Farmington, New Mexico, almost resembles any other small town in the U.S., except it is in the middle of the desert, and local restaurants like The Chili Pod and Three Rivers Brewery serve up a unique local delicacy: green chile.
Drag queens aren't the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the Southwest (unless you're thinking about RuPaul's Drag Race Season 10 queen Kalorie Karbdashian-Williams, of course). But in the latest episode of HBO's new unscripted series We're Here, Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O'Hara, and Shangela crash-land in the towns of Farmington and Shiprock, located in the northwest corner of the 47th state and situated between two of the most infamous locations for UFOlogists: Roswell, New Mexico, and Area 51 in Nevada.
"Yes ma'am. The aliens have landed, honey. We're very Area 51-adjacent," Shangela tells NewNowNext when asked about her extraterrestrial-inspired look for the episode.
In previous installments of We're Here, the drag trio help makeover subjects who needed a transformation, and the Farmington episode is no different. The queens lend their talents to Nicole, a proud lesbian, public defender, and local LGBTQ activist; Stacey and Jasmine, a grief-stricken mother-daughter duo; and Nate, a Shiprock resident who is part of the Navajo Nation.
But how did the We're Here team pick the New Mexico desert for that crash-landing?
"I think we were really interested in delving into different subcultures or different places where you could actually attach a specific identity either to a place or to the people who lived in that place. Different areas of the country led us to the Southwest," series director Peter LoGreco tells NewNowNext. "Something I was interested in doing was working with at least one Native American participant because there are so many interesting issues around what gender identity means in different Native American historical traditions and tribal traditions, and also to represent the layers of otherness for marginalized populations that are out there."
"What's going on in the queer community within the Navajo nation ... it's just super interesting because there's this whole idea of Christian colonization kind of demonizing gender fluidity," LoGreco explains. "There's this Two-Spirit belief in Navajo culture. Yes, there are two spirits, but I think there are actually five genders, which basically just represent people all along the continuum from extremely masculine to extremely feminine."
"When we started looking around, we found that there was a groundswell of interest in LGBTQ awareness and support via the police department, believe it or not, in Farmington," LoGreco adds. "They were our initial way in, but then obviously, the fact that it was very close to the border with the Navajo Nation, and Shiprock was this town that was right over the border, led us to start investigating there."
Series co-creator Johnnie Ingram, who also directed the Farmington episode, explains how the towns themselves are characters in the story just as much as the residents are.
"Most importantly, we were picking towns that were sort of struggling with their identity," Ingram tells NewNowNext. "The town is also a character in these stories alongside the people. Oftentimes, these towns are just struggling with a conservative majority and a younger generation that sort of wants to hear and wants to feel represented and have their voices heard."
Ingram refers to the episode set in Twin Falls, Idaho, where there are conservative Christian and Mormon communities alongside LGBTQ residents who are "struggling to fit in, but yet, want very much to live there and exist and to be seen."
Since all three queens featured in We're Here are originally from small towns themselves, they know how small communities operate and how queer people survive.
"I think most small towns kind of have the same vibe and energy," Eureka tells NewNowNext. "The difference is, if it's a Southern small town where it's very 'bless your heart' and everyone's nice to your face, but not behind your back kind of attitude. Or Farmington, where everyone just kind of knows, but you don't talk about it. It's very 'don't ask, don't tell.' So there are different energies like that. I think most small towns kind of have similar energy in a way, where you can tell there's a set of rules for this area that people try to live by so that they don't ruffle feathers."
When it comes to the actual makeovers from We're Here, Bob the Drag Queen was asked if there was a particular person who stuck out in his mind. It turns out Nate, the gay indigenous photographer from Shiprock, made a big impression on the Drag Race Season 8 winner: "There was a really great, really lovely guy named Nate, who is amazing. Just amazing."
The drag aliens came in peace and left with a piece of New Mexico in their hearts.
We're Here airs Thursdays at 9pm EDT on HBO.