One man’s joke is another’s dream morning: one spent listening to two of Britain’s most notable queer voices, bathed in sunlight in east London’s iconic Dalston Superstore. Drag superstar Bimini shot to fame in January 2021 as a cast member on the second series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK – establishing herself as a firm fan favourite, eventually placing second. Nadia Whittome MP was elected as the Labour member of parliament for Nottingham East in December 2019. At the time she was 23, making her the youngest MP – the baby of the House. Both Bimini and Nadia have used their platforms to campaign for the rights of queer people in the UK and across the world, so we invited them to sit down and talk more about the fight and the role words have to play within it.
How did you first become aware of one another?
Nadia: Like most people, I think Drag Race. The first one was where you did that iconic, Norwich FC fit. I was just a huge fan. And then post RuPaul as well, especially like when you launch your music career properly. Like yeah, huge fangirl!
Bimini: Oh, thank you! Well, obviously, you are a force of nature and someone to be reckoned with. The youngest MP to be elected is incredible, because it’s no secret that the Commons is not exactly filled with the youngest people. Having a voice like yours in there, and the power that it brings is just incredible, hugely inspirational and aspirational. The way you just put it to the government is just always great, so I’m also a huge fan!
Nadia: I thought this question was gonna be really awkward because I thought I’d be like, wow, there’s this thing that you did, that thing that was huge and I loved it and you’d be like, oh, yeah, no, I learned about you this morning.
Bimini: Listen, I studied journalism, so my interest was politics and social issues and current affairs. I always keep an eye on the news. I know what's going on.
Nadia: Did you also study fashion?
Bimini: Originally, I did fashion journalism for one year and then I moved into just finishing my degree and just journalism. That’s where I started focusing on more social issues. It was 2015/2016 when Corbyn had just got in and I remember being so angry all the time because of the portrayal of him and like the portrayal of left-wing politics. The media were saying how it’s gonna destroy a country and all of these crazy things when you’re looking at the country that’s already been destroyed. So yes, I was very interested and studied it but then I got into performing in 2017 just down the road from here, at [infamous London queer venue] The Glory!
Nadia: I went on my third date to The Glory and now we’re happily living together!
Bimini: The Glory, bringing families together!
When did you realise that rhetoric around drag and trans issues was becoming intentionally negative across media/social media?
Bimini: I think seeing a shift in attitudes kind of started to really happen here the last couple of years, I think we started seeing it happening in the US with the drag bans. It was only a matter of time before that rhetoric was gonna come over to the UK. There’s this whole idea of the sexualisation of drag and that we’re trying to indoctrinate children. It’s just mind-blowing. Recently, Crystal, a queen who was on Season One of Drag Race performed a private event. Someone who wasn’t at the performance sent it to the Daily Mail who made a huge thing about it. The guy who was running it then said, “Oh, we will never have a Pride event again,” which is just crazy. She did an angle grinder performance, wearing more clothes than someone who did the same act on Britain’s Got Talent but they make a thing of it because it’s queer people.
Nadia: You’re so right about the way that drag has been imported into this from the States. We’re seeing a resurgence of the kind of homophobia that was thrown at gay men in the 1980s. Growing up, I always thought that progress was linear. We saw Paul O’Grady on our screen as Lily Savage, Nadia winning Big Brother in 2004 as an out and proud trans woman. It got to the point in 2010, where there was at least a consensus to the point that the Conservative government introduced same-sex marriage, even Theresa May was promising reform of the Gender Recognition Act. And it was all quite uncontroversial at the time. Then in 2018 I really started noticing this wave of transphobia creeping in. It was being dressed up in the language of feminism, and women’s rights and even lesbian rights when we know that lesbians are more supportive of trans rights than any other demographic. It was an unholy alliance being made between people who call themselves feminists and the Trumpian Right. I think if your views are supported by the likes of Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin, you should really think about that.
