The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
You don’t have to be a regular viewer of a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race, or even be aware of its existence, to have been entertained by drag at some point in your life.
Drag, defined as performing or exaggerating a gender expression often different to your own (typically done by men but also cisgender women, trans women, and non-binary people) has long been part of entertainment culture. Due to the historical prohibition of women performing on stage, thousands of years ago men in Ancient Greece would dress up as and play female characters on stage. This was still a standard theatre practise in Shakespeare’s day where all-male theatre companies would play both the male and female characters. More recently, drag personas and characters such as Paul O’Grady’s ‘Lily Savage’, Robin William’s ‘Mrs Doubtfire’, Tyler Perry’s ‘Madea’ and Brendan O’Carroll’s ‘Agnes Brown’ from Mrs Brown’s Boys, have been part of mainstream entertainment. And when you consider films like Some Like It Hot (1959), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Hairspray (1988) and White Chicks (2004) to name a few, musical theatre shows such as Kinky Boots and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and the very existence of pantomime dames, it is hard to deny how established drag is in modern popular culture.
This begs the question, therefore, as to why a wave of anti-drag legislation is suddenly sweeping America. Since the start of this year, at least 32 bills targeting drag performances, with more to follow, have been filed in states such as Arizona, Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Kansas. While the exact legislation varies in each state, Tennessee’s is the most extreme in being the first state to completely ban drag shows in public spaces with the threat of misdemeanour or felony charges if disobeyed. Legislation in other states includes designating anywhere that hosts drag performances as an “adult” or sexually oriented business, meaning it would be illegal for it to be located within certain distances of schools or residential areas. For example, at least four different bills in Texas aim to include venues that host drag performances in the same category as adult cinemas and strip clubs.
This argument for the sexual and, according to the Tennessee bill, “prurient” nature of drag feeds into the increasing disapproval from many towards programmes such as Drag Story Hour in which “storytellers [use] the art of drag to read books to kids in libraries, schools and bookstores”. The programme aims to provide children with “positive, and unabashedly queer role models” who “defy rigid gender restrictions” allowing them to “imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves”. However, it has come under fire from many who argue the deviant existence of drag performers is dangerous and damaging to children.
Many point out the staggering hypocrisy of this argument often raised by those who would support the right to bear arms in America, a country that in 2022 saw a record high 300 school shootings and over 6000 children killed by gun violence.
It is also important to reiterate the fact that drag as an art form is not inherently sexual. While of course some drag shows do exist that include elements of a sexual nature and it is correct to prohibit children from attending these sorts of drag shows, there are many types of drag, like Drag Story Hour, that are not at all sexualised. Being selective as parents and caregivers about what types of drag children are exposed to is no different to ensuring children watch films of the correct age rating or spend time at a playground with their friends rather than a strip club, for example, and is very easily achieved. It never has or will be the case that all drag is “prurient” and therefore “dangerous” to children.
The implications of these anti-drag legislations are not only incredibly harmful for the livelihoods of drag performers, but they are dangerous for trans people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Most of the bills define a drag performer as someone performing while using dress, makeup and mannerisms associated with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth meaning this may limit the way trans people are able to freely exercise self-expression through the clothes they wear and the way they act.
As human rights advocate Suzanne Nossel notes, “by targeting drag performers, lawmakers intend to intimidate transgender and non-binary performers and shows into hiding” which is all part of “a wider backlash against the increased visibility of transgender and non-binary identities”. Therefore, not only are these bills directly harmful to drag and LGBTQ+ communities, but they represent a “chilling attack on free speech” in America. “In the name of curbing drag, legislatures across the country are dragging down first amendment freedoms for all”, an amendment that states that clothing choices are a constitutionally protected form of expression.
RuPaul himself, in a video shared on the RuPaul’s Drag Race Twitter account, offers a reason for these bills. Calling them “a classic distraction technique”, he argues that lawmakers are “distracting us away from the real issues that they were voted into office to focus on: jobs, healthcare, keeping our children safe from harm at their own school”. He goes onto say: “But we know that bullies are incompetent at solving real issues, they look for easy targets so that they can give the impression of being effective. They think our love, our light, our laughter, and our joy are signs of weakness, but they’re wrong because that is our strength”, before encouraging Americans to register to vote so that they can “put some smart people, with real solutions into government”.
Therefore, contrary to the views of many that it is a new phenomenon, drag has existed in society, in one form or another, harmlessly for thousands of years. Rather than it being a danger to children, hugely popular shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, that provide an even more mainstream platform for drag, and programmes like Drag Story Hour, instead demonstrate the way that drag, as an expressive art form, not only encourages and empowers everyone to love and celebrate their authentic selves, particularly those who don’t align with conventional gender identity norms, but also emphasises the importance that they are loved and celebrated for who they are. This message of acceptance, unity, and unapologetic self-expression in a world so often full of bigotry, intolerance and division can surely only ever be beneficial and enriching for children rather than dangerous… no matter what any discriminatory legislation hopes to suggest.