How Drag Artists Became the Far Right’s Ultimate Villains

https://www.them.us/story/drag-gop-right-wing-attacks-explained

I wonder if the far right republican fascist hate drag because it is the opposite of what they are.   Drag is about exploring boundaries, about expressing yourself, about color and fun.  What is authoritarian fascism about?  doing what you are told, stay in the line, don’t be an individual, don’t be colorful, always fit nicely in the boxes.  Hugs

Over the past year, the sense of safety and joy experienced at drag performances has been punctured and replaced.

“Baby, you’re a plaaaaaaastic bag,” sings the drag queen Per Sia, parodying Katy Perry’s “Firework” as reusable tote bags sail around a usually-silent library in San Francisco. The children around her delight in the chaos, hanging on to Sia’s every word. Between sermons on the importance of reducing plastic and loving yourself, the kids leap up, grab the floating tote bags, and begin to dance. Their bodies wiggle with glee as they experience the joy — costumes! music! dance! — of drag. 

The scene would be familiar to any kindergarten teacher: “It’s the play and pleasure of reading time, but dialed up a few notches,” says Harper Keenan, a Professor of Education and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. Keenan is referring to Drag Story Hour, events where drag performers read, sing, and make crafts with children in schools, libraries, and bookstores across the country. 

Sia, who is an elementary school teacher, says that when she began performing for Drag Story Hours, “we would walk into schools and get treated like royalty.” Initially the opportunity to integrate her expertise in early childhood education with drag was a dream come true. It was a chance to embody her full humanity and show students that a world existed in which they could unapologetically be themselves, too.

 

Over the past year, however, that sense of safety and joy has been punctured and replaced with a miasma of fear and danger. A year ago, a sizeable backlash against the art form seemed an improbability, but this year, threats against drag performances across the country, including Drag Story Hours, have increased in number and hostility. In Oklahoma, a donut shop was fire-bombed for the second time this year after hosting a drag performance. In Nevada, a man identified as a member of the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, interrupted a Drag Story Hour reading with a gun, forcing the children in attendance to flee for safety. And in California, a group of eight Proud Boys stormed into a library where drag performer Panda Dulce was reading to children. The men made white power hand gestures and hurtled homophobic and transphobic comments at Dulce, who was rushed out of the room, along with the children. According to several parents in attendance, the far-right protesters were traumatizing the children they claimed to want to protect. 

These are just some specific examples of a worsening trend. This already-horrific year, which saw at least 124 significant threats and protests against drag performances, according to a November report from GLAAD, was punctuated by immense tragedy on November 19, when a shooter killed five people during a “Drag Divas” night at Club Q in Colorado Springs. An art form that has provided LGBTQ+ people a sense of community for decades has been weaponized against them, and has forced drag queens to question what safety means in a culture intent on causing them harm. 

Per Sia courtesy of the artist.

Per Sia, courtesy of the artist.

The current string of attacks against drag performers is part of a broader movement by the far-right to demonize LGBTQ+ people, including by claiming they are “groomers” and “pedophiles,” and therefore a threat to young children. Across the media landscape, from Fox News host Tucker Carlson to the far-right podcast InfoWars, conservative pundits are increasingly perpetuating the dangerous, harmful lie that proximity to drag queens and trans and nonbinary people increases the likelihood of child abuse. 

 

Accounts like Libs of TikTok, a conservative social media account that has become notorious for anti-queer and anti-drag rhetoric, post videos making fun of LGBTQ+ people and drag performers without context or consent. The video has also been caught posting doctored videos that make it seem as if drag queens are performing sexually in front of children, even if the videos are blatantly false. Criminal investigators even believe that Libs of TikTok may have provoked the Proud Boys attack on Drag Story Hour in California. In a segment from October, Carlson, who has been a vocal supporter of the social media account, called on his three million nightly viewers to “arm” themselves against drag performers. This messaging has been dangerously effective: according to the Human Rights Campaign, there was a 406% increase in tweets using “groomer” or “pedophile” in the first six months of 2022. Tragically, there has been accompanying escalation of attacks on drag performers during the same period. 

“The LGBTQ+ community is constantly at the whim of disinformation and misinformation,” activist Raquel Willis wrote on Instagram the day after the Colorado Springs shooting. “Hateful politicians craft dangerous narratives about us and encourage the general public to continue to do the same. Ignorance is disgusting AF and we need to be vigilant about confronting it.”  

As Willis notes, these in-person acts of violence are often stoked — and, in some cases, engineered — by far-right politicians. Florida Governor Ron Desantis has stated that parents who bring children to drag shows should be investigated for child abuse. Florida Senator Marco Rubio even featured Lil Miss Hot Mess, a member of Drag Story Hour, in a reelection campaign video in which he claimed that the “radical left” seeks to “indoctrinate children and turn boys into girls.” These politicians foster a climate of fear in which hatred and misinformation proliferates. 

