A not-small number of hours in my early 20s were spent attending drag shows in a basement-level gay club in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. What you would do is arrive around midnight when “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé was playing, and by the time you’d heard “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé for the eighth or 40th replay, it was time to go home.
In between were drag performers. Drag kings, mostly (this was ladies’ night), who would dress in fedoras or leather chaps and lip-sync to James Brown or Justin Timberlake. There was a performer who went by Ken Vegas. My friends and I thought Ken Vegas was a bona fide celebrity, and I’ve never really recovered from learning that Ken was just Kendra in daylight hours and worked in graphic design.
It was silly, it was campy — Lord, how many debates we could skirt these days if only every Republican would read and understand Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” — and it made me think in new ways about what it meant to behave as a man, or behave as a woman, to perform masculinity or perform femininity.
“Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” Sontag wrote. “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”
Anyway, the reason I’ve fallen down this particular memory hole is because drag performers — queens, especially — are having a moment right now, and that moment is located in the sizzling pits of hell. Some conservatives have decided that — forget about childhood poverty, or vaccine paranoia, or lax gun laws — the real threat to our children is when performers in glamorous hair and makeup come to libraries to teach lessons of tolerance and self-acceptance and read books out loud.
And so I’ve been asking myself whether I would have been comfortable with those performers reading a story to my daughter in the children’s section of the library on Tuesday morning. The answer I’ve been able to come up with is, Does anybody have Ken Vegas’s number?
This is where we’re at: Earlier this month, a group of far-right Proud Boys disrupted a Drag Queen Story Hour event in California, shouting homophobic insults at parents and librarians (sometimes, to protect children, you apparently must behave in a way that, as a responding police officer put it, was “causing people to fear for their safety”). The same week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted, “I’m introducing a bill to make it illegal for children to be exposed to Drag Queen performances.” Mentions of “drag queen story hour” increased by nearly 800 percent this month, according to NBC News, with mentions driven by the voices of people who want to couch the activity as unsavory and dangerous.
A conservative thinker, who once drove panic over the phrase “critical race theory,” joined the fray to offer a snappy rebrand of these story hours, which were started in 2015 and exist in cities around the country. “Conservatives should start using the phrase ‘trans stripper’ in lieu of ‘drag queen,’” Christopher Rufo offered on Twitter. “It has a more lurid set of connotations and shifts the debate to sexualization.”
First of all, honey, if you understood the shapewear and scaffolding that goes into such costuming, you would know that no drag queen wants to bare all or even bare most. Second, drag queens — who typically perform as women — and transgender folks are not the same thing. Third, the bad faith in Rufo’s argument is explicit. The debate must be shifted “to sexualization,” because without such a shift, there would be no debate. There would just be a nice queen in heavy eyeliner reading “The Little Engine That Could.” In my imagination, she’s in Florida and she goes by Rhonda Santis. Campy, yes. Sexy, no.
Proponents of recent state education bills known to critics as “don’t say gay” legislation argued that their issue wasn’t with LGBTQ people. It was about parental rights and parents wanting to control what their young children were being taught in public schools. But parental rights are not an issue here. Nobody is forcing any parent to take their child to a Drag Queen Story Hour. The children who do attend are not being exposed to pornography. They are being exposed to children’s books for children.
The uproar over such a sincerely wholesome event makes it plain what the issue really is: not parental rights. Not sexualization. Not the content of what the drag queens are reading to the kids. It’s the existence of drag queens. It’s the idea that someone might present in a way that was at odds with a certain vision of how men or women should dress or present or behave. “The mainstreaming of drag in general is a terrible development,” a research fellow with the Heritage Foundation wrote on Twitter. “Even if it’s legal it’s abhorrent.”
When right-wing voices started talking about “grooming,” I assumed they had genuine, if delusional, fears that LGBTQ-identifying or LGBTQ-sympathetic adults would molest their children. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that when some people talk about “grooming,” what they mean is not necessarily “grooming for sex.” What they may mean, instead, is “grooming for life.” Grooming children for a big, accepting, openhearted kind of life in which there are many worse things in the world than a little boy who grows up to do an uncanny impersonation of Cher. Grooming children to accept themselves and accept others who may look different or talk differently than they do.
It’s important to note what a terrible backslide this is. The “mainstreaming of drag” isn’t a new development, it’s a part of American culture. “The Birdcage,” a big box-office movie about a conservative family learning to embrace their future son-in-law and the drag royalty from which he descends, came out 26 years ago. A few years before that, Robin Williams starred in the family-friendly crowd-pleaser “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which ends with his character hosting a children’s television show — in drag.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” debuted on a major network in 2009. Nobody seemed overly concerned about “the children” when Rudy Giuliani dressed in glamorous drag for a skit in 2000 or when, in the same skit, Donald Trump motorboated Giuliani’s padded chest. Heck, Bugs Bunny has been doing drag for 80 years.
This is not about drag queens, either the ones who sit in library chairs or the ones who lip-sync to Beyoncé in the basements of gay nightclubs. This is not about children’s welfare, either.
What this is about is a conniving subset of people who say they care about children’s welfare but who really care about marshaling outrage toward vulnerable scapegoats. Maybe they have turned their attention to drag queens because they, too, are engaged in theater: a never-ending performance in which they heroically take on one supposedly sinister villain after another: feminists, Muslims, Black Lives Matter protesters, Hunter Biden, migrant caravans, and so on.
In any case, this current drama has two clear sides. On one side you have flamboyant, dramatic characters who are trying to mess with the minds of children. And on the other side you have drag queens.