Drag queens newest targets in US culture wars
It’s the latest battlefield in America’s rolling “culture wars” over gender and education: conservatives around the country are training their sights on drag shows — assailing them as a threat to public decency and family values.
The fight is playing out on a loop on conservative TV chat shows, on the legislative front with several states taking up Republican bills seeking to curb drag events — and in sometimes violent protests.
At the heart of the debate are children’s events known as “Drag Queen Story Hour,” which have spread around the country since being launched in San Francisco in 2015 with the aim of promoting both reading and diversity.
The concept of public story-time events for young readers is tried and true, but here the twist is that the storytellers are drag artists, mostly male, who flaunt a feminine aesthetic in flamboyant costumes and wigs, high-heel stilettos, and an abundance of make-up.
The idea is hardly a shock in a country where drag has moved from niche nightlife spots into the cultural mainstream — thanks in particular to high-profile exposure on the hit television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
But that is not stopping part of the right from portraying “Drag Queen Story Hour” as a national nightmare: progressive activism gone wild at best, and at worst a sexually charged threat to “children’s innocence.”
That hardline view is about to become law. Last week in Tennessee, state lawmakers passed a controversial bill that would severely restrict drag performances in public places or in front of children.
State Senator Jack Johnson, who sponsored the legislation, says its sole purpose is “protecting” American youth.
“There are certain performances, movies, and places that are inappropriate for children,” he said in a statement.
If the governor signs the bill, it will be the first such Republican restriction against drag shows to become law — but probably not the last.
In more than a dozen states — Texas, Kansas and Arizona among them — elected officials have proposed similar legislation.
‘Love the fabulousness’
Blaine Conzatti, who helped craft an anti-drag-queen law in Idaho that was introduced Monday, said he believes these shows are indubitably “sexual in nature.”
They fall into the same category as “strip clubs” and “pornography,” Conzatti, president of the Christian group Idaho Family Policy center, told AFP.
Conzatti is aware he is part of an emerging national movement, that came together as drag events became more popular.
“Ten years ago, no parent would have imagined drag shows in public where children are present,” Conzatti said. “I mean, this would have been unthinkable.”
Drag participants and LGBTQ activists reject the ultra-sexualized image attached to the art form.
Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of “Drag Queen Story Hour,” acknowledges that while drag “does have its roots in queer nightlife,” there are “many levels to it” for different ages.
Hamilt — himself a drag queen who goes by the name Ona Louise — was the first to participate in readings in New York City.
“When I’m in drag, I feel more outgoing, I feel more funny, I feel more courageous,” he told AFP, noting his theatricality works “to enhance the story.”
And the children? “Kids love the fabulousness and the over-the-top” nature of drag’s big hair, sequins and glitter, he said.
Behind the restrictive bills, Hamilt also sees an underlying anti-LGBTQ movement. He fears for example that transgender people whose physical appearance does not match the gender on their identity documents will be targeted as drag queens.
The opposition to drag shows has sometimes taken violent turns.
Last year, there were 141 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting drag events, according to the GLAAD rights organization.
The far-right Proud Boys group regularly intrudes on these events, sending armed protesters to intimidate spectators, as they did in Ohio in December.
In mid-February, hood-wearing members of the group shouted homophobic slurs at parents entering a suburban Washington library, according to media reports.
Similar scenes are being repeated in New York, San Francisco and Texas. In response, counter-demonstrations are becoming more widespread.
Last weekend in Washington, demonstrators with rainbow umbrellas stood at a library entrance, forming a colorful phalanx protecting attendees who had come to hear the drag queens.
Equipped with loudspeakers, they played Disney hits from “The Lion King” and “Encanto” to underscore that — however fraught the politics — these events are designed first and foremost with children in mind.