Bimini: [Singer] Self Esteem and I have had this chat a number of times, trying to figure out how we progress the conversation? We’re at a really toxic and dangerous point on social media where people are just continually throwing insults on things like Twitter and there’s no gatekeeping of… no, gatekeeping’s not the right word. What’s the word I’m trying to think of? Gatekeep…
Bimini: Moderating it! That’s the word! I don’t know how because obviously, freedom of speech is so important. But it doesn’t mean freedom from consequence. It doesn’t mean you can’t be responsible for what you’re saying, that it’s okay for you to just sit behind a computer and give hate to people you don’t know. We need to now find a way to move the conversation forward to be centred on the community that has been attacked, going through so much day to day, fearing for their lives and their safety. It’s insane. Just last night in California, a shopkeeper was shot dead for having a rainbow flag in her window. Like we’re at a point now where it’s so toxic and scary that I don’t know how we push it forward.
You’re both high-profile figures who attract the kind of hate you’re talking about here – how do you deal with that on a personal level?
Bimini: Well, the Daily Mail once put me on the worst-dressed list and that was horrendous… But in all seriousness, I try to ignore it. As a queer person who’s doing what they want to do, you always feel like you’re gonna fail, or I was worried that I was gonna fail. Whenever there was any negativity, I’m always afraid that I’ve upset someone or afraid I’ve let someone down. What I’ve had to really understand is that I am human, and my life and my existence and what I do is… I am going to mess up and I am willing to learn and change. I’m happy with that now. If people want to say anything, let them.
Nadia: Yeah, I think I feel quite similarly. One of the simple things I do, if I know something big is happening on social media or I’m getting a wave of abuse – often related to Pride or anything to do with migrants rights – I’ll just log off. Obviously I can’t be logged off all the time, but sometimes I'll just take a few days off Twitter. For example, I was going on my first date with my now partner. I’d recently tweeted something about Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister and that not being a win for Asian representation, because of his record, and the right-wing press picked up on it. A big pile on ensued, and I ended up being on the front pages and in the headlines. My now partner was worried that I weren't going to come to our date because of the news. I took my team’s advice, logged off and ignored all the vile, racist abuse that I was getting, and now I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend.
Bimini: Yes! Logging off and getting a girlfriend! I posted a video of my Glastonbury performance where I protested the Tories anti-trans ban and the algorithm somehow picked up all of these people that were like, obviously not supportive. I was seeing all the comments – and though you tell yourself you’re not going to look you just can’t ignore it.
Nadia: I think it’s also about surrounding yourself with supportive people. So whether it’s the queer community or people who share your values, or people who love you for who you are as a person rather than, like, Nadia Whittome MP or Bimini the public figure, to enable you to make those statements and weather the storm.
Bimini: Yeah, totally. I’ve always said what I believed in and spoken about that. I think I’ll always do that. I know people aren’t always going to agree but at the end of the day, if you don't stand up for what you believe in, you stand for nothing, right?
You’ve both been very vocal in your support for the trans community so I wondered how you think we can use rhetoric and discourse to re-centre the humanity of people who are at the heart of this “debate”?
Nadia: Firstly, when it comes to the arguments and countering the argument, I’m a big fan of Shon Faye’s book, The Transgender Issue. It perfectly situates this in the actual struggles that people are facing. While we’ve got the likes of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talking about what’s in people’s knickers while trans people are facing homelessness, poverty, disproportionate rates of violence in their homes and on the streets, and are waiting years just for gender-affirming healthcare. And those are also issues that many other marginalised and oppressed people face.
I like the way that Shon Faye talks about organising outwards and building those alliances with people who are in the same struggle. I also think that with a lot of transphobes, some of them are just so blinded by hate that I don’t think it’s a good use of queer people’s time to be having those arguments with them. Instead, it is really important to unapologetically be yourself and have unmoderated, queer joy. Young LGBTQ+ people have a right to see that, rather than just the hateful messages about our community that we see in the media every day. Straight allies really need to step up in intervening and allowing these spaces. I notice even in Parliament it’s queer MPs who are mainly tasked with talking about this and defending our community. And to be honest, when there is a war against the LGBTQ+ community, and especially trans people, we need more than just passive support. We need more than people quote tweeting JK Rowling – we need people who show up when the trans community calls for a demo, we need people to go, we need people who have platforms to be using their platforms to amplify trans voices.
