The Loneliest Drag Queen in America

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lady maga - Credit: Samuel Corum/CNP/Alamy
lady maga - Credit: Samuel Corum/CNP/Alamy

It’s hard out there for a right-wing drag queen.

When a 6’2”, 190 pound man entered the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center outside Washington, D.C. — decked out in a fabulous blond wig, a crown of flowers, and a floor-length red-white-and-blue dress — he was not there to protest the Conservative Political Action Conference.

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A blue sash proclaimed the name of Ryan Woods’ drag persona in sparkly letters: “LADY MAGA USA.” The floor-length ensemble, he’d explain, was an homage to Abigail Adams, Marie Antoinette and Scarlett O’Hara. The dress was festooned with yellow ribbons, honoring the “political prisoners” of Jan. 6. What was Lady MAGA’s mission? “To publicly show that anyone can be a patriot — and to trigger the radical left.”

Yet at CPAC, Lady MAGA’s arrival triggered Woods’ fellow travelers on the right. Matt Walsh, perhaps the loudest anti-trans voice in the conservative movement, tweeted a photo of the drag queen, writing: “Absolute embarrassment. You are not conservative if you are fighting to conserve perversion.” A “groyper” follower of the white-nationlist America First leader Nick Fuentes later accosted Lady MAGA at dinner as a “f-ggot.”

The bitter truth of modern conservatism is that nothing bonds the movement like a scapegoat. The rocket rise of MAGA was fueled by a shared disgust of immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims. These days, what unites the right is an unhinged crusade against the trans community, and drag performers who are baselessly accused of being “pedos” that “groom” children into “gender confusion.” Red state legislatures across America are now blitzing to pass laws that criminalize public drag performance or outlaw gender-affirming medical treatment for trans youth — or both.

During CPAC itself, the demagoguery against gender non-conformity was thunderous. In event’s biggest speech, Michael Knowles, a media personality for the Daily Wire, demanded “transgenderism” be “eradicated from public life.”

Not long ago, a very different future for Lady MAGA — and the conservative movement — seemed possible. The drag queen (who identifies as a gender-bending gay man, not a trans woman) had been a breakout hit on Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign circuit. In fact, Knowles himself had posed with his arm around the performer’s waist at the Politicon convention in Nashville in late 2019, tweeting out the selfie and proclaiming, “A star is born!”

These days, the party’s 2024 contenders are competing to be the grand marshal of the anti-queer hate parade. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has embraced crackdowns on drag shows to boost his culture-war cred. Even Donald Trump — who famously filmed a bit with Rudy Giuliani in drag, and invited Caitlyn Jenner to speak at his 2016 nominating convention — has gotten into the act, vowing during a March stump speech in Iowa to punish public schools for pushing “transgender insanity.”

The right-wing’s boogeyman-switcheroo has left its most famous drag star in an untenable position — striving to promote the GOP as a Big Tent for gay conservatives at a moment when party insiders are crusading against all things queer. Lady MAGA offers a cautionary tale that ideological purity on issues like guns, abortion, and small government — even a willingness to blast the “debauchery” of mainstream LGBTQ culture — isn’t enough to carve out a safe space in a party that finds its unity in shared intolerance.

The Lady MAGA USA character was created by Ryan Woods, a gay Utah man in his mid 30s. An ex-Mormon and former Democrat, Woods has traced his drag-queen journey in a first-person podcast, as well as though his website, and myriad social media channels. (Woods did not respond to interview requests).

Woods has centered his identity less in sexuality than in nationalism. “Just because I happen to be gay and love to dress up,” he told the right-wing activist Dinesh D’Souza in 2021 podcast, “has nothing to do with my identity as a patriot and a God-fearing constitutionalist Republican.”

A former Eagle Scout, Woods grew up “totally Mormon,” he’s said, attending BYU and even serving a mission in France before coming out at age 22 and leaving the church, and later moving to Massachusetts.

Woods has spoken openly about how his “drag journey began in the ICU” after a 2016 suicide attempt. (“I’m a suicide survivor,” he told his podcast listeners. “I don’t hide it.”) And Woods describes how those dark moments at the hospital made him realize, “I needed an outlet; a way to express myself where I didn’t feel self conscious and I didn’t feel oppressed.”

Drag offered Woods the platform to “sparkle” and “shine.” He began performing in Boston, moving from amateur nights to paid performances under the stage name Ryanna Woods. Preferring fairy-tail poise to raunchy kitsch, Woods says, “I was known as the Disney Princess of Boston.”

In 2017, he moved back to Utah, where Woods quickly became a fixture of Salt Lake’s drag scene, performing at the Viva La Diva Show — “I had the honor of being Britney Spears,” he’s said — even performing with RuPaul’s Drag Race when it came to town.

But as he immersed himself in drag culture, Woods found himself, again, haunted by not living his truth. “I felt like I was back in the closet,” he’s said, “as a Trump-supporting, conservative gay man.” Triggered by a “FUCK TRUMP” poster tacked up in the dressing room of a Drag Race show, Woods began plotting for ways “to still be a fabulous, sparkly, magical drag queen” — but now for the benefit of his right-wing ideals.

In August, 2019, Lady MAGA was born. “I am a political drag queen,” Woods announced. “I support President Trump, and I believe that together we can make America gay, I mean great again!” Lady MAGA has evolved into a fairly chaste figure; Woods now insists that, “My agenda is not to sexualize America,” rather to “uplift patriots” with “dignity, fun and smiles.” But the character launch was more titillating. Lady MAGA debuted in photos wearing hot pants, a flag-print bikini top and knee-high platform boots. In other busty images, the performer sported an NRA hat and a pistol, while wrapped up in an albino python.

