By Gabby Cushman
Why these anti-drag laws are dangerous and what we can do to support drag performers during this time
On Friday, June 2nd, just in time for the start of Pride Month, the queer community got fantastic news: Tennessee's discriminatory Adult Entertainment Act, which banned drag in public spaces where minors could see them, was ruled unconstitutional. This anti-drag law was the first to be passed and signed into law before getting blocked by Tennessee judge Thomas Parker.
However, many other states have been discussing drag bans in the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda being spread by right-wing groups online and in person. This has led to nearly 500 new bills proposed across the U.S. that target the LGBTQ+ community, many of which revolve around banning or censoring drag shows. The reasoning these right-wing groups use to demonize drag performances is that they are harmful to children due to their explicit content. Despite evidence that there are numerous age-restricted drag shows that require attendees to be adults, and that performances open to all ages are made with family-friendly content in mind, out of context and even photoshopped clips have been shared around social media to convince viewers that drag performers behave inappropriately around children.
I am a queer person, and I’ve been open about my identity since I was a teenager. The first pride celebration I went to had a drag performance that included some peers I knew from school. When I went to college and joined a predominantly queer friend group, I was introduced to the hit reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race and was instantly hooked. It was and still is so cool to see a wide range of LGBTQ+ people have their art and expression showcased on national TV. During the pandemic, I began following many online drag performers who were out of consistent work and relied on their virtual audience’s viewership and tips on Venmo to support themselves. I am a lover of drag to my core and think it’s such a pure celebration of queer joy and appreciation. That’s why I want to discuss these recent attacks on drag performers, the importance of drag to the LGBTQ+ community, and why we must condemn this dangerous rhetoric that drag is harmful to our youth.
Okay, what exactly is drag?
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of drag may be a cisgender gay man dressed as an exaggerated idea of a woman, with wigs, intricate outfits, and stage makeup. This, however, is a stereotypical idea of what drag truly is, which is a vastly complex and diverse art form. Cisgender women, straight men, trans women, nonbinary people, and more participate in drag around the world. Drag is essentially anyone’s take on playing with gender roles and traditional gender expression. There are drag queens who typically express themselves in feminine ways, drag kings that typically express themselves in masculine ways, and drag performers that can be a combination of any gender or a rejection of gender itself. In the alternative drag scene, some artists consider themselves drag monsters, creatures, shape-shifters, and other creative titles. Drag artists can focus their art on fashion and makeup, performance, or protest. Drag performers often spend a lot of time advocating for LGBTQ+ issues, since drag’s origins trace back to the LGBTQ+ community. It’s important to note that Black queer and trans people in Harlem in the 1860’s are credited with starting the first drag balls.
So why is there so much legislation suddenly targeting drag artists?
Over the past year, we’ve seen an onslaught of dangerous anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, specifically targeting trans people and drag artists. The movement to start restricting drag performers seemingly came from misinformation spread on social media websites. Right-wing groups started creating paranoia amongst those unfamiliar with public drag events, causing these individuals to believe that children were being exposed to inappropriate material at drag shows. This misinformed idea became worse when far-right users discovered drag queen “storytime” events, where drag performers will host a storybook reading for young children at local public libraries. Although these events are completely age-appropriate, due to the association extremist groups have with the LGBTQ+ community and sexual promiscuity, they believe children shouldn’t even be exposed to seeing a drag queen. Some of these groups have even gone as far as to label drag performers (and queer people in general) as sexual predators that are a danger to children, which feels like another form of the same homophobic propaganda that has been pushed against the LGBTQ+ community for decades. Thus, we began to see these “drag bans” pop up all over the United States, culminating in the almost 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently tracking.
What are these drag bans trying to accomplish? Why should we be concerned?
The ACLU has described these anti-drag measures as "a malicious attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life.” Sasha Colby, the most recent RuPaul's Drag Race winner who is a trans woman herself, has been quoted saying she believes these are truly anti-trans laws at their core masqueraded as anti-drag laws. It’s easy to see how she came to this conclusion when you see some of these laws aim to ban people from “wearing clothes of the opposite sex in public areas.” How can someone trying to enforce these laws differentiate between a trans person expressing their gender and a drag performer when this is the wording used? Even cisgender queer people who dress in clothes that are traditionally worn by the opposite sex could suffer under this kind of rhetoric in our legislation.
The Human Rights Campaign recently declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people living in the United States. The HRC said this was in response to an “unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year.” They emphasized how these are not just perceived threats, but real ones that have caused an increase in physical violence against LGBTQ+ people, families to flee their home states in search of those safer for their queer loved ones, and a huge uptick of general homophobia and transphobia affecting the health of LGBTQ+ people. Numerous pride events have been canceled across the country this year due to threats of violence or anti-LGBTQ+ laws going into effect.
What can I do to support drag artists not only during Pride Month but year-round?
Learning about the history of drag, especially its involvement in Pride celebrations, protests, and the queer community in general is a great place to start. Another accessible entry point is the aforementioned RuPaul’s Drag Race reality television show, as it hosts a diverse cast of contestants who practice drag in numerous ways. There are many international franchises as well, including RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, Canada’s Drag Race, Drag Race Philippines, Drag Race España, Drag Race Thailand, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, and more. Another competition reality show that covers alternative drag “monsters” is The Boulet Brothers' Dragula. Outside of TV programs, numerous drag artists showcase their drag on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Usually, these performers will post their intricately detailed looks or performances for fans to enjoy, and you can “tip” them through their Venmo or CashApp typically included in their social media bios. The best way to help support your local drag scene is to attend shows! There are drag brunches where you can get a meal and watch a drag lip sync performance, or if you’re a fan of nightclubs, you can catch an 18+ show. If you’re looking for age-appropriate drag performances to bring your children to, you can attend Pride festivities in your area or see if your public library offers any drag queen storytime events. Make sure to tip your drag performers if you’re able to!
Hopefully, this article has helped you learn more about drag, its importance to the LGBTQ+ community, and why we need to be doing what we can to fight dangerous rhetoric and legislation against drag performers. We must educate our little ones on this topic to break the negative stereotype that drag artists and queer people as a whole are negative influences on children. This Pride Month, and all year, we need to be doing our best to advocate for all members of the LGBTQ+ community.
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