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It’s Not (Just) about Drag: Weaponizing Children in the Anti-LGBTQ+ Culture Wars | Righting America

by Patrick Thomas

A large throng of people rally jubilantly in the street while holding signs that read, "drag is not a crime," "drag is art," and a cross with signage attached, "Your God made me."
Supporters in Palm Springs, California rally in protest to anti-drag legislation. April 18, 2023. Photo by Tara Gray at The Desert Sun.

In 2023, the need to celebrate Pride month seems more urgent than usual. Given the increasing presence of far right hate groups at LGBTQ+ events (such as the neo-Nazi gathering at a Columbus Drag Brunch), bomb threats of queer spaces, and at least one case in which an Ohio LBGTQ+ affirming church was firebombed with Molotov cocktails – taking the time to reclaim queer joy and commemorate the roots of queer liberation feels especially important. 

Of course, protests of Pride events are nothing new. In my 20-something years of attending Pride events in many different places, I’ve encountered a fair number of displeased citizens – mostly evangelical preachers armed with megaphones trying to shout down the revelry with some fiery, Sodom and Gomorrah-obsessed routine. While I am uncertain that this strategy has ever been successful in converting Pride attendees, I have always been grateful to the many “angels” who – borrowing the silent, protective counter-protest technique popularized in response to Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church’s presence at Matthew Shepard’s 1999 funeral – create a visual barrier of white cloth between Pride participants and hateful preachers. 

What is more concerning this year is the number of friends and colleagues who did not attend Pride this year out of concerns for personal safety and the risk of attacks, especially with larger attendance expected in this first “post-pandemic” summer. I understood their concern; in fact, in the week leading up to my local Pride, I discussed possible exit plans and meet-up spots with the friends in case of an attack. This concern is real: with the near 30-fold increase in anti-LGBTQ+ protests over the last five years (averaging 41 protests per month in 2023 – up from an average of 3 per month in 2017-2022), Pride also feels riskier than it has in a very long time. This is because the current protests against Pride differ from those of previous years. Where there were once a few rogue preachers, there are now some strange bedfellows: anti-gay preachers are joined by the likes of Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, Moms for Liberty, and any number of far-right groups that seem ready and able to act upon the hate that conservative evangelicals have long spread against Pride events. And the new target of this increased hate? Drag performers.

One of the most popular targets of right-wing hate has been the popular practice of library reading clubs and Drag Queen Story Hours. Initiated by artist Michelle Tea in 2015, Drag Queen Story Hour provided early literacy instruction through storytelling and reading in public libraries, bookstores, and community centers. Most notable about Drag Queen Story Hour is that in addition to interacting with drag queens, children listen to and read a diverse range of books, including children’s books with LGBTQ+ characters. 

The far right’s opposition to/obsession with drag queen story hour centers on their supposed concern for the safety of children. Though my research is weak on the subject, I am unable to locate a single instance in which a child was harmed by a story hour. Nevertheless, defending children from drag queens has proven to be an effective way of galvanizing conservative support against the gender-bending art form in both the public square and in state legislatures. As historian Emily Johnson notes, “There is no better moral panic than a moral panic centered on potential harm to children,” and for conservatives, the false dichotomy of if-you’re-for-children-you’re-against-drag has some real rhetorical heft. What gets lost in this framing is the fact that it relies on some horrifyingly homophobic assumptions for some measly political gains. Not to mention the fact that none of the groups protesting Drag Queen Story Hour have offered their own time to read to children.

The vitriol against drag performers is not only visible in libraries. It’s also been ushered into state legislatures. In March 2023, Tennessee passed the first law banning public drag performances in which minors might be present. While Trump appointee US District Judge Thomas Parker ruled it unconstitutional last week, the law has served as a template for at least 14 other states who have initiated similar bans for drag performers. Indeed, the Human Rights Campaign noted this bill as one of more than 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced into state legislatures in 2023 alone, a record year for legislative measures aimed at banning books, gender affirming health care, participation in sports programming, gender-related DEI curricula, and eliminating state protections for LGBTQ+ individuals on the basis of equal protections by “sex” (essentially removing protections in housing, employment, credit, and education for LBGTQ+ people). 

Legislative bans on drag performers provide a rather unique – and odd – case given the rise of popularity of drag in mainstream culture (thanks in large part to the global phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as the recirculation of classic drag films such as Paris is Burning, The Birdcage, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch on video streaming services). Anti-drag backlash is puzzling given that drag itself is an art form dead-set on not taking itself seriously. Camp, parody, and silly playfulness are the norm rather than the exception in drag performance. As anyone who has worn them can tell you, heels make it harder – not easier – to run, attack, or perform any other basic maneuver to threaten or intimidate another person. Why, then, would drag cause such concern? 

Speaking to LGBTQ Nation, Sybastian Smith of the National Center for Transgender Equality explains that the drag bans themselves aren’t really about drag performers:

Five of these bills have specified that exposure to the LGBTQ+ community is child abuse, most of these bills ban minors and ban drag performers from public spaces…six of these bills have defined drag performers as people who dressed and expressed differently from their ‘biological sex’ or ‘gender identity,’ and we have concerns that this also applies to everyday transgender people.

Smith’s reading of the anti-drag legislation is bleak, but, I fear, correct. For one thing, the assumption that “exposure to the LBGTQ+ community is child abuse” (emphasis mine) is as damning of conservatives’ true motives as it is infuriating to LGBTQ+ people – and it reeks of McCarthy-era homophobia. Banning drag performers from public spaces is a direct attempt to outlaw Pride festivals and parades – events at which drag performers are often the center of festivities as performers, emcees/hosts, and/or grand marshals. 

More troubling, however, is how Smith reveals the focus on drag as a red herring for the actual target of conservatives: transgender people. By extending the definition of drag to “people who dress and express differently from their biological sex or gender identity,” drag bans provide a way to criminalize the existence of transgender individuals. 

So here we see the real motive of the fervor over men in dresses reading to children, the moral panic around children’s exposure to LGBTQ+ people (despite the fact that some of these children are LGBTQ+ themselves), and the outrage over public drag performances. None of this vitriol is really about drag queens per se. Instead, drag is a cover, a conservative code word for transgender people. The real motive is not to stop drag queens from performing, but to make the existence of transgender people illegal, to make trans* identities and expressions criminal offenses. 

The LGBTQ+ community and our allies must fully recognize these legislative threats for what they are: attacks on the very right to life. These attacks weaponize children to create false panic and fallacious binaries between the moral right and the queer wrong. We must use Pride as a way to come together, align our powers, and continue to fight back against the many forces conspiring to literally kill our queer families. Some simple actions that anyone can take include:

  • Know LGBTQ+ Youth Rights: Consult the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Know Your Rights” updates for LGBTQ+ Youth, including the latest information on gender-affirming healthcare for trans* youth.
  • Call Your State Legislators: Currently most LGBTQ+ focused legislation is passing through state legislatures, so following your state’s house and senate dockets can be a useful point of information for knowing the status of LGBTQ+ rights in your state. For reference, the Human Rights Campaign provides helpful State Roundups each quarter.
  • Attend (and Speak Up!) at Local School Board Meetings: One of the most successful local campaigns against LGBTQ+ youth have been through local school boards. Extremist groups like Moms for Liberty have turned school boards against LGBTQ+ affirming policies and practices. Speaking up against anti-LGBTQ+ policies can have a countereffect. 
  • Support Your Local Drag Queens: Some of the most successful fundraisers in the Dayton area are the Rubi Girls, a drag troupe 40 years strong who have raised over $3 million for HIV/AIDS research, local charities, and their own college scholarship program. Find your local queens and tip them well!