Pride festivities are featuring family-friendly drag queen events this year, angering conservatives who’ve organized protests outside of drag queen story hours at libraries and events like one in Dallas, “Drag Your Kid to Pride Day.”
Some of these events were canceled over protests that it’s inappropriate for kids and drag queens to hang out in the same space. Republican Texas State Rep. Bryan Slayton said he’ll try to push through legislation banning drag shows in the presence of minors. Tucker Carlson called the “Drag Your Kid to Pride” event “grotesque” and “sexualizing children.”
Others were just as mad that the events prompted so much anti-drag vitriol. Democratic California State Sen. Scott Wiener responded to Slayton on Twitter by suggesting states include drag education as part of the K-12 curriculum: “This guy just gave me a bill idea: Offering Drag Queen 101 as part of the K-12 curriculum. Attending Drag Queen Story Time will satisfy the requirement.” And video footage shows parents, who thought they were just bringing their kids to a fun community event, greeted with protesters shouting threats and angry epithets.
Historians familiar with the history of drag queens aren’t that surprised that drag queens have once again attracted controversy. Gender nonconformity, they say, has had a rocky past in the U.S. And you have to understand that history to get at why people get so riled up, said Meredith Heller — a lecturer in the women’s and gender studies program at Northern Arizona University and the author of “Queering Drag: Redefining the Discourse of Gender-Bending.” Heller spoke with Grid on how the history of drag has shaped the feelings around it today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Being a drag queen is about performance, not about gender identity
Drag is actually any type of public identity performance. So, it’s any time that you say, “I’m going to do a public theatrical performance, and I’m going to do something weird or different or nonnormative with identity.” So, drag queens don’t have to be feminine, and they don’t have to be cis men. All they have to do is want to create a conscious performance that’s messing with identity norms.
It’s different than living your life. So, trans women are women. They’re not performing anything. They’re just living their lives. Cis women are just living their lives. Even if you go into public and you put on a nice, nice dress, you’re still living your life.
Drag is a form of performance; it’s theater. All forms of theater are a form of communication. So specifically, because drag is a form of communication, somebody is doing something to communicate a message to others, which is different than just living your life.
People think any difference is upsetting. We like normalcy. We like spaces. And so any time something goes out of the box, and people think they have to adjust or live a different way, sometimes they get upset about that.
You know, I think about how prior to World War I, the color pink used to be like a manly, boy’s color. We would dress little baby boys in pink. And blue was considered a really delicate color we would dress little girls in. After the war, the meanings switched. And when people find out we used to put little boys in pink, they get really up in arms. It’s because we get really embedded in what we think are norms, right, and when those norms are questioned, we get really upset.
Gender-bending, like drag-queening, isn’t a norm because of our cultural history
If you look at other times in places and cultures, there are many different types of iterations of identity. When we think about identity, we think men and women are male and female. We got two, OK, two and only two. But in other times and places, other cultures, there was more variety. It just happens to be that this binary was part of a particular culture that was really good at colonizing other cultures. And so we see it as a norm just because it was a norm in one culture that colonized a lot of those other cultures.
So the concept of a gender binary and gender rules that we’re supposed to adhere to is actually part of a history of colonization. It’s been used historically as a tool to enforce compliance. And so when people step out of that, they’re not only stepping out of gender roles, they’re stepping out of social compliance, and some people do not like that.
When we trace the history of drag, we trace it two ways. We can look at queer cultural practices, or we can look at the history of cross-casting and theater. Historically, cross-casting — which can be the origins of drag — was very socially accepted. Because it was thought, it’s way worse to have a woman be an actor than to have a man act a woman’s role. So, historically, if you were doing the type of gender-bending in order to uphold social gender roles, it was really accepted.
Drag-queening is often conflated with homosexuality and sexual acts
We do have [historical records back in the 1800s] of people with same sex desires going to house parties or parades, or balls. And they would gender-bend. A lot of the reason they would do that is because your sexuality is actually not a visible aspect of who you are. Like, if you want to show somebody you’re a lesbian, you can do something like hold a woman’s hand or kiss a woman, but otherwise you can’t see it.
But gender-bending is very visible. So historically, we have a lot of examples with people who had same sex desire, who wanted to show it. And the way they would do that was by engaging in gender-bending. It is very closely tied even though it doesn’t have to be.
Because we have that historical connection that bending gender is an expression of your pride, a lot of people think drag queens are basically just showing off their gayness or their sexuality.
People immediately connect gayness to sexuality. So, you know, my mom’s friend asked me about having a boyfriend. She’s not envisioning me having sex. But somebody asks me if I’m a lesbian, and they instantly envision me having sex. I think that this is the issue with why people don’t like drag queen story hour. They can only see gender diversity as tied to queer sexuality. And they can only see queer sexuality as tied to sexual acts rather than larger ways of living or being in the world or just being diverse.
And the idea is they don’t want children exposed to the sexual acts. They want kids to be exposed to heterosexuality, but they just don’t see that as explicitly sexual. And people have a hard time seeing homosexuality as anything but explicitly sexual, which is a problem, because homosexuality and queerness is an identity, and identity is more than acts.
Drag is about diversity, art and expanding our imaginations
The point of drag queen story hours are just to introduce young people to a variety of diverse issues. And, if you research drag queen story hours, the drag queens and the organizations that sponsor them will very carefully choose books that show racial diversity, family diversity, body diversity. It’s really about exposing kids to a lot of different types of diversity, so they’re not shocked or freaked out when they encounter that in their everyday lives. And one of the ways is to show somebody bending gender.
Drag-queening is a form of theater. It’s a form of art. I think drag should really be appreciated on the same level that we appreciate sculptures or works of art or acting in movies. It expands our imaginations on what identities can be. It really targets one specific thing, which is how we see identities as embedded in us and shows us more possibilities.
This article has been updated. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing.