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Drag Race season 15 just did something we rarely see on television

A snapshot of trans joy.

sasha colby
WOW Presents Plus

Every year, it seems that Drag Race contestants get younger and younger. Season 14 of mainline Drag Race and season three of its UK iteration both have the lowest average age of any season across the franchise.

Which is what makes it so interesting when the 23-year-old Spice says that everybody jokes about Sasha Colby – who's 37 – being "the old one."

And while the younger queen immediately follows this up with the caveat that "obviously you're not old," the exchange opens a door towards something more interesting than just the changing demographic of Drag Race casts.

The idea of what "old" means tends to have a slightly different meaning in queer communities. Whether its the idea in gay dramas like Russell T Davies' Queer as Folk that gay life seems to end at thirty, or the more tragic fact of living in the midst of the AIDS crisis, if you're robbed of the chance to grow old, then "old" itself becomes a word with a different emphasis.

It can be seen as analogous with being a kind of survivor. And while this is no longer true of the AIDS crisis, not all aspects of queer life have been able to make it out from under these dark shadows.

sasha colby
WOW Presents Plus

It's no wonder that Sasha herself says that she considers her age, and being called old, to be "a badge of honour." She mentions the fact that there are so many trans women who aren't able to make it 30.

At first glance, this seems like it might move in the direction of a classic Drag Race confessional, with a contestant staring down a camera and crying about their trauma. But one of the things that makes this moment so surprising (and so necessary) is the fact that this doesn't happen.

Sasha tells the other queens about a club in Hawai'i that would get raided by the police once a week, offering the comparison that it would be like her fellow contestants being arrested every week after Drag Race. And that the gulf between the forced invisibility that queer people suffered back then, compared to the mainstream visibility offered now by something like Drag Race, is worth celebrating.

While it might not be news that Drag Race has had a complicated relationship with trans identity, this moment shows what happens when trans contestants are able to explore their lives and histories in a way that exists beyond the classic reality TV trauma dump.

For Sasha, this moment took her out of being focused on the competition, and instead reminded her of an important fact: "I'm here."

This resonates beyond simply being on Drag Race, and instead becomes a testament to trans life, survival, and community. She calls this the chance to show the world "a happy trans woman, being her authentic self, and not hiding anything."

That's what these kind of platforms are able to do at their best; especially with Drag Race having become increasingly mainstream. Having someone like Sasha on the show means that some people who might never have seen an authentic, happy trans woman on mainstream TV are now seeing it for the first time.

This also speaks to something else that Drag Race might need to do better at: having older contestants.

sasha colby
WOW Presents Plus

While season 15 is something of an outlier here (around half of the queens still in the competition are 30 or older) the fact that so many RuGirls, especially the ones that go far in the competition, skew younger, creates a real limit on the kind of queer lives that the show is able to spotlight.

One of the great strengths of Drag Race has always been the way in which it offers its queer contestants a chance to tell their stories on their own terms – whether it's through performance, runways, or the confessional booth itself.

Drag Race can't exist as a show in a vacuum; and the more time it spends letting people meaningfully grapple with what their art and identity means in the wider world, the better.

And it's through challenging so many of the norms that Drag Race itself has established over the last few years – whether its rehashing and reliving trauma on screen, to the emphasis placed on increasingly young queens that Ru, 62, says through tears are "born to do drag" – that this moment with Sasha is so unexpected.

Even as she gets close to tears in her confessional, it comes from a place beyond simply having to explain the historical pain of the trans community to Drag Race viewers. When Sasha wipes her eyes and says "I'm so happy", it's a moment that feels powerful and rare for mainstream television.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that this moment alone will move the dial for trans representation on screen, it does make the case for how important that representation can be, especially for shows that are speaking to a broad, mainstream audience.

It's one of the great ironies of Drag Race as time has gone on that its approach to representation feels increasingly like it exists more for the mainstream part of its audience, rather than the queer one.

What began as a joke, that Sasha Colby is the old queen of season 15, became something else. An acknowledgement not only of how things have changed for queer communities, but of the work that still needs to be done. But more than that, it created a moment that's still all too rare: a snapshot of trans joy.

sasha colby
Santiago FelipeGetty Images

It refuses uniform images of transness: it doesn't prioritise youth, or fetishise the idea of a trans person in pain. Even in the wake of the sadness and oppression that Sasha acknowledges as a part of trans history, the discussion around her age is about the possibility that comes from being free from those things.

Without becoming an overly simplistic "it gets better" narrative. Sasha talks about the lessons that she learned from her own ancestors; and while this might not be something that she says directly, its clear that moments like this are her own offering to younger trans viewers, at a time when they might need it the most.

RuPaul's Drag Race US airs on MTV in the US and WOW Presents Plus in the UK.

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