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Courtesy of BBC3

‘I adore my community’: Cherry Valentine is a Gypsy queen and proud

In the wake of their tragic passing, we revisit an interview with the former UK Drag Race contestant from earlier this year, where they confront their identity as a queer member of the Roma Traveller community

It was a warm, sunny day in July last year. In London’s Parliament Square, hundreds of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people had come together for Drive 2 Survive – a protest against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, more commonly known as the policing bill. Within the several hundred pages of the bill are a variety of troubling proposed offences, including the criminalisation of trespass, that campaigners say will be used to specifically target GRT people.

I’d been following and reporting on the bill since its introduction, and been on the streets with protests across the country for many months, but this was the first protest focussing solely on the threat faced by GRT people. As someone who’s both queer and hereditarily Roma, it was a striking, emotional day; a day that I didn’t realise I needed. Elsewhere in the crowd, Cherry Valentine was having a similar experience.

Valentine shot to fame on season two of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, with her workroom discussion of her traveller background being one of many stand out moments in the series. For many, including myself, her discussion of growing up in the community (she spent the first five years of her life living in a camp that many of her family still inhabit today), was the first time we’d seen this kind of representation on TV. 

She was in Parliament Square last year filming a new BBC3 documentary, Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen And Proud, which sees her dive into her identity as a queer member of the traveller community. I sat down with her to talk about that day, and her hopes and fears about the documentary’s debut.

Talk me through the Drive 2 Survive protest. How did it feel for you?

Cherry Valentine: It felt pivotal and really eye-opening. I’ve never been to somewhere like that before, with so many people from the (GRT) community. It was a part of the documentary where I felt like I was starting to reconnect, and started to know people from the GRT community and feel more comfortable in that environment. So when we actually went to the demo, it was really cathartic but at the same time quite sad. There was so much going on in the community that I just wish that I’d been involved with sooner. One of the main things that stuck out to me when I was at the rally was the LGBTQ flag hanging from the stage. I just thought it was really incredible and unexpected to see it there and it made me feel so welcome. 

That difficult intersection – of being both queer and GRT – is something you explore a lot in the film. Given the treacherous position of GRT communities right now, were you concerned some of those (very necessary) conversations were going to be weaponised?

Cherry Valentine: 100 per cent. My own experiences of watching the GRT community on TV have generally been quite negative or stereotypical so it was something I was concerned about. The director, Pete Grant, and I got really close and I think he learnt a lot about the community as we went along because he spoke to everyone. We sat down for a long, long time and talked about how it was going to go. We filmed so much more than was even in the documentary as the conversations get edited down. So it was a huge process and by the end of it, I was completely confident that it would be unbiased. It would just be the facts and my truth and other people’s truths.

Do you feel like you were in a better place to explore or discuss those truths than when you first did in Drag Race

Cherry Valentine: When I spoke about it on Drag Race, the producers didn’t prompt me. We did know that we were going to be talking about family and I just thought, why wouldn’t I talk about it? I’ve got this platform and people from the community I’m from don’t usually have that. I was absolutely terrified afterwards and thought that people would hate me for it, because being from our community does come with a lot of negative connotations. But filming the documentary and talking about it, I felt more empowered. I needed to talk to those people and to feel uncomfortable in those situations, because I always think the best things happen outside of the comfort zone. I say in every single interview that visibility is the most important thing and all I want to do is just be visible for other people so hopefully they feel more positive about it.

In terms of getting out of that comfort zone, there’s a bit in the documentary where you drive to the camp you used to live on and can’t go in – what was happening there?

Cherry Valentine: Well, at first we were going to film at a horse fair that a lot of my family go to but it got cancelled because of COVID. So then, Pete asked if we should go to one of the camps in the town that I grew up in. A lot of my family did live on there, and still live there now, and the intention was to go and see if we could talk to people and film with someone. In that moment though, I just wasn’t ready for it – it got a little bit too much. I didn’t know if it was the right space or place to do that.

“I was absolutely terrified (after Drag Race) and thought that people would hate me, because being from our community does come with a lot of negative connotations” – Cherry Valentine

How have the community reacted to the documentary? 

Cherry Valentine: I’m starting to speak to my parents a lot more now. And I’m still in very close contact with Tyler (Hatwell, founder of Traveller Pride who appears in the film). I rang him last night actually and we were just chatting about things that are coming up and what we want to do together. I want to get involved in the marches at Pride and go to some of these monthly meet-ups that they’re starting to have just to really continue to get involved. A lot of charities and organisations have reached out since the documentary. So it’s just really nice to be able to start to open up those avenues to see how much more I can get involved.

As I mentioned earlier, the GRT community is in a particularly perilous position right now given the policing bill and the threat within that, as well as a plethora of other issues. What do you want people to take from this documentary? 

Cherry Valentine: Not everything you see on these TV programmes, or that you hear in your local communities, is always true. I think just because there are so many stereotypical views placed on the community, it sometimes makes people just assume that we’re a certain type of way. So when you see people come into your local towns and set up for camp, there’s sometimes a lot of negativity and prejudice towards it. But that’s not always true. I absolutely really adore the community that I’m from and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I think primarily, as cliche as it sounds, the reason I did the documentary was to make people not feel alone. Whether you’re in the GRT community and you’re LGBTQ, or whether you’re a drag queen who doesn’t feel accepted by their family, or whether you’re uncomfortable with talking about your background from any sort of community, I just want people to feel like they’re not alone. If I had something like the documentary when I was younger, I might have seen things a little bit differently and maybe got to where I am now sooner.

Cherry Valentine: Gypsy Queen And Proud is available to watch on iPlayer now