Everyone’s family has expectations. Whether it be the job you do or the type of person you marry, our families and communities often spell out the life they expect us to live. But what about if you don’t fit the mould that’s been carved out for you? We caught up with RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’s Cherry Valentine to find out more about growing up queer in the traveller community and how it impacted their mental health.
Life was pretty clear cut for Cherry Valentine growing up, at least it should have been. “You grow up, you get a girlfriend and you start fixing cars, just like your dad’. But that never felt right for Cherry, who is currently one of RuPaul’s Series 2 UK Queens, and a mental health nurse working on the frontline of the pandemic. She opened up on the show about the struggles she faced as an LGBTQ+ person growing up in a travelling community.
“Speaking to Sister Sister on RuPaul’s Drag Race was actually the first time I’ve ever spoken about my family to anyone, but it just felt right in the moment. Growing up was such a crazy experience because my family openly didn’t accept anyone being different from the norm – meaning being straight, hetronormative – so it was like living two lives.
“At the time, I didn’t really think about it. I just sort of did it. But I have come to realise, I think it’s part of my coping mechanisms to be able to put things in boxes and only open them in specific moments, when you feel ready. Being on Drag Race, it sort of forced me to open a few boxes at the same time.”
“I never really knew who I was for a long, long time. And even now, I don’t really know. I don’t think anyone fully knows who they are. It’s a part of life isn’t it? Growing up, I was very shy and withdrawn from being myself with a lot of people. I was kind of on my own. I just floated around and wasn’t really in friendship groups with anyone. I never really felt like I fitted in, but I just thought that was normal. I guess now, looking back, I can sort of appreciate that it did affect me, but at the time I didn’t realise. I think I was just trying to get by, to survive.”
Opening up for the first time on international cult television is quite a big deal, especially when opening up means talking about the attitudes and opinions of an entire community. Cherry doesn’t pretend to be comfortable with it – in fact, she’s open that this conversation, talking about her sexuality and gender within the traveller community, is difficult, even now.
“The reception has been absolutely incredible. I honestly thought it would go the other way because of my background. I’ve just always been brought up around people who don’t really accept people who are a bit different. All through life, I sort of lived in the shadows. I felt like I went under the radar a little bit. So being on the show, it was very, very liberating. There’s a weight that’s been lifted.”
Since being on the show, Cherry’s been able to talk more to her mum and other members of the community that had not previously accepted her sexuality.
“Out in the open, no one really talks about it still. That’s why I love talking about it so much. I want to force that conversation. Change happens outside of our comfort zone. So when we feel uncomfortable, that’s when amazing things can happen. So yeh, I feel uncomfortable talking about my background and my family, but I think to be able to talk about it is a really, really important thing to do. I don’t know if the community is fully open to it all yet, or me, but I know a lot of people are working on that.”
“I have had members of the community use private accounts to message me to say ‘it’s amazing what you’re doing’ and ‘I feel so proud that you’ve started that conversation’. And I speak to my family, the family that speak to me like my mother, more regularly now. Before the show we never talked, not at all, because I was gay. She didn’t even know I did drag at that point. So yeh, being more open, it’s all very new and not easy, I’m still getting used to it, but it feels good.”
It can be really difficult to open up to the people you love and care about when you don’t feel like you fit their expectations of you. In fact, only half of LGBT people feel able to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to everyone in their family. Not being able to be open or accepted can take a huge toll on your mental health with LGBTQ+ young people more likely to take their own lives than their straight peers.
Cherry knows how hard hiding your true self can be. “When my parents used to go out when I was younger, I used to walk around the house in my sister’s heels. I’ve had people from the same community say to me, ‘I’ve done that too’ and ‘I don’t think I could open up or go on stage like you’ but you can. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
“When I discovered the LGBTQ community, I was like, I can’t believe this is actually a thing, people just out and proud? What is this new world? But it’s so inspiring. It’s so incredible to be around that. Finding people who accept you for you, it’s so important, and they really are out there.
“That’s why I’m so glad I opened up on the show. I’m glad I did it because I’ve had so many people reach out from similar backgrounds – even the community I’m from. I didn’t realise there were any gay people other than me. I thought I was the only one.”
So what advice does Cherry have for anyone who’s struggling?
“Try to find what makes you happy – and just really hold on to it. If you do what makes you happy, that becomes your safe space. No matter how stressful things get – all the pressures from everyone and everything else in your life – if you’re doing something that makes you happy, that’s all you really need.”
And it’s no surprise that the thing that makes Cherry happiest is drag. Whether it’s drawing on brows in the morning, or creating a look after a long day at work, drag – and everything that comes with it – is a way to get away from the stresses of everyday life.
“I’ve tried absolutely everything under the sun to try and relax or destress, but one of the biggest things for me is drag. It really is. Like, after a stressful shift, that’s what I would do. Even over the pandemic, I would come home, have a shower, and then just get into drag. Not to put on social media, just to destress and feel a bit nice, because that’s my coping mechanism – what it has come to be anyway.”
“Drag is about gender and it obviously has its roots in politics and making change, but for me, drag makes me feel free. It’s like a clean slate. When I’m doing makeup, it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what you’re like or where you’re from – it’s very simple and I think a lot of queens feel the same.
“The drag persona, they sort of become someone outside of our own life. They’re like all of your fears and dreams and your crazy powerful personality all balled together, but at the end of the day, it is still you. It’s just the costumes and makeup give you a bit more permission to be more yourself.
“And actually, drag doesn’t have to involve makeup or costumes. It’s such a cheesy quote but RuPaul says ‘we were all born naked and the rest is drag.’ And it’s actually so true. You wake up in the morning and you pick one outfit over the other, that’s it, that’s drag. Choosing a pair of jeans over a suit, you are getting into drag for the day. You choose how you want to present yourself, what will make you the most confident at work, what will make you feel good on a night out – and that’s what it’s all about, that confidence to be yourself, be the person you want to be. I think a lot of people get that, especially people who experience anxiety or struggle with their mental health, that’s why Drag Race resonates so much.”
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