Smash fascism — take your kids to drag shows 

Drag performer Poly Tics, right, attends a rally in Frankfort, Ky., on Thursday, March 2, 2023. She spoke earlier at a legislative committee hearing where she opposed a bill that would put limits on drag shows in Kentucky. Photo by Bruce Schreiner/AP

Content warning: transphobia, queerphobia, anti-LGBTQIA+ violence 

Last Thursday, March 2, Tennessee became the first state in the country to ban public drag shows. Senate Bill 0003, which made it from its introduction to the Tennessee House to the desk of Gov. Bill Lee in less than three months, punishes any “person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property or in a location where the… performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” Sentences for repeated violation of the law constitutes a Class E felony, which carries a sentence ranging from one to six years in prison and copious fines. In classic American fashion, of course, Tennesseans who are convicted of a felony are also denied suffrage

14 states and counting, including Tennessee, have introduced legislation aiming to severely limit drag shows, or performances in which artists tackle anything from astonishing dance numbers to deadpan comedy routines in exaggerated makeup looks, spectacular wigs and brilliant, out-of-the-box outfits that complement the entire sensory landscape manufactured by the performer. Often, drag is an explicit celebration of sexuality and the loud demolition of normative social and gender roles. Usually, drag is not sexual at all, such as during “drag queen story hours” where queens read books to children and their parents while showing off their dazzling appearances and hurling jokes towards the audience. The suggestion that drag is inherently sexual and inappropriate for children doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny — something conservatives are likely aware of.  

Although speculated to be an acronym for “dressed resembling a girl,” drag has always included both men, women and gender-nonconforming people dressing as the opposite gender or a more emphasized version of their own since its genesis in the Harlem queer scene in the 19th and 20th centuries. Suffice it to say, drag innately and historically includes transgender people performing as the opposite or same gender. Speaking from her own experiences, Chicago-based trans drag artist Irregular Girl says her “drag tends to be about freedom and wish fulfillment”; freedom seems to be the granular element of most drag and is now under a pointed attack by GOP legislators around the country. 

The right-wing united front against drag — drag queens in particular — now culminating in legislation is a product of resurging and asymmetric anti-LGBTQIA+ politics that have vilified cisgender gay men, trans women, and queer and trans educators in particular. Common charges against these queer and trans groups include the “grooming” of children as victims of a deliberately poorly-defined gay or trans agenda — beneath the semantic choice of calling queer and trans people “groomers” is the intrinsic connection to pedophilia, representing a longstanding and violently homophobic conflation.  

The right’s rhetoric has become increasingly targeted against trans women, who have been at the center of conservative ire since the completely fabricated “debate” around trans people using restrooms corresponding to their gender, particularly in schools. The grotesquely transphobic caricature of trans children — an age group that is among the most disadvantaged in the country — catalyzed by legislation such another Tennessee bill, passed in 2021, that prohibited trans students from using the bathroom safely, as well as a 2021 Florida bill that authorized arbitrary inspections of trans female student-athletes’ genitalia. Paired with new bans on lifesaving gender-affirming care for minors — which almost exclusively refers to completely reversible hormone replacement therapy, not invasive surgery as imagined by transphobic ideologues — and legislative attempts to separate trans children from their parents, legislators expressing a phony desire to “save the children” are actively pushing for minors to be sexually assaulted by cisgender adults and forcibly isolated from their families by the state. 

The glaring hypocrisy of the right in America doesn’t matter in the slightest. In fact, the relatively diplomatic attacks against queer people by GOP politicians are just interference for bloodthirsty ideologues like failed actor and employee of far-right media publication The Daily Wire, Michael Knowles, who announced that “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely” to a massive cheering crowd at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.  

Knowles’ comments say all that needs to be said about the political atmosphere with regard to LGBTQIA+ rights. While the periods before major elections typically see flare-ups of “culture war” issues pushed by the right in an attempt to drive a wedge between the electorate — aptly known as wedge issues — anti-queer and trans politics have become a mainstay in and out of election season. Depicting queer and trans people as predators and groomers has become a permanent call around which the GOP and its ideological cohort can mobilize — fully armed with financial and political capital from right-wing Evangelical dark money organizations — to attack queer cultural institutions and legal protections by the handful. The state, private capital and the general public coalescing to violently disappear an entire group of people is not just another wedge issue; it’s demonstrative of the fascism that currently courses through the veins of American politics. Armed far-right vigilantes like the Proud Boys continue to confront public drag shows around the country — perhaps the most direct display of an impending revolt against LGBTQIA+ people who are already physically assaulted and killed at higher rates than cisgender heterosexual people. 

Where fascism is present, a strong anti-fascist presence must counter it. The Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club, an anti-fascist organization dedicated to community self-defense, demonstrated a critical lesson when its ranks defended a Roanoke drag show from violent threats by community members: We must take our safety into our own hands. At the end of the day, the only ones capable of defending queer and trans institutions from fascist violence are organized anti-fascist queer and trans people and honest allies in the struggle. In an environment where the public existence of transgender people is at stake, people of all ages at least deserve to perform and experience the simple joys and transcendental freedoms associated with drag. The singular alternative to far-right terror is resistance; that means being resolute in preserving our cultural artifacts and the right for them to exist in society unabashedly. Smash fascism — take your kids to drag shows. 

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