Drag queens are an easy target for the growing reactionary backlash taking place in America. They’re loud; they’re irreverent; they clearly don’t ascribe to conventional gender norms. They provide a simple shorthand about decadence and perversion for anyone with the all-encompassing need to punch down against anyone who isn’t a straight white man.
For all those reasons, there has been a disturbing uptick in recent weeks of targeted harassment and threats of violence toward queens and the people who support them. There is no denying that the sirens are sounding not just for the most flamboyant members of the LGBTQ community, but for queer Americans as a whole, no matter how much bigots might argue otherwise.
As with most of the slippery-slope homophobia that we’re seeing these days, the mainstream opposition from the right hides behind children to launch their attacks. Since 2015, libraries and other public spaces around the country have held “Drag Queen Story Hours,” where performers come and read to small children while in full drag.
It is worth noting that there is nothing inherently sexual about these events. The queens aren’t reading selections from the Marquis de Sade to fidgeting kindergartners. They’re reading children’s books like “Families, Families, Families.” They just happen to be doing so with their face beat and (potentially, depending on how comfortably they can sit) their waist snatched.
The outrage really makes you wonder what happened to the “parental choice” mantra that Republicans have been pushing lately.
These story hours have been the subject of protests and threats for as long as they’ve been in the national news. What makes today different, though, is the vitriol we are seeing both from public officials and from hateful individuals. And their opposition, while framed around “protecting” children, makes no distinction between story time for children and drag shows for adults.
Particularly drawing their ire is a family-friendly “Drag the Kids to Pride” event that took place this month at a gay bar in Texas. Clips that have gone viral show performers showing the same amount of skin and suggestive dancing that the audience might see at a pop concert. There’s no evidence that any of the minors were there unattended nor has there been any similar videos of kids being snuck into late-night performances. The outrage that the show has spawned really makes you wonder what happened to the “parental choice” mantra that Republicans have been pushing lately.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been leading the charge in advocating parents’ rights as a reason to bar kids from learning about LGBTQ issues in schools, apparently thinks that they should also be banned from learning about LGBTQ tolerance outside of schools. Last week, he suggested that he might back a GOP state lawmaker’s proposal to punish parents that take their kids to drag shows. Texas lawmakers are also promising to file legislation “protecting kids from drag shows.”
The obsession on the right is really questionable when you hold up drag to other performance art forms. I’ve yet to see a lawmaker or activist up in arms claiming that the garish make-up of a circus clown as being confusing to young minds. There’s no outcry against children being taken to see even the most ribald of Shakespeare’s plays, even those that feature gender-bending as a core plot element.
Instead, the fierce denunciation toward drag queens is most similar to conservative campaigns against ciswomen dancers and singers throughout the years. Ironically, while patriarchal norms encourage the latter to earn a living off of their sexuality, both are accused of leaning too far into the feminine and are demonized for it. It’s truly a lose-lose out here at times for the non-masculines of the world.
And it has to be said that the current campaign goes beyond political posturing. Members of the white nationalist Proud Boys interrupted a drag story hour last week at a library in Alameda County, California. The sheriff’s office has opened a hate crime investigation after the crowd shouted “homophobic and transphobic slurs at the event organizer.”
Kyle Chu, whose drag name is Panda Dulce, told Teen Vogue that they were sitting with librarians singing a song to welcome the kids when “eight to ten Proud Boys marched in with their cameras outstretched.” Chu said that one of them “had an AK-47 shirt that said ‘kill your local pedophile’ on it.” After the police were called, and the Proud Boys escorted out, the event was allowed to finish — but Chu said it was a “traumatizing event” that they’re still processing.
There are still men and women who want so badly to see gender norms rigidly enforced that they will harm others to do so.
Proud Boys and the group “Protect Texas Kids” also rallied last weekend outside of a Disney-themed drag brunch in Arlington, Texas. The event was clearly for people aged 21 and up and the group even acknowledged on Twitter that no children were actually present. That didn’t seem to diminish their harassment of attendees and counterprotesters.
We know the kind of violence the Proud Boys and their ilk relish, as the recent Jan. 6 hearings have shown to brutal effect. Police in Idaho last weekend arrested members of the white nationalist Patriot Front militia before an attempted assault on a Pride parade. It’s not a stretch to see how one of these confrontations could escalate further.
That all this is taking place during Pride Month is a stark reminder that no matter how many Emmys “RuPaul’s Drag Race” wins, no matter how ingrained drag culture has become in America writ large, the struggle is not over. There are still men and women who want so badly to see gender norms rigidly enforced that they will harm others to do so.
I somehow doubt that they will like what will happen if push comes to shove, though. Before Pride went corporate, Stonewall was a riot led in part by drag queens and trans women, as my activist friends like to remind people. History shows us that in the face of oppression and violence, the LGBTQ community will not go quietly. But it’s also worth noting that for all the emphasis on protecting children, it is more likely going to be a Proud Boy’s actions that hurt a child at story time than a drag queen’s.