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Published April 25, 2024

Increasingly over the last two decades, thanks in large part to popular media like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose, drag has come to symbolize a meeting place between the LGBTQ+ community and our mainstream culture. While helpful in providing positive queer representation, this surge in visibility also reveals a certain tension that arises when drag is positioned as entertainment to be consumed by queer and straight, cisgender people alike.  

Photo courtesy Fancie Terrell

“As a performer, I get to exchange energy with the audience and create a space where we all have an opportunity to release whatever stress we may be holding from internal, interpersonal or extra-personal issues we all deal with,” said Fancie Terrell (they/them), who performs as a drag king in the Richmond/Petersburg area. “As a drag artist, I get to take it a step further and give space for thought about the ways we all play into gender norms and expectations.” 

Over the next year, as one of two inaugural Virginia Health Equity & Justice Fellows, Fancie plans to produce a podcast with visual components based around this notion, highlighting the voices and experiences of queer people, disabled people, and people of color, and the access they often lack to health-related resources. 

Supported by UVA Center for Health Humanities & Ethics, UVA Health’s Office for Diversity & Community Engagement, and Virginia Humanities, the fellowship provides funding for scholars, artists, and clinicians whose work centers the arts and humanities to advance health equity. 

“I was really excited to see an opportunity to use art as a vehicle to discuss public health,” said Fancie, who also paints and works with wood. “I view my art as an access point: You may not share the color of my skin, you may not be directly affected by the challenges I’m affected by, but you can still be moved by my storytelling.” 

Fancie studied mass communications at the University of Central Florida, where they discovered a passion for volunteering, which turned into a job with the Obama campaign in 2007. “It was a great experience,” they said, and provided them the opportunity to study community organizing at Midwest Academy in Chicago. And yet, as fulfilling as the work was, Fancie was troubled by the fact that it was attached to a person whose political position (and thus power) was frequently vulnerable, making their efforts to achieve long-term progress difficult, if not impossible. 

“Every time we say a person’s name, I feel like we give their spirit energy,” Fancie said. “So, I started thinking: What happens if we put that concentration—that speak—into community members themselves?”

Fancie recalled the everyday injustices they discovered through their community organizing experiences in Charlottesville. They met a Black drag performer who held an advanced degree but didn’t have health insurance—a systemic issue that disproportionately affects people of color. Although the Affordable Care Act helped narrow coverage gaps, KFF reports that, as of 2022, nonelderly Indigenous and Hispanic people had the highest uninsured rates at 19.1% and 18.0%, respectively.

“You may not share the color of my skin, you may not be directly affected by the challenges I’m affected by, but you can still be moved by my storytelling.”

Fancie Terrell, 2023–24 Virginia Health Equity & Justice Fellow

With their audio project, Fancie hopes to bring these stories of struggle to fresh ears—perhaps students in UVA’s School of Medicine, they suggest. 

“How could it change their experience as a medical practitioner,” they said, “to hear firsthand from someone about their experiences with healthcare?” 

In addition to being a space for Virginians to speak on social justice issues, Fancie intends for their interviewees to share stories of happiness, success, and resilience.  

“There’s so much richness that comes into the cultures of each of these marginalized communities,” they said. “I want to make sure the triumphant stories are reflected, too; the joy that we continue to find in ourselves and in others, in spite of it all.” 

What emerges from this balance is a more complex picture of marginalized communities than traditionally presented in mainstream media, helping bridge the cultural gaps often formed by differences in socioeconomic and racial privilege.  

“It’s important for us to tell our own stories, because when we leave that in the hands of other people, they get to tell our history the way they need it to be perceived for future generations,” Fancie said. “But if we’re doing the work—if we’re able to document ourselves—how does that change how we’re perceived?” 

Through their fellowship project, Fancie intends to find out. 

Virginia Humanities Fellowships

Our fellowship programs help writers, community scholars, educators, and university faculty members uncover stories about Virginia’s history and culture.

Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.

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