Drag exploded in popularity. Then came the protests and attacks.

Many drag performers say this era is an inflection point for the art form and LGBTQ rights

D’Manda Martini worries drag could be pushed back underground.
D’Manda Martini worries drag could be pushed back underground. (Shuran Huang/For The Washington Post)

On a sweltering Saturday morning in July, several dozen people steeled themselves for a fight outside a library in a quiet Maryland suburb.

They were defending something they saw as essential, and they were willing to put themselves on the line for it: a story time for toddlers, led by a drag queen.

In some ways, the crowd outside the Drag Queen Story Hour in Kensington, Md. — moms and kids, a rabbi and a priest, a mayor and a state representative — marked how far drag has come. A largely underground performance art until as recently as 20 years ago, drag has by many measures gone mainstream. Parents of young children see it as a form of entertainment, members of the LGBTQ community have embraced it and elected officials are defending it.

But recent threats toward the drag community serve as a reminder that not everyone is ready to welcome them. In June, members of the far-right Proud Boys stormed into another Drag Queen Story Hour in California, yelling homophobic and transphobic remarks and prompting a hate-crime investigation. Later that month, a man carrying a rifle outside a drag story time in Nevada sent families running for cover. The same day, library security escorted a group of protesting men out of a drag program in Silver Spring, Md. Other events have been canceled out of fear of backlash.

And at the Kensington event, a small group of protesters stood across the parking lot, filming the counterprotesters and occasionally engaging them in arguments over religious objections to drag.

The protests against family-friendly drag events nationwide come as right-wing extremists and some politicians have in recent months falsely asserted that drag queens “groom” children, employing a line of attack increasingly used on the right to undermine gay rights more broadly. Republican lawmakers in several states are proposing legislation to bar minors from attending drag shows.

The growing appeal of drag, which showcases the fluidity of gender, has become a beacon of progress for many in the LGBTQ community, as has an increasing number of transgender and gender-nonconforming people openly challenging rigid gender norms. But performers say the increase in protests and violence at events threatens to drive drag back underground, and with it an important symbol of visibility.

Drag performers themselves are rattled and wondering what is next for the profession. “We are reaching one of those culminating points where the scale has got to tip,” Bella Naughty, a drag queen who performs in the Washington area, said at the Maryland library counterprotest.

“There is a bigger backlash against drag queens, there is a bigger backlash against the LGBTQ+ community and people of color, no matter what group you are in,” Naughty continued. “We are in it not just for drag, but for the greater picture.”

‘Any notion of gender’

For most of its history in the United States, drag has existed on the fringes, kept alive by marginalized communities. Historians consider William Dorsey Swann — a Black, openly gay man born into slavery in Maryland — to be the first American to label himself a “queen of drag,” performing at balls around Washington with other formerly enslaved men in the late 19th century.

From there, drag developed as a part of the widely popular vaudeville theater of the early 1900s, according to Joe Jeffreys, a lecturer at the New School in New York. Drag shows had to be held mostly in homes, away from the public eye.

Jeffreys said the proliferation of drag shows in gay bars only occurred after the Stonewall riots in 1969, and even then, drag performers faced stigma from within the gay community for the way they presented gender as malleable.

“Drag is itself breaking any notion of gender,” he said.

In 1994, as the organizers of New York City Pride prepared to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, they “let it be known that they really did not care for drag or it to be seen necessarily in their parade,” Jeffreys said. In response, a group organized the New York City Drag March, an alternative event before the main parade that continues today.

Clinton Leupp, who has performed as Miss Coco Peru since 1992, said that early in his career even gay friends considered it a “dangerous and dirty” profession. “Calling yourself a drag queen was the lowest of the lowest thing you could be in the gay community,” Leupp said.

That has changed in the past two decades. The venues for drag have shifted from underground nightclubs to drag brunches and corporate events. And so too has the audience, from mostly gay men to teenage girls, straight adults and even toddlers, since Drag Queen Story Hour was founded in 2015 and expanded to nearly 50 chapters nationwide. Now, drag can be a viable full-time career.

