlando and only moved to the Villages to be near his mom, who we meet later in the episode and seems to be firmly and sadly in Catholic denial about who her son is.
Lastly, we’ve got Mandy and Lori, who met in 1968 and instantly fell in love. They’ve been married for about 50 years, but Mandy only came out as trans about five years ago. They live in Ocala, where they say they often get looks from people who “look at us like they’d kill us,” but they’re hanging in there all the same. Mandy’s story is simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant because she endured decades of depression and suicidal thoughts before finally coming out at 70. Her life is entirely different and joyous now, and she’s still with her beloved wife, who says she loves the person, not the gender. They’re paired with Eureka, who also opens up about her own five or so years living as a trans woman and all the mental shit she’s been through, both making that decision and then deciding to de-transition after. The queen says she’s fully committed to living her authentic life, and I think you can tell. She seems lighter, more joyous, and more confident, and it’s a good look on her.
There’s also a surprise fourth subject this week: Vico, a clinical laboratory scientist who works in a fertility clinic. He’s paired with Shangela (who loves his chicken), and he was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He’s also a survivor of the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub, where 49 people were killed and 53 others were wounded. When Shangela finds this out, she’s clearly shook, and that’s understandable. We learn later that she lost her friend in the shooting, and Vico — who encouraged the 20 guests at his house party that night to go to the club — lost four. (Six others were wounded in the event, which Vico calls “a literal nightmare.”) Vico’s been struggling with the aftermath ever since because he feels responsible that his friends were even at the club. He also tells Shangela, “I don’t know who else is out there in the world who would feel hatred toward me at any given moment,” which earns him a big long hug from the queen and a big virtual hug from the whole audience watching at home.
There’s no big cumulative drag show in this week’s episode — that’ll come next week in part two. Instead, the queens and some of their wards take Jaime’s offer and hit up a local “Say Gay” rally. We see Mandy and Jaime speak while Dempsey punctuates her mom’s words with a bubble gun. Bob sums up the moment when he says that the anti-queer movement’s politics are bullshit because “it is unfair to ask [people] to diminish themselves or to be small.” Shangela ends the episode on a note of positivity, saying that while the rally was great, it was just the start. Their drag show will be bigger and more over the top than ever, Shangela says, “and we’re bringing the noise.”
• We got not one but two looks from the queens this week, both of which were Disney-themed. In “Princesses,” Shangela was Cinderella (of course), Bob was Belle (sure), and Eureka was a badass Snow White. For “Villains,” Shangela was Cruella, Bob was Maleficent, and Eureka was Ursula, complete with two very fierce “Just Say Gay” eel pals.
• The Villages are a genuinely bizarre megadevelopment. They are both terrifying and idyllic-seeming if you’re the type of person that fits exactly into the little box they’ve created. This episode of The Daily is a good primer, or the documentary Some Kind Of Heaven.