However, as many drag performers are quick to point out, this rhetoric obscures the fact that gender identity and drag are distinct, though sometimes overlapping, categories. Both cisgender men and transgender women, for example, can do drag. Crucially, though, “drag generally refers to a kind of consciously artistic performance intended for an audience. In contrast, trans people do not seek primarily to entertain,” wrote Keenan and Lil’ Miss Hot Mess in a June 2021 academic article about Drag Story Hour. 

According to Keenan, though, violence against drag queens is rooted in transmisogyny, or the intersection of transphobia and misogyny as experienced by trans women and transfeminine people. In videos such as Rubio’s, the phrase “turning boys into girls” exemplifies this trans and femme-phobic line of attack, and the underlying truth that the far-right’s goal is not simply to stop all-ages drag performances. It is to exploit transphobia for political points, no matter the cost to human life. 

In a year in which over 300 state bills have been introduced to curb LGBTQ+ student and teacher rights, what’s become clear is that a rising right-wing moral panic against LGBTQ+ people — including smearing drag performers as groomers, nonbinary children as mentally ill, and gender-affirming healthcare providers as pedophiles — has ensnared the drag community. Today, after Club Q, it’s become increasingly clear that this rhetoric has concrete, real-world ramifications. 

How Drag Artists Became the Far Right's Ultimate Villains
Guy Smallman/Getty Images

“It’s the scariest it’s ever been. I fear for my safety, even when I’m not doing Story Hour,” said Sia. The attacks have left many drag performers feeling torn between doing what they love and subjecting themselves to the possibility of violence, leading some drag queens to pause or stop their performances altogether. Programmers at one San Antonio music venue, were forced to cancel an entire season of drag performances due to violent threats. In North Carolina, when the power went out during a drag performance, performers said their immediate instinct was to listen for gunfire.  

Paradoxically, some experts believe that the far-right has taken such extreme steps against drag performances because drag has become so popular. The visibility of shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag brunches, and online drag personalities have enabled performers to share their unique vision of liberation—and millions of people have found that vision appealing. 

 

Drag Story Hours and family brunches, in particular, have helped LGBTQ+ youth feel accepted and seen. Keenan notes the surprising number of straight parents among attendees of drag story hours and brunches nationwide. “They’re looking for resources,” he says, to provide their children with a LGBTQ+ affirming space that they may not know how to cultivate at home. It is a chance to move past the rigid expectations of gender they were raised with, and offer their children something new.

All of this visibility comes at a cost. It has drawn attention to some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community, such as the trans, queer, and femme people of color who pioneered the “iconic” dance moves and looks we now associate with drag, without protection. “If what you really want is to target queerness and transness, then drag is a huge part of that. It’s a visible celebration of culture,” said the attorney Chase Strangio in a recent interview with The Atlantic.

How Drag Artists Became the Far Right's Ultimate Villains
Boston Globe/Getty Images

Indeed, in the midst of escalating fear and violence, drag performances continue to offer a unique form of celebration as resistance. This impulse toward new worlds was on full display during a recent prom for LGBTQ+ youth in Birmingham, Alabama. During the drag portion of the night, performer Sharon Cocx unexpectedly stopped in the middle of her set. 

“You can be anything you want to be. You can be president, you can change the world,” she told the crowd. After such a difficult year in the state — Alabama has passed some of the strictest anti-trans legislation in the country — it was a cathartic moment of release for the directly-impacted teens there. According to several people who attended the event, many were in tears by the end of the speech. This is drag’s unique power: to challenge the conditions of the present, and embody a longed-for future. 

The day after the attack in San Lorenzo, Per Sia had a performance a few miles away in Piedmont, CA. When she arrived at the library, half a dozen police officers were outside with their sirens on, “which was triggering in and of itself,” she said. Since many performers, like Sia, are queer people of color, the presence of police at performances can feel like a compounding of the violence they face, not an alleviation of it. As a result, organizers across the country have created safety plans rooted in abolitionist frameworks. These plans seek to keep children and performers safe without involving the police. 

 

As Sia entered the library, several staff members walked her through a hastily developed safety plan, which Sia had never experienced before. They walked up a claustrophobic flight of stairs. “If anything happens, I will bring you up here,” the librarian said, “Then go down this hall and hide under that desk. If anything happens, do not come out until you hear my voice.” In her decades of teaching children and performing drag, it was unlike anything Sia had experienced before. It was terrifying in a visceral, cruel way. 

“It was a hard pill to swallow,” she said, “but queer folks are resilient. We have always had to fight for our basic needs to be met, and simply to exist.” The performance took place in the library’s parking lot during a cloudless, blue summer day. The sunlight streamed over Sia as she read to the jam-packed crowd, who hung on her every word. Many had come to support Drag Story Hour in response to the previous day’s violence. “It was beautiful,” she said. “It really, really was.”   

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