The backlash from the liberal drag community was predictable — and harsh. (Trump, by this point, had unleashed a torrent of anti-LGBTQ policies, including rescinding federal guidance that allowed public school students to use the bathrooms of their choice; banning trans Americans from the military; and proposing to roll back medical nondiscrimination safeguards for trans patients.) “How can you support the very person who wants to allow the establishment to discriminate against you?” a Black, queer drag artist known as Wiltavious told the Salt Lake City Weekly. 

Lady MAGA threw gas on the fiery breakup with far-right talking points. Woods was soon denouncing “the radical LGBT Cult,” adding, not-so-sparkle-ly: “I hate Pride parades; I think they’re disgusting. They’re about debauchery.” Woods made a clarion call to other right-wingers in the queer community. “It’s time to put down the LGBT kool-aid, freshen our make-up, pull up our tight skinny jeans, sprinkle on a little glitter, throw on some heels, flip our hair and start #ComingOutConservative.”

Among the Trump faithful at rallies leading up to the 2020 election, Woods insists that Lady MAGA was “welcomed with open arms”; the performer says he found a niche among MAGA believers who’d been cut off by the LGBTQ people in their lives. “They’re so heartbroken that their gay friends and family feel like they are their enemy,” Woods recalled.

Touring the country as Lady MAGA, Woods befriended Brandon Straka, founder of the “Walk Away Movement” that encouraged minority groups to decamp from the Democratic party. He snapped selfies with prominent conservatives ranging from Charlie Kirk to Rick Grennell — and of course with Knowles.

In February 2020, Woods even confronted Nick Fuentes on camera, insisting that they agreed on “90 percent” of issues. Fuentes responded to Lady MAGA that his drag getup “activates the disgust in my brain.” When Woods tried to convince Fuentes that he, too, was against the “radical LGBT cult,” Fuentes responded: “The problem is not the radical LGBT. It’s the LGBT period. That’s the problem.”

For a brief moment, it seemed as though Lady MAGA might become the Diamond & Silk of the drag community — empowered to join the delicious sport of owning the libs. “It is the ultimate defiance of the leftist narrative,” Woods has said of his act. “Nothing makes them more upset than to see a drag queen support our president and be embraced by Trump supporters.”

Woods fawned on about the open-mindedness of the MAGA set — “my personal belief is that modern conservatives are over the gay issue for the most part” — while simultaneously distancing himself from mainstream queer culture — calling himself an “alpha gay man” who abandoned “the Democrat plantation of… slavery for gay people.” Woods talked up, instead, “reclaiming our right to be good, old-fashioned gay men.”

The honeymoon was short lived. First, Trump lost the 2020 election. Then, after Jan 6, Woods lost his day job as a flight attendant at Delta Airlines. Woods had been in Washington D.C. on the day of the insurrection. While friends like Straka were busy crossing into the restricted area at the U.S. Capitol Grounds, Woods insists that Lady MAGA was performing miles away from the Capitol. In an interview with Dinesh D’Souza, Woods described being suspended by the airline on Jan. 7 for social media photos of Lady MAGA with “patriots open-carrying their firearms.”

Woods claimed he was “fired for being a Drag Queen Trump supporter.” (Delta, in a statement to Rolling Stone, described Woods’ allegation as “not an accurate or complete explanation of the company’s termination decision.” The airline added: “When Delta employees intermix Delta’s brand with conduct or content that does not reflect our values of professionalism, inclusion and respect, that conduct can result in discipline or termination.”)

Leaning into his political career, Woods soon assumed a post as Utah state chair of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization for gay conservatives. But with Trump exiled from the White House, hardline social conservatives have brought a reactionary energy to the conservative movement, seeking to turn back the clock on not only abortion access but on “woke” protections for racial and sexual minorities.

The thin strip of territory that Lady MAGA attempted to stake out for cross-dressing conservatives has been swamped by this rising tide of intolerance. Having burned his bridges, foreclosing a return to the mainstream, Woods retreated to higher ground with a movement that’s increasingly hostile to his very existence.

Lady MAGA has attempted to be a loyal soldier. After the movement went to war with Disney over its supposed wokeness, Woods — who loves to cosplay as Elsa from Frozen; “calls Disney the “rock that holds my heart together”; and brands his followers as “Magateers” (think: Mouseketeers) — even joined in denouncing Disney’s “betrayal of the American people” for embracing a “radical, racist anti-American, anti-white” agenda.

Woods has also used his social media channels to echo the new conservative talking points against erstwhile allies. “Gays need to reclaim being JUST gay,” he tweeted last May. “We’re not ‘LGBTQIAXYZ’ groomers.” Recently Woods became an  “ambassador” for Gays Against Groomers, a reactionary group that says it “opposes the sexualization and indoctrination of children,” which it claims includes “drag queen story hours”; “the transitioning and medicalization of minors”; and “gender theory being taught in the classroom.”

In the wake of the fallout from Lady MAGA’s CPAC appearance, Woods attempted to sass his critics, sending Matt Walsh a message in a Facebook Live video: “I will make you a badge, and I will attach barbie shoes to it, and it will be pink,” he promised, “so everyone will know you’re the police of the conservative movement.”

But the right-wing onslaught against gender-non-conformance, ultimately appears to be pushing Lady MAGA back toward a new closet, of sorts. In a March 12 Facebook post, Woods wrote that he is hanging up his identity as a “drag queen.”

“I now prefer to call myself a costume artist,” he wrote. “The drag world was one of the ways I could enjoy my talents,” he added, “but they’ve destroyed their credibility with predatory filth.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that while Straka did not enter the halls of Congress, in 2021 he pleaded guilty to “Engaging in Disorderly and Disruptive Conduct in the Capitol Building or Grounds.”

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