Julie J
Julie J | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Julie J | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

'Drag Is Freedom': Texas-Born NYC Drag Queen Julie J on Fighting Anti-Trans Hate in the South

"Drag is the poster child for love."

Welcome to We’re Out Here, your year-round hub for LGBTQ+ travel and experiences! Here, you’ll find everything you need to plan your next great gaycation, including queer-centric travel stories, nightlife guides, profiles, pride event roundups, and ways to give back to local queer communities.

Julie J has had an extraordinarily busy start to 2023. After organizing a drag benefit show that raised over $25,000 to support the fight against anti-drag and anti-trans legislation in Tennessee, Julie J shows no signs of slowing down. We caught up over the phone to chat about her favorite New York City venues, growing up in Texas, and how she became known as the Maya Angelou of drag.

JdB: You did some work raising money for the Tennessee ACLU recently, can you tell me about that?

Julie J: In March we had Stand Up New York City, which was a fundraising event for the ACLU of Tennessee, the Transformations Project and Black Trans Liberation.

Honestly, I just woke up one day and I thought that we need to be doing something. A lot of the leaders in our community were not speaking up in the way that I really felt was needed. We fall into a trap sometimes of saying, "We live in New York City, these problems are very far away from us.” When in fact, this could be at our front door tomorrow, so it’s important for us to be proactive about these things.

I put out a call on social media; “Hey, does anyone want to be involved in a charity show?” I thought we’ll only get maybe 15 or 20 people [laughs.] It ended up being 300-plus people. It’s a sign that we’re not alone; when we think to ourselves that something needs to be done, there’s more people out there who want to do it who just don’t know what to do. I was so thankful that the outpouring of support was so massive, because I did not think it would be that way.

Julie J
Julie J at The Standard, Highline | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

JdB: Backing up a bit. What drew you to drag in the first place?

JJ: I’ve been a performer for as long as I can remember. Being an artist, I feel like that is a part of who you are from birth. I came out of the womb wanting to be on stage and theater was the gateway drug. [laughs] I came to New York City in 2014 for college and have been here ever since. The first time I was in drag was in high school. Around 2017-2018 I was like, okay we’re gonna buckle down. We’re going to give this a try.

Right before the pandemic started I got really into drag and really started to perform more often, and then, of course, that all went away. It was an interesting time because I was able to take a second and say, what do I really want from this career, and how am I going to go about getting it? When we were allowed back outside, we’re feet on the gas—we’re going full throttle.

I have been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race since season one. I grew up in Texas, so there were not many places for young, queer, gender-expansive people to go and learn, so all I had was that television show. That’s how drag came into my life.

JdB: As a performer, who is Julie J?

JJ: Oh my gosh. Who is she not? That’s the better question. [laughs]Julie, in the beginning, was a place for me to hide a bit. Over time, I came to realize that hiding behind performance was not hiding who I was, it was actually revealing more of who I was to myself. In the process of doing that, I came to know so much about the world and about myself. Truly, when people ask the question, “What are you?” I’m like, I can do all those things: there’s comedy, the dancing queen, acting, singing… You let me know what you wanna see and I’ll entertain you to the best of my ability.

Julie J
Julie J at The Standard, Highline | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

JdB: I’ve seen people refer to you as the Maya Angelou of drag…

JJ: The mother of Brooklyn drag, Merrie Cherry, was the first person to coin that term and it has followed me. Listen. Maya Angelou! What a person to be compared to!

JdB: Do you have regular shows? What are some of your favorite queer-owned places in the city to visit?

JJ: One of my favorite venues is C’mon Everybody in Bed-Stuy and its sister bar Good Judy which is in Park Slope. I love C’mon Everybody because you can get drag, you can get live music, DJs. It really runs the gamut. I feel like I’ve done every possible event at C’mon Everybody: charity shows, drag shows. I love it so much. And 3 Dollar Bill comes to mind; I’ve produced and performed a lot of shows there.

JdB: That’s where you had Stand Up NYC, right?

JJ: Yes, and it’s where the second one will be on June 17. I literally spent today finalizing our lineup. It’s going to be bigger this time because it’s going to be outdoors in the 3 Dollar Bill yard. Where else am I? At the Standard Hotel in Meatpacking where I have a brunch show on Saturday. And Saturday nights I’m at Boxer’s in Hell’s Kitchen and Wednesdays I’m at Playhouse in the West Village.

JdB: What’s something about drag that you wish more people knew?

JJ: I want people to know that drag in all its iterations is rooted in love. I wish that we, not only as queer people, but as a society could see that not everything in life comes from a place of maliciousness. Drag, I believe, is the poster child for love. It is the living, breathing representation of what freedom and love looks like, and the sooner we realize that freedom and love is accessible to all of us, the better off each and every one of us will be.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

John deBary is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book, Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book, Saved by the Bellini, is out now. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.