The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ron DeSantis’s drag show comments foretell a vile trend

A child gets makeup applied by drag queen Panda Dulce during a "We Are All Queens" event in San Francisco in 2017. (Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Fresh off defending parental rights in education, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a new cause: using the power of the state to harass parents who see drag performances as family entertainment.

Last week, DeSantis (R) projected distress after video emerged of children attending a “Drag the Kids to Pride” show in Texas. “That is totally inappropriate,” he said. “That is not something children should be exposed to.” He added: “We have child protective statutes on the books,” and “we may have the ability to deal with something like that.”

DeSantis is not the first conservative to treat child protective services (CPS) as a potential political tool. Last year, Tucker Carlson urged his viewers to report parents whose children wore masks outside. Texas has already started investigating parents who allow their transgender children to receive medical interventions.

We should name this vile trend for what it is: child exploitation for political gain.

A CPS investigation is one of the most invasive, disruptive experiences that families can live through. And the consequences of turning an important, high-stakes tool for ensuring child welfare into a culture-war instrument are almost too awful to contemplate.

The stigma of being charged with negligence, neglect or abuse can be personally and professional annihilating, even when the allegations prove to be unfounded. Hiring a lawyer to represent a family during an investigation, or to fight an emergency order removing a child from their family home, can be hugely expensive.

Asking a child to defend the way they’ve been raised is to put an inappropriate burden on them to keep their family together. And if the worst comes to pass, government employees might take a child from a loving, caring family and place them in an environment that is less safe and nurturing.

Weaponizing protective services reports could also make it easier for people to file CPS complaints as a form of abuse or persecution.

Given how invasive CPS investigations are, people who initiate them with allegations that are found to be “maliciously false” face legal penalties in many states. But if politics, or even lower-stakes choices about covid-19 risk management or family entertainment, can become the basis of investigations, it will be easier for bad actors to target their enemies without fear of prosecution for making up allegations.

What’s more, frivolous complaints could easily clog up the system, making it harder for case workers to assess genuinely dangerous situations. And distorting the profession in this way could attract people more interested in political skullduggery than in child welfare, while driving dedicated professionals out of the system.

When it comes to public policy, what is in the best interests of children — and who gets to decide — present a paradox.

Society gives children certain common experiences, such as access to public education. Yet it grants enormous latitude to parents to make decisions about many other aspects of their children’s lives. Those choices can be as substantial as whether to circumcise a baby or as minor as giving in and deciding that yes, fine, a 3-year-old can wear a ballerina costume to school.

There aren’t objectively correct answers for the many conundrums parents face. But because decisions about parenting are so deeply felt and highly subjective, it’s easy to look at another family and interpret difference as malice, latitude as neglect or stringency as abuse.

The only way to preserve autonomy for all families is for the government to refrain from trying to adjudicate parenting decisions that are matters of taste and personal politics.

Even conservative parents who regard drag performers with horror should be wary of hurling themselves down this slickest of slippery slopes.

Should CPS scrutinize parents who let 9-year-olds watch R-rated movies or Tucker Carlson? What about adults whose lax approach to their browser settings allows their children to stumble into cesspools of pornography or white supremacy? Should parents who own guns be subject to weekly checks to ensure they’re securing their weapons properly?

These hypotheticals are not hyperbole. People have called CPS on parents for letting children play alone in the backyard, for the sin of being a recovering addict whose child was born with a rare medical condition, even for urging a hungry child to learn how to use a can opener.

It’s one thing for a family to suffer through a CPS ordeal because of someone else’s mistake or tragic misjudgment. But to whip up false moral panics over drag queens or covid caution — to subject parents and children to investigation as a form of gleeful political point-scoring — is outrageous.

Childhood is a special time, and parents’ child-rearing decisions have real consequences. With their latest reckless crusades, politicians such as DeSantis seem willing to place children in peril for the sake of their own ambition and vanity.