There was a time in the not-so-distant past when there would be scant pushback over a quartet of drag queens lip-synching songs from “The Little Mermaid” at a Boston restaurant for a 21-plus audience.
But in 2023, drag queens have been yanked into political debates and targeted by conservative politicians across the country as a spate of new bills and laws seeks to restrict where they can perform. The prevalence of anti-drag legislation has spread so rapidly that the American Civil Liberties Union set up a drag defense fund earlier this year.
The growing movement against drag even has a name: “drag panic,” and that panic showed up in social media posts about the “Little Mermaid”-themed drag show at the Barking Crab last week. On Facebook, commenters weighed in with “No more Barking Crab for me,” “Boycott,” and “I’ll just make a point of not going there on their icky drag day.” But that’s just the tip of the false eyelash. The animosity Massachusetts queens are experiencing is mild compared with what the drag community faces in states such as Florida and Tennessee.
“We’re tracking about 50 bills across the country targeting access to drag performances,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. “It began with intentionally targeting drag story hours by groups like the Proud Boys, who have shown up brandishing weapons and threats. That drove this more into the public spotlight. And then there are organizations that go to state legislators and encourage them to introduce bills to restrict drag performances.”
Advocates for the LGBTQ+ community attribute the current drag panic to misinformation that all drag is a hypersexualized art form that exposes children to age-inappropriate performances. While some nightclub performances of drag can be bawdy, drag queens, much like professional comedians and other performers, say their material is adapted to their audience.
“I’m not about to walk into a library for drag story hour and perform the same way I would for adults,” said local drag queen Just JP, who said they have read to children at several local libraries. “The only difference between us and librarians is that we are wearing makeup and some sparkly outfits. There is no hidden agenda.”
A recurring complaint about drag queen story hours among detractors is that the queens are “grooming” children to be transgender or gay by reading them books while dressed in frocks, wigs, and makeup.
“I think to some extent this is happening because exposure to drag is being seen as a gateway to trans,” said New York-based drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys. “Some people confuse the two, conflate the two, put the two in the same arena, which is not necessarily the case. Drag is a performance. Trans is an identity.”
Two states — Florida and Tennessee — have passed laws that lump drag performers into the same category as exotic dancers and strippers, effectively banning minors from seeing drag. The Tennessee law puts drag in the “adult cabaret performances” category, which “appeals to a prurient interest.” It bans drag performances from occurring on public property, in addition to spaces within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, or places of worship.
A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against the law in April, siding with a group that filed a lawsuit claiming the statute violates the First Amendment. A final decision is expected June 2.
Florida’s law blocks bars, restaurants, and government entities from authorizing or issuing a permit for any “adult live performance,” which it defines as a show that “depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or specific sexual activities . . . lewd conduct, or the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”
A spokesperson for the group Parents Defending Education, a conservative nonprofit based in Virginia whose mission is “working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas,” said the organization has not weighed in on the anti-drag laws, but said it is opposed to any drag-related performances or story hours in schools because it is a drain on educational resources. He also said the group finds drag in schools to be age inappropriate. The group’s website includes an “Indoctrination Map,” and encourages readers to report schools that are spending on “‘diversity and inclusion’ consultants and other pricey, destructive initiatives.”
But drag queens, queer historians, and human rights groups say diversity education at all levels is necessary. The attempt to characterize all drag queens as lascivious is less about protecting children and more about restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. They say the hue and cry surrounding drag queens was brought forth by complaints over drag queen story hours in public libraries, but its roots can be found in ongoing debates over transgender rights.
”A child who isn’t trans won’t suddenly become trans if they see someone reading a book in drag,” Jeffreys said. “I was groomed to be heterosexual. It didn’t work.”
Despite the current backlash, drag queens have been an integral part of pop culture for centuries, beginning with the Greeks and Romans. At the same time Shakespearean actors appeared in drag in the 17th century, Japanese actors were performing Kabuki. Drag was also an integral part of vaudeville. Boston-born female impersonator Julian Eltinge became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and even gave a command performance before King Edward VII on a tour of England. Milton Berle brought drag into millions of living rooms during his wildly popular “Texaco Star Theater” TV show in the 1950s. On the big screen, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis donned pencil skirts, mink stoles, and lipstick in “Some Like It Hot.” Even America’s favorite hot-headed TV conservative, Archie Bunker, befriended a drag queen on “All in the Family.” And, of course, Tom Hanks got his start in bold 1980s dresses with shoulder pads in TV’s “Bosom Buddies.”
Thanks to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” drag has never been more popular. The reality show, which just wrapped its 15th season, has been nominated for 56 Emmy Awards since it began airing in 2009, winning 26 of them. Its companion series, “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” is the most-watched reality show on the streaming network Paramount+. Drag bars have become a favorite destination for bachelorette parties. Drag queen terminology, from exclamations of “yas, queen!” to the phrase “spilling the tea,” is now part of the common lexicon.
“At the moment, it feels like we’re in an alternate reality,” said local drag queen Missy Steak, who found herself the object of conservative protests for lip-synching Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” to high school students in Newton. “I mean, the people going after drag all watched the Madea movies. They all loved ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ ‘The Birdcage,’ ‘Big Mama’s House,’ or went to see ‘Kinky Boots.’”
After national conservative groups began publicizing Steak’s appearance at Newton North High School, Fox News picked up the story. She was derided as “deviant” and “mentally ill” by commenters.
Warbelow, of the Human Rights Campaign, said the true goal of the bills and laws is to sow fear and create discomfort surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. That’s been the case in Florida, where cities and towns began canceling drag shows and Pride events before the bill was signed into law. Tampa canceled its Pride festival this year out of safety concerns due to the political climate. However, the mayor of Wilton Manors, a city north of Fort Lauderdale that is known for its vibrant gay community, told the Sun Sentinel that the Pride festival will continue, drag queens and all.
The Wilton Manors city commissioner, Chris Caputo, who is not a drag queen, said he plans to show up in drag to protest the law.
“Personally, I don’t believe drag performances are . . . illegal,” Caputo wrote on Facebook. “I believe they are of artistic and political value, and I am comfortable showing up in drag. If the governor disagrees with that, he is welcome to recall my seat, and we can fight it out in the courts.”
The chilling effect of the laws and bills is leading to threats not only against drag bars but also schools and libraries that host innocuous drag events intended to highlight diversity and inclusiveness, said Warbelow.
“It’s happening in states that have not passed drag bans and frankly won’t pass drag bans, including California and Maryland,” she said.
Locally, the select board in North Brookfield, a town of 4,700 in Worcester County, told organizers of the town’s Pride celebration that drag performances would not be allowed at the event and called it “an exaggerated view of human sexuality” and “adult entertainment.” After the ACLU sent a letter to the board, a lawyer for the town stated that the drag show could take place.
Lawsuits fighting the drag bans have begun in Florida and Tennessee. Still, advocates anticipate more states will continue to adopt similar measures and say they are ready to continue fighting them.
“We are not the same people who were in hiding in 1969,” said Robert Kesten, executive director of the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale. “Today, we’re out in the open, bold, brazen, and willing to take on challenges. We now sit on corporate boards. We sit on nonprofit boards. We run major corporations. This is not the same community as it once was. We must remember those things as we get beaten verbally and in legislation in some parts of the country. We must remember who we are, where we’ve come from, and how far we’ve come.”