The current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race introduced viewers to New York City queen Dusty Ray Bottoms, a frenetic punk known for the trademark dots in her makeup. Despite being eliminated from the competition, Bottoms won the heart of America through both her drag and by courageously sharing her backstory.
As she explained in one episode, when she came out as gay, she was met with stark rejection from her family. She was even sent to conversion therapy to try to change her orientation, but she quickly realized that was not a real solution. Bottoms found drag, embraced her gay identity, and became one of the breakout stars of Season 10.
Her story of overcoming family rejection, which she told in more detail to Newsweek after the episode aired, profoundly inspired people across the country, both young and old. SKYY Vodka noticed, and invited Bottoms to be one of the faces of its “Proudly American” Pride month ad campaign. Now, her dotted face will dot the countryside as a spokesperson for the “home of the brave.”
Dusty Ray Bottoms spoke to ThinkProgress this week about what it’s been like in the months since she shared her story and what it means to be a symbol of courage.
THINKPROGRESS: Opening up about your family’s rejection and experiences with conversion therapy on Drag Race and in subsequent interviews was truly a brave act, which is probably why Skyy Vodka thought you’d be a good fit for this campaign. What reactions have you heard from fans in the months since?
DUSTY RAY BOTTOMS: You know, I was so conflicted about telling my story on RuPaul’s Drag Race because I had never talked about my story to anyone before. After my story was aired, I was completely just taken aback. I was flooded with so many messages from people who have gone through what I have gone through. It was the very first time that I was able to have an open dialogue and conversation with people who have gone through it.
In many ways, telling my story was letting America know that they are not alone if they have gone through this and they can be strong and can get through it. After receiving all the love and and feedback, it was letting me know that I am not alone, and I am strong enough and brave enough to go through it. It was this really awesome cycle.
Were there any stories in particular that stood out to you or that really resonated with what you had gone through?
At DragCon this year in L.A., there was a nine-year-old boy who waited two hours in line to meet me. He begged his cousin to bring him because him mom and dad know that he’s gay and have rejected him. He loves drag, and he’s too afraid to watch Drag Race because of his family. Just knowing that this 9-year-old got to see my story and he waited in line to meet me — to say that he looks up to me because times are hard for him right now — I just broke down there and lost it. I had to take a couple seconds and regain myself pick myself back up.
Literally from 9 years old to 80 years old, I’ve had people of all ages reaching out to me about this topic. It’s just been very shocking.
It seems there’s a resurgence of people trying to bring conversion therapy back, in part because of this new California bill. I assume the stories you would hear reflect not just past experiences, but other stories like this 9-year-old that people are still experiencing today.
Absolutely. We’ve only had 13 states pass, out of the 50, [legislation] to end conversion therapy in their state, so we need to get all of them instead of just 13. Working with The Trevor Project, they’ve been on the front line with “50 Bills 50 States” to make it illegal in these states. In the past three years, we’ve only been able to turn around 13 so far.
I think most people tend to forget that the concept of “Pride” was a response to the shame and stigma the LGBTQ community has long been subjected to in society. Can you talk about some of the messages of rejection you might have heard from your family and faith community and what it took for you to overcome those messages?
Going through conversion therapy, some of the key points were actually [said to me] on the [day I told myself], “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to get out of this situation and go do me.” I sat down with a pastor and he told me that if I continue to stay in a homosexual lifestyle, that I would never find anyone. I would never find true love. They don’t believe that homosexuals have true love, they choose to love each other. I would never find success, I would never be happy.
And that was the breaking point for me. I heard that and I was like, “I know I’m not going to be changed or fixed from this. I know this is me. And I know this can’t be the case,” so I had to go.
I found so much love in my life by excelling in a creative outlet I could just lose myself in. And when I shined in that outlet, my tribe came around me and supported me, and that’s how I found my chosen family.
“Chosen family” is such an important concept for the queer community. What does your chosen family look like, and do you have any advice for people out there who are looking to form their own support structures?
My chosen family is not a big family. It’s a small family, but in my chosen family, we are very connected. Our line of communication is very open. We keep it real with each other and we’re always there for each other. That chosen family can change through the years. It can get bigger, it can get smaller. People grow apart and have new aspirations.
But finding your chosen family? If you don’t have one right now, I have to tell you: Find a creative outlet that you absolutely love and can lose yourself in. When you shine and you are your truest self, the people who will see that and love you and accept you and come to your aid, and that’s how you will find the people you need to be with.
Has being on Drag Race and having more national notoriety changed the way that you’re finding that chosen family?
In some ways. My chosen family has stayed the same — well, that’s not true. Going through Drag Race, I definitely added a person to my chosen family. I got 13 new sisters in the work with Drag Race, and one of them really, really stuck, and that’s Ms. Monique Heart. If you keep your heart open in this whole journey, you never know who’s going to be put in your path.
Monique has [so many] similarities to what I went through. She actually went through therapy, and just that we can have that moment together? She’s my tribe now. I love her so much and I have her back and I know she has mine.
You’ve overcome a lot of adversity to become the star you are now. What does your self-care look like? And what tips would you give to others out there who might be struggling, either because of the news of the day or maybe rejection in their own lives? How can they be more resilient?
I think the way to power through these hard times is to just be yourself at all costs. The greatest form of protest for anything we could be going through in these days is just being yourself. That’s how we can also change America is just by being yourself. If I can shine and show the love that I have in my heart, and the smile that I have through all the adversity that I’ve gone through, maybe someone else will turn their frown upside down, and be able to smile, and show compassion and love to someone else that they normally wouldn’t [give] that to. It’s a ripple effect.
I only have one more question for you and I’m going to steal it from RuPaul. Since you didn’t get to make it to the final four, I’m going to ask you: After seeing your face on a billboard as a symbol of courage and bravery and a fabulous queen, what would you tell a young Dustin who is worried about his future if you could reach back and talk to him?
There’s a mantra that I’ve always, always had from young Dustin to now. And that’s always been: What you’re going through is just today. It’s just for now. Tomorrow is going to be so much better and so much brighter, but it’s going to be a bumpy road.
Things are going to be really, really great in your life and you have to relish and love those great things, because you’re still going to be on a journey while you’re experiencing those great things. And in that journey, there are bumps in the road. You just have to not let that faze you and stay strong, because you’re going to come out on top.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.