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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why Is the Right So Horrified By Drag Queens?

Conservatives’ visceral dislike for any defiance of strict gender norms exposes the authoritarian core of right-wing politics.

Conservatives really don’t like drag queens. Within the broader backlash to LGBTQ people going on right now, there is a miniature right-wing moral panic about drag queens. A few recent extracts from the discourse: 

  • “Any school in my district participating in ‘drag queen’ degeneracy risks losing their funding. Adult drag performers have NO BUSINESS in our schools, and they will not be in my district. Period.” — Vickie Paladino, New York City Council Member 
  • “They are underqualified to have children. They should have their children taken away from them. Because it is child abuse. It is child abuse to put a half-naked adult in the room with a small child and having them read a book. It’s child abuse.” — Candace Owens 
  • “I’m introducing a bill to make it illegal for children to be exposed to Drag Queen performances.” — Marjorie Taylor Greene
  • “The events of this past weekend were horrifying and show a disturbing trend in which perverted adults are obsessed with sexualizing young children. … As a father of two young children, I would never take my children to a drag show and I know … the rest of my Republican colleagues wouldn’t either. … Protecting our own children isn’t enough, and our responsibility as lawmakers extends to the sexualization that is happening across Texas.” — Texas State Representative Bryan Slaton, explaining why he is introducing a ban on minors watching drag shows 
  • How did drag queens get into schools in the first place? Why does anyone think it’s acceptable—let alone crucial—to keep them there?”—Charles C.W. Cooke, National Review

Apparently some of this has spilled into the streets. A protester at a family-friendly drag show in Texas, holding a sign that said “STOP GROOMING THE KIDS,” explained to a reporter: “I don’t believe that I should be seeing signs advertising for children to be dancing on stage with men in thongs and in inappropriate clothing and makeup.” A group of Proud Boys stormed a drag queen story hour in California, reportedly “screaming about pedophilia” and “terrifying the children” while shouting “we have to save the children.” Drag queen story hours made an appearance in Matt Walsh’s vicious transphobic Daily Wire documentary What Is A Woman? (which I recently reviewed) as further evidence of the threat LGBTQ people pose to the children of America. 

It is not surprising that as drag queens have put on events for children, conservatives have gotten angry and started accusing them of “grooming” children for sexual activity. Not all drag queens are gay men, but many are, and as Yasmin Nair notes, “the figure of the gay man in particular as a sexual predator still haunts culture and continues to re-emerge.” Nair quotes Anita Bryant, who waged an infamous campaign of homophobia in the ‘70s, saying “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”

Great strides in the acceptance and visibility of LGBTQ people have been made over the last 30 years. Partly, though, this has come about through gay men and women having to insist that they pose no threat to the established order. Just as Barack Obama felt the need to distance himself from the radical politics of his Black pastor, Pete Buttigieg succeeded as a gay candidate in part because he presented himself as committed to traditional American institutions (Harvard, McKinsey, the military). Conservatives made some nasty comments about Buttigieg after he took paternity leave, but the militant homophobia of Anita Bryant is thankfully waning. Still, the current wave of anti-drag queen rhetoric and protests have forced drag queens themselves to worry for their safety. As Drag Queen Story Hour director Jonathan Hamilt told ABC News, “Being a part of the LGBT community and a queer person in general, we’ve always experienced hate and slurs and homophobia and transphobia. That’s unfortunately just part of our existence… All this feels different and very real, and it feels a bit scarier.”

The panic about drag queens fraternizing with children shows that the intense fear and hatred of those who challenge the norms of gender and sexuality is still widespread on the right. There is no evidence behind the libelous charge that drag queens who like to read stories to kids are pedophiles. The “sexualization” is in the eye of the beholder—personally I find it weird that someone would think there was something inherently “sexual” about dresses, wigs, makeup, and jewelry. In fact, I think conservatives who tried to articulate it would find that they don’t really know why they don’t like drag queens and can’t quite explain what their problem is. The National Review article quoted above expresses bewilderment that “drag queens in schools” are a thing, and asks how anyone could find such events “acceptable,” but does not try to explain why they wouldn’t be acceptable. Candace Owens says that the drag queens are “half naked” (not so) and that having such people in a room with a small child and “having them read a book” is “child abuse.” But why?

