Today’s Republican party comes with an ambitious agenda.
In no particular order, it seeks to ban books, ban abortion, ban discussions of race, rewrite history, corrupt elections, mandate guns, whitewash school curricula, gut the social safety net, trade the rule of law for theocracy, and marginalize, wherever possible, Black people, women, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and anyone who’s not white, straight, Christian, and cruel. This is not a comprehensive list.
And yet, with so much on their plate — with so much havoc still to be wreaked, so many barbarous laws to be written, so many marginalized groups to torment — they can still find time to demonize drag queens.
That’s right. Forget the dying planet, the killer weather, the crumbling infrastructure. Drag queens are the real problem.
There are currently bills moving through the legislatures of fourteen states that would, in one way or another, criminalize drag performance.
On the surface, they’re aimed at raising the risks — both legal and physical — of performing in drag. Beneath the surface, but not far beneath, they’re all about punishment for existing while queer.
Some of these laws would restrict drag performances to areas zoned for “adult” businesses, which is to say they’d be lumped together with “gentlemen’s clubs” and porn shops. Bars, restaurants, campuses, bookstores, theaters, pride events would all become, by law, drag-free. Were bar and restaurant owners asked about this?
The Tennessee legislature is leading the charge backwards, having just passed a broadly worded, mean-spirited bill that seeks to make criminal any “adult cabaret” performance on public property. By ‘public property,’ they mean streets — particularly during pride parades — but also schools and, especially, public libraries.
Which is very much to the point. Because one of the many malignant drivers of this inanity is the astro-turfed backlash from the huge nationwide success of Drag Queen Story Hour, the best thing that has happened to local libraries in at least a generation.
What seems to be upsetting these legislators — or what Tucker Carlson has told them should upset them — is the use of civic facilities for the supposed sexualization of children. That these are men just pretending to be women so they can gain the trust of little Bobby. That what they’re really doing is grooming little Bobby for future sale into sex slavery. How do you tell people who believe these things that they’re not true?
Sadly, this is just one more tedious variation on the same pedophilia scam they’ve been running for years. They endlessly flog the trope of gay men as hyper-sexualized predators with a special preference for children. And they amplify that trope in the fact-free vacuum of the right-wing media bubble. Nobody in that bubble will ever hear otherwise.
So I’m here to state categorically — if you don’t already know — that you couldn’t possibly find a less sexually charged pastime than Drag Queen Story Hour.
YouTube is rife with videos, mostly shot in libraries, mostly packed with little kids, wide-eyed, watching drag queens hamming it up, vamping their way through children’s books, and generally working the crowd — kids and parents alike. A hoot for all.
Let’s stipulate that drag queens are innately entertaining. They come in bright colors and vivid personalities, which kids lap up. People of all ages are drawn to their flamboyance. And once you see how a well-decked-out queen can mesmerize an underage audience, the mere thought that this could be even slightly controversial takes your breath away.
Yet somehow, reading to children while in drag has become, for people not of this century, “sexually explicit content,” something from which their children must be ruthlessly protected.
Nina West is something of a star in the drag world. She competed on RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has long been a touchstone for drag culture. She has also been touring as Edna, the breakthrough drag role in the musical Hairspray.
But it’s Drag Queen Story Hour that clearly consumes her. To her, the stories help fill a pressing need for entertainment that’s kid-friendly and family-oriented, but specifically tailored to queer communities with children to raise:
“There are members of our community who want to be married, who want to have children, and who are raising families in a world with very few family-friendly queer role models. There are people who want to expose their children to the kind of entertainment and the kind of culture that they wish to celebrate, that's distinctly queer. And what's more distinctly queer than drag?”
The benefits, of course, are hardly limited to queer families. Any activity that normalizes the interaction of new and different family permutations, as they evolve, is surely an unqualified good.
Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with a wide range of nutjobs, some prone to vigilantism.
Nina writes of death threats from internet trolls, of car horns blared through the night, of signs on her lawn reading “a pedophile lives here,” and of the disclosure of her legal name on social media. When the Hairspray tour ends, she’s afraid to go home.
But she insists that her own woes are nothing compared to the dead and wounded at the Club Q drag show in Colorado. Or the Proud Boys shutting down a drag show in Ohio through armed intimidation.
Or, I could add, the sabotage of an electrical grid in North Carolina, which triggered a widespread blackout just as a local Drag Queen Story Hour was scheduled to start. This has never felt like coincidence.
We can see this war on drag as a subset of a much broader war, a war on art itself. It’s one of fascism’s greatest hits. Look up “degenerate art” under Hitler, or “socialist realism” under Stalin, and you’ll get the idea. Autocrats always need to go after the artists, not just because artists speak truth, but because they’re seen as soft targets, easily bullied.
Drag is, by any definition, art. At its highest level it can hold its own with any form of performance. Eddy Izzard, Harvey Fierstein, Justin Vivian Bond (Kiki, of Kiki & Herb), and John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) are cross-over cultural icons. And that’s just from my generation.
That Republican lawmakers are conflating real art with salacious fiction — with lurid fantasies of flashing genitals and pantomimed sex acts — just shows us where the real obscenity lies.
Or, as one mercifully sane Tennessee legislator, speaking against the anti-drag bill, put it rather tartly:
“Drag is not about exposing private body parts or performing sexual content by nature,” she said. “Let me tell you, with the number of layers most drag queens are wearing, trying to expose a private part is not even really feasible.”
Drag culture — and LGBTQ culture, in general — will not be stopped. They are already part of the mainstream, and their influence on subsequent generations will only grow. To drive those cultures underground — which is what these laws hope to accomplish — is a solution in search of a problem.
All it does is make criminals out of people who are anything but.