Performers credit the rapid mainstreaming to two primary factors: the internet, which allowed drag to reach a wider audience in their homes, and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the Emmy Award-winning reality show now in its 14th season. For drag queens featured on the show, in which they compete in challenges to be crowned “America’s next drag superstar,” it can change their lives.

Latrice Royale, who has been performing drag for 30 years, said her career was a “slow burn” of nightclubs and amateur shows until she auditioned for the fourth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2012. “That really changed my world and the world of drag,” she said. Royale now has a residency at the Flamingo Hotel on the Vegas Strip, where she performs in a live show featuring contestants from the show.

Drag is sometimes conflated with being transgender, but the two are distinct in that drag is not a gender identity in itself. In fact, transgender drag queens and kings can sometimes face stigma from within the drag community because the profession originated with cisgender, gay men performing as women, performers say. That has changed in recent years, thanks in part to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” said Miss Peppermint, who became the first openly transgender woman featured on the show in 2017.

“I have had to fight with people in the community to let them know that trans women deserve a spot when it comes to the art form of drag,” Peppermint said. “It is something that people had to become accustomed to and now that is more mainstream.”

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” has had both positive and negative effects on the industry, performers say. Kareem Khubchandani, an associate professor of theater, dance and performance studies at Tufts University who also performs in drag around the country, said the show has largely popularized one form of drag, “cisgender men performing in glamorous feminine styles,” over its many subcultures. RuPaul, the host, declined an interview for this story through his agent.

‘An easier new target’

As drag expands to new venues outside of queer spaces, it has also become more of a target for attacks. “There is a big backlash of people being like, ‘Okay, well, you guys have had enough,’” said D’Manda Martini, a drag queen in the District.

Martini was leading a Drag Queen Story Hour at a library in Silver Spring in late June when at least three men without children walked in and began to film her reading, she said. They soon started to interject, yelling about how Martini would face God’s judgment until they were confronted by parents and escorted out by security.

Martini said the incident rattled her, but she managed to finish the reading and security guards accompanied her to her car. “I now am the proud owner of a mini lavender Mace,” she said. The pushback has had a chilling effect elsewhere.

Amid threats, a story hour in Apex, N.C., was canceled in June but reinstated after community members stepped in, local media reported. And a bar in Woodland, Calif., rescheduled a drag happy hour in June after right-wing extremists arrived, according to the Los Angeles Times, one of a number of Pride Month events threatened by far-right violence this year.

Performers say this type of prejudice is familiar to drag performers and the LGBTQ community as a whole, which has long been falsely maligned by accusations of pedophilia. What is new is the targeting of family-friendly drag events by protesters and conservative lawmakers. In Florida, Texas, Arizona and other states, politicians have introduced or said they would introduce legislation banning drag events for minors, arguing that such performances are not appropriate for children.

Martini said she believes drag performance has always been a political statement, but brunches and story hours make “an easier new target” because they happen “in broad daylight” and have children in the audience. “They can’t be outright calling us slurs anymore, so they have to find new ways and political ways of making it so that we feel like we’re not people,” she said.

An inflection point

Because many drag performers believe the profession has helped increase visibility for the LGBTQ community, they see the recent attacks as threatening more than just drag.

Ben Schatz, who has been performing drag for more than 40 years and founded the drag a cappella quartet Kinsey Sicks, said he sees the protests as “backlash to the mainstreaming of the LGBT community” and that drag is simply a front line.

“It’s a convenient target. It’s easier than making Pete Buttigieg sound scary to make someone like me sound scary,” Schatz said. Peppermint said she sees the attacks as a “red herring” and “code for ‘we don’t like gay people, we don’t like trans people, but we’re going to say drag.’”

That politicization is why combating the pushback is especially important, performers say. “Drag is actually a pivot point around gay rights, trans rights, and women’s rights. We might see them all, that sexism, transphobia and homophobia are actually all wrapped up inside of drag phobia,” Khubchandani said. “That is not a singular gay rights issue, to defend drag, but actually a trans women’s rights issue, as well.”

For Martini, this era is an inflection point for drag and LGBTQ rights more broadly. “We are just at this sort of weird meeting of, there is so much drag out there, but there is also this very real political threat. We could potentially be made illegal,” Martini said. “Everything could just be over.”

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