Brian Zhang, Contributing Photographer

RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Robin Fierce may not have a college degree, but she stepped into the role of professor for the dozens of students who attended her Feb. 28 talk at the Yale Law School. 

Fierce made history as the first drag queen guest speaker in the law school’s nearly two centuries of existence, taking her audience through dramatic readings of three children’s and young adult books and then showcasing a dance number to Gorgon City and Jennifer Hudson’s EDM bop “Go All Night.”

“To be drag is art,” Fierce, who jokingly asked students to call her “Professor Robin Fierce,” said at the talk. “It is expression [and] it is a release of a feminine side that is oftentimes suppressed by family members or the world. How are you banning art when there are so many different forms of art out there?”

The three stories — “Anti-Racist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi, “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and an excerpt from “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson — embody an overarching theme of the night: the intersectionality of Black and queer history, as well as the need to embrace the cultural longevity of minority identities beyond Black history and pride months. 

Fierce’s performance arrives at a time of mounting anti-trans legislation and anti-drag hate. Drag story hours for children lie at the busy intersection between national political censorship of queer communities of color and violence from far-right, anti-LGBTQ groups. The struggle to define drag and the discomfort that comes with it can easily evolve into a gateway for hatred, Fierce, who started experimenting with drag at age 20, said. 

The real purpose of drag storytelling and vocal performances is to bridge the gap between the different queer and non-queer communities through empathy, Fierce added, not to push “transitioning” propaganda or ideologies of sexual orientation on children as anti-trans and anti-drag extremists suggest. Leaders of the Drag Story Hour program encourage the public to think of readings as a celebration of diversity and dissolution of “rigid gender restrictions.”

The point of drag storytelling is to capture children and adults who are unfamiliar with the culture of drag in a “fairytale” world, where they can ask questions and learn about a whole group of people who are underrepresented in history books, Fierce explained, recalling the times when a child would walk up to her after a reading and mistake her for a Disney princess. It was during these moments, Fierce learned, that some forms of discrimination are taught and that prejudiced adults can impose and pass on labels like “uncomfortable” or “weird” when describing unfamiliar lifestyles.

Host and co-chair of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Graduate School Senate AJ Hudson ENV ’19 LAW ’23 asked about Fierce’s thoughts on the stripping of College Board’s AP African American curriculum, an effort that he said was partially rooted in the significant crossover between Black and queer culture. Fierce turned to the silver lining of the situation, explaining that controversy and resistance can be interpreted as signs of progress and of just how far trans and Black activism has come. 

Attendee Mason Sands LAW ’24 spoke about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ’01’s educational agenda in his home state of Florida — which has recently included the banning of diversity, equity and inclusion roles and offices — before asking Fierce “What gives you hope?” 

Teaching general “acceptance” — whether it’s acceptance of race, queerness or culture — was Fierce’s answer. Building communities, finding strength in existing ones and handing children the power to imagine are the “lights” that keep her motivated, despite the risks that performing drag and being open about her sexuality can entail. She emphasized countering hatred with positivity, education and unity, given the intersectional nature of oppression across identities and backgrounds. 

Changing the boundaries of education is exactly the reason why Hudson wanted to host a drag queen at YLS. 

The choice to do so here at YLS, rather than at other parts of the University campus was “political,” Hudson said. It was an attempt at challenging the norm, changing what was “safe” and “accepted” as a “legal academic conversation,” he explained. 

Hudson told the News that having Fierce speak at YLS was also a form of protest following what he saw as an onslaught of “problematic” guest speakers invited by the Federalist Society branch at Yale, including Kristen Waggoner, an anti-LGBTQ speaker and member of Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has condemned as a hate group.

“Many of the queer students at the law school do not feel safe there or want to spend any extra time in that building,” Hudson wrote to the News. “To pay a drag queen to come speak — a directly system-impacted person whose expertise is just as valuable as a heterosexual cisgender white man, lawyer or judge, it’s historic.” 

Hudson emphasized that drag and Yale as an institution are not separate. The David Geffen School of Drama and Yale Cabaret has historically put on a drag show with local queens, and drag individuals have also made appearances at the Divinity School, the School of Management and the School of the Environment. Last year, on April 23, playwright and drag artist Noah T. Parnes ’22 presented “Zhushka: A Drag Show” in the Davenport-Pierson theater. 

Hudson explained that YLS, however, is a cloister where heightened enforcement of security and an absentia of shared spaces can cause a disconnect between law students and the rest of the graduate community. He hopes that his “radical” decision will encourage future students to reconsider the meaning of leadership and the criteria that restrict who has the right to a vocal platform. 

“I would honestly say that although in a somewhat fringe way, drag and in turn queer politics have permeated most of Yale,” Hudson wrote. “I hope that [tonight] broke some of the boundaries, real and imagined, that our audience members and classmates held.”

At the end of the night, Marshall Fuller, known professionally as DJ Edgewood, started turning up the music. Jennifer Hudson’s vocals pulsated through the room, and Fierce hopped quickly into the rhythm, showing off an choreographic lineup of surprise splits, twirls and dance moves. 

Audience members were up on their feet chanting along as they reached out their arms into the aisles, hoping to shake hands with Fierce. 

The music blasting into the hollow hallways outside, the crowd emerging in an uproar and lips everywhere struggling to keep up with Jennifer’s “Give me what I want / And I’ll give you what you need.” The students watched as the YLS auditorium transformed into a dance floor.

Fierce placed 12th on Season 15 of Rupaul’s Drag Race, a reality television show that invites drag queens to compete in talent competitions for a cash prize and the crown of America’s Next Drag Superstar. 

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!