When Sam Themer rode the subway dressed in drag last week—red wig, turquoise dress, face painted with make-up—he never considered that someone might photograph him as he commuted from Queens to a drag queen gig in Manhattan, sitting next to a woman wearing a niqab.
The next day, 24-year-old Themer was Instafamous: the image of him and his seatmate was posted to the popular “subwaycreatures” account with a celebratory comment about diversity in New York City, and had attracted thousands of likes. A week later, it was appropriated by the alt-right for mockery and derision on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” /pol/ News Network message board, then tweeted by an account of the same name with the caption, “This is the future liberals want.”
With that, a few Internet trolls had correctly identified part of the left’s (apocalyptic, in their view) agenda—a society where Muslims and drag queens can co-exist peacefully in public.
Themer rarely uses Twitter (Instagram is better for promoting his “Gilda Wabbit” drag queen persona), but the reaction was so big that he began retweeting his defenders. By Thursday afternoon, he’d become a lightning rod for our divided political landscape.
“I was just going about my day at the time, but the fact that this image has blown up shows just being yourself can be an act of resistance,” Themer told The Daily Beast. “It’s radical in itself that this woman and I can exist together on a train in this political climate and not be bothered by anyone during our whole ride.”
Themer moved to New York City from Kentucky two years ago with his fiancé (the two met at the University of Kentucky, where Themer was training to be an opera singer). “I was openly gay then, but I don’t think I could have ever dreamed of being a drag queen,” he said. “It wasn’t an option.”
Now, Themer performs as “Gilda Wabbit” at gay bars and other venues across the city at least four days a week.
In the year and half since he started doing gigs, people have occasionally harassed him in public. He recalled a man getting in his face on the subway one night, when he was on his way back to Astoria after hosting a Tony Awards party at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. The man wanted to know why Themer was wearing an emerald green dress. Was he a man or a woman? What was wrong with him?
“I got ready to defend myself when he started walking towards me, then all of a sudden four people on the train stood up and told him to leave me alone,” Themer said. The man got off at the next stop. “It was a powerful moment and showed how communities can come together to defend people who are marginalized.”
Until this week, Themer had never been targeted online, but nothing about the alt-right’s intolerance surprised him.
“On election night, I was sitting comfortably in a red, white, and blue pantsuit assuming Hillary [Clinton] was going to win,” he said, “but when that didn’t happen it really woke me up to the fact that all of this hatred exists throughout America.”
More surprising were the number of ordinary people who shamed the bigoted shamers. The alt-right meme of Themer was re-appropriated as a progressive rallying cry turned viral Twitter moment that was still trending on Friday afternoon.
The woman in the photo has not been identified, though several Twitter users parsed the look in her eyes—a vague glance in Themer’s direction which, they concluded, was hostile and disapproving.
“I think it’s interesting that people are projecting their own thoughts and feelings when they have no idea what she’s thinking,” Themer said. “I recognize she may not want to talk to me, but if she did I’d love to meet her. I think it’s really cool that our simple act of sitting next to each other on the train has caused such a commotion.”