Bimini: Yeah, I totally agree. A lot of times when these “debates" happen – I hate the fact that they’re called debate because you’re debating someone’s existence, their life, their rights to healthcare and their rights to live authentically – they create those spaces to antagonise. They’re not there for a fair debate; they have an agenda. Moving forward we need more queer joy, more things that are really positive and visible. I do believe that most people – not everyone – but most people want to see happiness and joy.
Nadia: I got into hot water a couple of years ago because I said that this so-called debate is not a neutral act when you’re debating whether people should have rights. I’m all for having a discussion or debate about how we can improve people’s lives. Yeah, let’s talk about what kind of healthcare system we should have. Let’s talk about how we improve people’s rights in the workplace. That can be a debate, but debating whether people have rights where people should exist? I think trans people must be exhausted having to continually show their humanity and put their heads above the parapet to say to people, like, look, I’m a human being, see me as one! Empathise with me! When everybody has that right.
Bimini: One thing I always say about humans is that we have this amazing ability to learn. We are an intelligent species that has this ability to feel emotion, to understand people, to talk and learn. When hate happens, when people are ignorant, it’s because people feel like they have learned enough. They are unwilling to change their minds or listen to other people because they think their opinion is the right one. To move it forward we need people to be willing to learn, and I think that’s particularly difficult if everything has been fine for you. If you’ve grown up as a straight white man and the world was made for you. And now you’re seeing more people coming behind saying: “Hang on! I want my rights!” At the centre of all of this is fragile masculinity. This idea that masculinity is the be-all and end-all of power and that femininity is weaker than the man. Anything that threatens man’s status has to be kind of eradicated and destroyed. We’re not necessarily fighting, but it’s a war of words. It’s so insidious the way the media are using words to divide and to keep everyone apart. I hope that we do get to the point where we are having more conversations like this and amplifying more queer voices to talk about that existence, to allow people to love and to learn.
We’ve spoken a lot about the negative power of words, but they also have the power to uplift and push you back onto the right track – when have words helped you stick to your path, or enabled you to stand up and continue fighting?
Bimini: I’m sure you get tons of messages from people seeing you do what you’re doing, telling you that it is inspirational to them because it shows them that they can do things as well. When I get those messages they stay with me because it goes back to me being worried about letting people down – it’s so heartwarming. But then it builds up a slight pressure to be like, okay, I have to do things. I learned that beauty is imperfection. And being imperfect and willing to change is the best way to be. It used to be that I’d have 100 nice messages and one horrible one and I’d focus on the nasty one but I’ve tried to shift my mindset to ignoring that one and just seeing all the lovely messages.
Nadia: I think when you surround yourself in the real world with a loving community and people you care about it really helps you realise that those hateful messages represent a tiny minority of people. Similarly to you I’ve had moments that have really stuck with me. I was in this café in Nottingham once, just sitting down having a cup of coffee and I didn’t see it until they left but someone had left me a little Post-it note that had some really lovely things on it thanking me for what I’m doing. I still have it now! It’s nice to know in a small way, stuff I do is having an impact on people and we’re in a bigger fight and a bigger movement that is more important than just me.
Bimini: It’s moments like that that are just joyous and celebratory. Like you’re doing the right thing. I think standing up for something that you believe in is the most important thing anyway. And no matter what the rhetoric of the day is, no matter how the pendulum is swinging, as long as you feel that you’re doing yourself justice, and the people that you’re supporting justice, and you’re doing it from a place of good and kindness, that always comes across. One example that I will give of an absolute icon that was supporting LGBTQ+ rights way before anyone else was before it was trendy, was Madonna. She has always done it. Back in the day, when AIDS was everywhere, she was telling queer people how to have sex, to protect, to prevent the spread of the virus, and she was always someone who just did that. And people hated her for it. She was a woman who was sexual and powered by femininity, and unapologetic. She did all these amazing things and always stood by LGBTQ+ people before it was a thing. And that's something that I have always tried to do, to keep going and to be more Madonna.