The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What a drag queen’s criticism of Kari Lake says about the GOP

Kari Lake, left, a GOP candidate for Arizona governor who has criticized drag, poses with drag queen Richard Stevens. According to Stevens, the pair were friends for more than 20 years and Lake attended at least 15 shows. (Courtesy of Richard Stevens)

Kari Lake is a former local news anchor in Arizona who decided to run for governor and made herself into one of the most unhinged election conspiracy theorists on the ballot anywhere in the country. That got her Donald Trump’s endorsement and put in her in position to win the Republican nomination.

But now — because people love stories about “hypocrisy” — Lake is getting national attention for the clash between her far-right views and a drag queen’s claims about her.

If you want to understand the turnabout conservatives have made on LGBTQ rights in just a matter of months, you couldn’t ask for a better case study than this.

The facts in brief: Lake, like so many Republicans at the moment, has sought to use the new right-wing sex panic in her primary, accusing President Biden of promoting “this perverted sexual agenda of grooming our children.” And like other Republicans, she has taken particular aim at drag queens.

Which didn’t sit well with Richard Stevens, a onetime friend of Lake’s who performs as Barbra Seville. Stevens posted photos of himself in drag with Lake to Facebook, claiming to have performed for her on numerous occasions. Indeed, in a now-removed Instagram post from 2014, Lake, a former Democrat, wrote: “Half of what I know about makeup I learned from watching friends like @barbraseville.”

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be, for a couple of reasons.

First, until recently, even most conservatives had come to a place where they regarded drag not as a terrifying threat to the innocence of children but as a whimsical and amusing corner of the culture. Maybe you liked it (as Lake clearly did) or maybe it made you a little uncomfortable, but it was harmless. Nobody was terrified by “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

But now Republicans are supposed to say that drag is worse than satanic cults, the water fluoridation conspiracy, and the Garbage Pail Kids put together. So that’s what party leaders claim to believe.

Second, a key factor in the political normalization of gay rights was that by and large, Republican elites are okay with gay people. That is true to an extent of the Republican masses as well (or at least more true all the time), but party leaders move in circles where there’s a reasonable amount of acceptance of equality.

So when the politics of gay rights shifted — by around 2011 a majority of Americans said they believed in marriage equality, and the figure is now over 70 percent — those elite Republicans were happy to put the issue aside and not fight battles they weren’t going to win anyway. When the Supreme Court mandated marriage equality in 2015, many of them were relieved — they didn’t care about it substantively, and it meant the issue was largely off the table.

The average Republican politician still officially opposes same-sex marriage, but they aren’t going to do anything about it. They’ll support legal efforts to ensure that an evangelical baker won’t have to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, but they know that only a small (and very conservative) portion of the population pays any attention to that, so there’s no cost to it.

So for all intents and purposes, until this year the Republican Party had pretty much surrendered the fight over gay rights. Which served to convince liberals that social progress moves in one direction: toward greater equality, more inclusiveness, more understanding, and a better world. It may be painfully slow much of the time, but as Martin Luther King Jr.’s second-most-quoted words have it, the arc of history bends toward justice.

Conservatives, on the other hand, never thought that was true. Their belief system is based not only on preserving what they value but rolling back liberal advancements when they have the opportunity. Which now they do.

Because of two important factors — their complete capture of the Supreme Court and the excitement of a coming midterm election in which they stand to make substantial gains — Republicans are feeling spectacularly bold. They believe, with good reason, that they are insulated from accountability for broadly unpopular positions, and that this is the perfect moment to wield the politics of backlash on race and sexuality.

Today, Lake calls Richard Stevens “once a friend” and says she’ll sue him for defamation over his “fake story” (though for what, it’s unclear; she hasn’t disputed the facts of anything he has said). Seeing photos of her alongside her drag queen friend, I think she might have left the sex panic aside and focused her campaign on other issues that might rile up the GOP base, such as election conspiracies and fearmongering on immigration.

Is it hypocritical? Of course it is; if there’s a principle people won’t sacrifice in the name of political ambition, we have yet to discover it. And the lives of LGBTQ people are already being harmed by the venomous campaign to scapegoat and vilify them. But once something like this gets rolling, it generates its own momentum and every Republican has to join in.