Just as these ancestors lived and made art as authentic as possible, so do today’s drag artists. Our art has never really been about deception. Drag is about unashamed self-expression and free thinking about others – about showing respect and caring for everyone and all ways we present ourselves. It’s enlightening and not particularly serious at the same time; In Drag, we playfully discard our assumptions about how a man or woman “should” act so that we can find our own way of being. And drag is certainly nothing dangerous.
The critics who used to cry do so because they don’t understand drag. They do not want. Right-wing politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene Georgia and Arizona Senator Vince Leach are not trying to inform the public of a real threat when they condemn drag acts. Their inflammatory speeches and scaremongering have only one aim: to recirculate deeply homophobic stereotypes about grooming to defend their campaign against queer and transgender existence.
If these conservatives knew about queer history, they would know that despite the pain they might inflict on us, their demonization of queer people and our culture will never truly make us go away.
We have often seen a sad pendulum swing in America over the last century: the greater our visibility, the more violent their backlash. It happened with the popular Rockland Palace proms in Harlem in the 1920s and the subsequent nationwide pansy craze of the 30s, waves of raucous drag parties and queer life. It happened again with the boom in “female impersonator” shows in the ’60s and ’70s, and in the ’90s with New York’s Wigstock generation and club kids. Now we’re in the midst of a drag race-driven resurgence. Every time drag has broken through to mainstream audiences, the uninformed have tried to marginalize us again.
It is significant that conservatives have focused the drag debate on children. Drag is no less appropriate than other forms of entertainment. Whilst most of our bar and club shows are designed for adults like all artists, we edit our performances to be squeaky clean for a family friendly audience. Whether the opponents of the queer community know it or not, they do know that prejudice must be taught, and early on. Drafting legislation to ban children from performing is far less about the imagined sexual dangers of a drag show than it is about the imagined dangers of not instilling fear and shame in children about queerness from an early age.
More than anything, drag is an antidote to that fear and shame. A child who sees queens and kings twirling around on stage in costumes acting absurdly and authentically in front of society as a whole inevitably develops empathy and tolerance. I think that’s healthy! But these are ominous traits in the eyes of many powerful people who seek to stamp out true gender equality.
Of course, if hateful politicians drove us out of the public libraries and our (popular!) children’s book readings there, we’d still have our bars. And if we were kicked out of our bars, we’d have our parties and our parks, our bodies and our lives. Part of the story of drag is how we’ve always found ways to change the world around us to make room for our lives. But aren’t we further criminalized and feared for who we are?
Queer people are real, even in the face of injustice and discrimination. We deserve to be treated equally, whether or not you like our genders, our art, or our clothes. Just get to know us. Let your children get to know us; The next generation should be introduced to the world as fully and honestly as possible, so they can figure out exactly where they fit in—and celebrate where others fit in too.
Drag can be that introduction, both for children and for anyone who has enough wonder in them to open their hearts to something new. The people who spread hateful lies about this art form are the dangerous, deceitful ones. Underneath all the wigs and makeup and false eyelashes — and maybe a little bit because of them — we’re saying some truth.