It is very interesting that the right, strict defenders of parental rights when it comes to preventing children from exposure to critical race theory, suddenly starts talking about using criminal law and taking people’s children away if parents take their kids to a drag show. Here we see something fundamental about right-wing politics exposed: it is not actually, despite the endless use of the word “freedom,” about freedom at all. It is about freedom within a very narrowly prescribed range. The moment men start wearing women’s clothes and dancing, we must cover the children’s eyes in case they get infected with unconventional notions about gender roles.

Drag queen Lil Miss Hot Mess with a child at the Park Slope Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, 2017. Main photo: Driston Freeman, 6, hugs drag performer Khloe Kash at the Mobile Public Library during Drag Queen Story Hour in Mobile, Ala., 2018 / AP IMAGES

All of which is to state the obvious, which is that conservatism is conservative. It is the devotion to traditional hierarchies and repressive social roles. It believes in a boring country where boys who wear jewelry and skirts are made fun of mercilessly. The right wishes for an authoritarian dystopia, and if you dress as the wrong gender, they will consider you a threat to all that is good and holy and accuse of you of trying to have sex with children. 

There is no logic behind the horror at drag queens. It comes from a visceral distaste for that which is different. “I don’t like it, this makes me uncomfortable” is the real sentiment, but it is difficult to make the argument for banning things merely because they cause you personal discomfort, so the feeling is translated into “this is a threat, the children must be saved.” Meanwhile the actual opinions of children themselves—do they say they are uncomfortable or upset?—are irrelevant. 

Christopher Rufo, the architect of the critical race theory panic, has openly recommended that conservatives should manipulate the language they use to make the public more alarmed about drag queens:

Conservatives should start using the phrase “trans stripper” in lieu of “drag queen.” It has a more lurid set of connotations and shifts the debate to sexualization... “Drag queens in schools” invites a debate; “trans strippers in schools” anchors an unstoppable argument... we can show videos that are undeniably strip shows.

Rufo knows that the drag queens reading storybooks in the libraries aren’t performing strip shows. But he hopes that if he shows videos of drag queens doing strip shows, and rebrands drag queens as strippers, the public can be convinced that all drag queens are strippers, and thus create something to worry about. Even conservative Andrew Sullivan called Rufo’s suggestions an “open and proud admission of mendacity, cynicism and deliberate propaganda.” Indeed, this is what conservatives do all the time, trying to convince the public that some new leftist menace is coming for their children and blowing the most extreme anecdotes they can find into nationwide trends. But it’s rare to see someone so blatantly confess that they are not interested in being fair, but spreading fear and hatred.

As is often the case, when conservatives try to paint a picture of a progressive dystopia, they end up making the left sound pretty great. Commenting on drag queens in schools, right-wing commentator Stephen Miller said “we went from D.A.R.E  to Priscilla Queen of the Desert so gradually no one noticed.” But D.A.R.E. was absurd law enforcement propaganda and Priscilla Queen of the Desert is great. Are schools not improved by giving kids flamboyant fun rather than “reefer madness” style warnings that smoking pot will end their lives? I, for one, hope the Michigan attorney general was not joking when she promised a “drag queen in every school.” But one thing that was made very clear to me when watching the odious What is a Woman? documentary is that conservative hate for gender nonconformity runs very deep. I would not underestimate how scary the reaction against drag queens could be. I hope drag queens stay strong, because a society with drag queens in it is vastly enriched, but the right does not like being made uncomfortable, and will continue to aggressively react to challenges to their preferred gender norms.

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