A performer steps on stage. She’s wearing heels, a fierce wig and a metallic-colored dress, lip syncing to Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.” She struts the stage, tossing her hair and singing dramatically, and the audience cheers her on.
Every now and then, the performer holds an audience member’s hand and sings directly to them – eye contact and all. The audience knows when to scream, when to laugh and when to offer her a dollar. The energy and love in the room is palpable. Everyone is there to support and lift up each performer, no matter their gender or how they dress. All are welcome, and all are loved.
This is a drag show.
In the state of Tennessee, performing in drag in front of a child will be a crime.
The state passed a bill that takes effect on July 1, 2023, banning drag performances on public property or anywhere that a child could observe. The first offense is a misdemeanor that would result in jail time of up to 12 months and/or fines of up to $2,500, and the second offense is a felony resulting in one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.
Bills like these are being introduced right here in the Midwest and across the country. Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa have all proposed bills classifying drag performances as obscenities that may not be performed in front of children.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, politicians across the country introduced 315 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in 2022, the majority of which targeted trans and non-binary youth. Drag bans are just an example of one form of legislation designed to label LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans people, as dangerous.
The Drag Queen Perspective
Helvetikah Blak is a drag queen who moved from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Chicago in October of 2022 to pursue her drag career. Blak has seen firsthand how recent legislation has affected her drag family and the larger Chicago drag community. At drag events where children were present, Blak has seen performers be reluctant to participate and refuse to interact with children because they did not want to “become a Facebook post.” Blak also said she knows drag queens who are now afraid to freely participate in their art form.
Blak believes that “blue” politicians who have previously identified themselves as allies (or even appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) are not doing enough to prove their allyship when it is necessary.
“Anybody in legislation who has not said they’re pro-queer has let us all down in the last six weeks,” Blak said. “Nobody’s being like, ‘We’re not gonna ban fucking drag shows in Illinois.’ Nobody is standing up in response.”
Sigourney Beaver, a drag queen from Des Moines, Iowa, currently residing in Chicago, competed in a drag competition show called Dragula and has toured around the world. She believes that the anti-drag legislation being introduced is simply a distraction.
“It seems pretty clear that the drag bans are a distraction and a disguise for eliminating health care and rights for trans people,” Beaver said.
She adds that now that drag is mainstream, people easily get caught up in the wigs, makeup and big personalities of drag queens and don’t look deeper into what is actually being attacked in the queer community. For example, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed a bill banning gender-affirming care for trans youth into law. This law will harm countless children in the state, but drag bans are the ones getting attention because of the glitz and glamor.
Beaver’s partner, a drag king named Mick Douch, notes that individuals with various gender and sexual identities are a protected class but drag queens are not.
“If a government wants to get rid of trans and gay people, it is a human rights issue and the international community is going to come kick your ass,” Douch said. “Drag is just, ‘I guess they’re just fucking up their free speech, which they’ve done for 200 years.’”
Why Ban Drag?
The Arizona Senate Republicans released a joint statement saying, “Policies of ‘nondiscrimination regarding gender expression and sexual orientation’ are sending a message to society that we should disregard morals and values just to normalize these unscientific, broad, ill-defined and subjective terms, which set a dangerous precedent for our children that are too young to be exposed to such concepts.”
The statement goes on to say that allowing children to watch drag shows promotes “complete and utter perversion” and is detrimental to children.
However, both Blak and Beaver agree that drag can be a positive experience for children. Drag can be fun, appeal to everyone and is often not even remotely sexual, Blak said. Drag can be glamorous, funny, artistic, messy or anything else the performer wants their drag to be. Some drag queens choose to make their art sexy, but not all. Watching drag on television was the first time that Blak had ever seen someone who looked like her doing the same things she enjoyed. Seeing drag made her feel represented in a way that other people around her did not.
“Lucy was dressed as Shrek yesterday,” Blak said, referring to another drag queen’s recent Shrek-themed performance at Berlin Nightclub in Chicago. “Kids love that …Tell me what about that performance was inappropriate for a child.”
Beaver has attended and participated in drag queen storytimes where drag queens read books to children at the Ames Public Library in Iowa, and has seen events where children themselves perform in drag.
“It gives them an opportunity and a stage for them to explore this interest and this art form,” Beaver said.
She believes that children doing drag is no different from them doing ballet or sports. It’s just a fun activity for them to explore that doesn’t hurt anyone.
For queens like Blak and Beaver, drag is an opportunity to express themselves freely and openly. They can become whoever they want to be and receive endless love and support from their community.
“Those moments are so important for so many people,” Beaver said. “Why would you deny them?”