Every year, Metrosource looks back to see who has done the most to uplift the LGBTQ community. They’re people who’ve inspired us, people who’ve moved the cultural needle; people who’ve stood up for themselves — and us — to make the world a more inclusive place. Put simply, they’re People We Love.
Performing tomorrow in Montclair, NJ in The West Christmas Ever is the larger than life Nina West — whose heart may be the biggest thing about her. Before she rose to fame on Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race (where she won Miss Congeniality), West (who’s real name is Andrew Levitt), began doing drag as a way to raise money for worthy causes.
“I’ve been actively involved in the community for some time now,” says the performer. “The very first events I did in drag were charity fundraisers; that’s pretty much how I got started. So it’s been something I’ve participated in and able to see grow over time.”
This summer, West returned to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio to bring her neighbors together for a song that became a video that launched a campaign for HIV home testing. The song is called “Treat Yourself,” and became part of a broader recognition of September 27 as National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Taken as a whole, the package is a bit of a Trojan Horse, because tucked inside the tune’s chirpy melody and the colorful accompanying video is a message. It’s vital to stay up to date on your HIV status, and doing so is a commitment to self-care and caring for those around you. The video is presented by OraQuick, the only in-home oral HIV test approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Joining West the video is choreographer Mark Kanemura, who spent time on the road dancing alongside Lady Gaga and is also a “So You Think You Can Dance” all-star alumnus.
Behind the Scenes
“What happened with OraQuick was that they know that I have spent time and made money for a lot of worthwhile causes,” says West. “They were looking for someone who had legitimacy in that and could be authentic as well, so I was their choice. And the video is fun, just like the song. I’m a camp queen, so I take my fun seriously. I don’t take myself seriously, but I do I take my drag seriously.”
West also spends considerable time on the road promoting equality as part of her performances. And she’s never regarded the two as mutually exclusive.
“I’ve never felt a disconnect when I’ve done it,” says West. “I grew up in a conservative family and at 12, I got to go to the Republican National Convention. But as I grew up in that environment, I learned to adapt and grow in my thoughts. So I’m pretty progressive and my political beliefs have a lot to do with my drag.”
Related | Visit the People We Love page
West is well aware that she’s both a lightning rod for criticism and a beacon of hope for many who don’t dare raise their own voices. “A drag queen is often the most revered and hated person in the community,” she says, “because they represent so many different things. I’ve chosen to take the mic to encourage and educate people on political issues and speaking directly to things that are affecting LGBTQ people.”
Part of her mission is to make sure that marginalized community members continue to have spaces where they can congregate without fear. “It’s important to maintain places where especially queer people feel welcome,” she explains.
“I think that with marriage equality and some of our other victories, we started to feel comfortable and confident in who we are and welcome in a wider variety of places” she’ll say. “But the Trump administration has shown us once again how important it is to have queer spaces. As a drag queen. I was raised not only by other drag queens, but by transgender people, gays and lesbians in this world. That’s how I got my introduction.”
West also wants to make sure that younger people understand where she and her forebears came from. “Now so many younger drag queens and kings think Drag Race is what it’s all about. Maybe the game has changed, and there are no more dues to pay. I can’t really speak to that. But I do know the value of our church, and that’s how I think of queer spaces. They’re our sacred spaces, and people have taken that for granted. I always want to remind them: these places are part of who we are.
“As you can tell, she laughs, “I’m not one to shy away from standing in your truth and identity. And there are so many nuances and ways to do that. But it has to be done.”
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Last modified: November 19, 2019