Jess Kohl’s joyous short film following Drag Syndrome – a collective of drag kings and queens with Down’s syndrome – on a day trip to RuPaul’s DragCon UK is about empowerment. “I wanted to change the, ‘oh, they’re so sweet’ reaction that these individuals often receive,” Kohl tells British Vogue. “Drag Syndrome’s artists are radically challenging preconceived notions of sexuality, gender and disability, while being authentically themselves. What about that is sweet?”
Kohl, whose directorial work focuses on marginalised communities, first met the group at Pride London 2018. The award-winning filmmaker was shooting Freida Slaves for a short about the drag queen, when she came across Drag Syndrome on The Glory pub’s parade float. “I was blown away by them,” says Kohl. “Their whole vibe was amazing, I kept thinking about them afterwards.”
Justin Bond – “King Justin Bond if you’re NASTY!” – acts as the informal leader of Drag Syndrome. “He’s really talkative and funny,” says Kohl. “He likes to take control.” Horrora Shebang, another core member Kohl became close to, has a “goth horror aesthetic” and Davina Starr is “camp and flirty”. “There’s a real mix of strong personalities. Some identify as gay, some would like to transition, and others just like to dress up,” says Kohl. “They are complex, tough people doing their own thing, walking paths that haven’t been walked before, and opening doors for others in the process.”
Kohl was “unexpectedly moved” by the reaction to Drag Syndrome’s performance at DragCon UK. “It was a crowded, intense and overwhelming environment,” Kohl explains. “They were understandably nervous before going on stage, but the crowd embraced them. Seeing their disabilities celebrated in an environment that’s both fun and challenging for them was empowering.”
The event – the first of its kind in Great Britain – “attracted a real mix of outsiders, not just queer people,” recalls Kohl. “People are attracted to drag because it’s an alternative space to the mainstream, and it was cool to see this space open up to all outcasts.” She recalls young teens dressed up in drag, who previously might not have had a platform to freely embrace their queerness.
Drag Syndrome’s life-affirming performance strikes a poignant note during 2020’s virtual Pride when, it seems, reflection is taking precedence over celebration. “People are taking time to rethink about what Pride is, to remember how it started and to honour people like Marsha P Johnson [the late African-American transgender activist],” says Kohl. “It’s heartbreaking for isolated people [not being able to come together in person], but there are positives to come out of this.”
Kohl hopes that films such as this one “celebrate queer culture, and help people, particularly the vulnerable, feel connected”. The members of Drag Syndrome, she says, are “keeping their spirits high” by performing for their swiftly growing TikTok followings, connecting with the wider group of kings and queens who live outside of London, and “generally not giving a shit” about what anyone else thinks. “It upsets me when I hear, ‘they’re so sweet’ now,” says Kohl. Drag Syndrome, as Bond says in the below video, is a professional artists’ group working together as a team. Quite simply, “[they] are the best.”