I have enjoyed attending drag shows for as long as I can remember. The very way these events challenge the ideas we have of gender and the amazing performers that display their talents is something that leaves me in awe every time. Drag shows have been a form of entertainment for decades and have offered a safe space for many to feel and express themselves. However, it is this freedom of expression which has made these performances the subject of censorship and even outright bans. These bans stem from conservative views on gender and sexuality, and they can have serious consequences for drag performers, their fans, and the wider LGBTQ+ community.
At its core, drag is a form of art that allows performers to play with gender identity and express themselves in unique and creative ways. Drag shows are often colorful, extravagant, and high-energy, featuring lip-syncing, dancing, and comedy routines that celebrate and subvert traditional gender roles. They can be a powerful way for LGBTQ+ people to connect with one another, express their identities, and feel validated in a world that can be hostile. Despite these positive aspects, drag shows are often targeted by conservative politicians and religious groups who see them as immoral or indecent. In some cases, these groups have successfully lobbied for drag shows to be banned from public spaces, such as libraries or community centers, or for drag performers to be prohibited from performing in certain areas. “Early in the 2023 legislative session, at least 26bills have been introduced in 14 statesby Republican legislators taking aim at drag events — an abrupt movement that has emerged this year amid a wider conservative backlash to expanded LGBTQ rights. There’s no recent precedent for thebills, which seek toban children from drag performances, block the shows from public venues, or force locales that host drag events to register as “adult-oriented businesses,” according to LGBTQ advocacy groups.”[I]
These bans can have a serious impact on drag performers, who may rely on their shows for income and for their emotional well-being. Many performers have spoken out about the importance of drag in helping them to cope with their experiences of marginalization and to feel seen and valued by their communities. Banning drag shows not only takes away this vital source of support and validation, but it also sends a message to LGBTQ+ people that their identities are not welcome in public spaces. “Five of these bills have specified that exposure to the LGBTQ+ community is child abuse, most of these bills ban minors and ban drag performers from public spaces,” Smith told LGBTQ Nation. “In fact, about six of these bills have defined drag performers as people who dressed and expressed differently from their ‘biological sex’ or ‘gender identity,’ and we have concerns that this also applies to everyday transgender people. Like other anti-transgender bills that seek to ban gender-affirming health care or access to public accommodations, these bills are part of a nationwide effort to legislate trans people out of existence, transgender rights advocates say…These bills are framed as an attack against drag performers, but it actually seeks to criminalize the very existence of transgender people by labeling gender expression and gender-affirming clothing as drag.”[ii]
In addition to the harm caused to performers, drag show bans can also harm the wider LGBTQ+ community. When a group is targeted and marginalized, it can lead to feelings of isolation and shame, which can in turn have negative health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Banning drag shows is just one way that society can reinforce negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people, making it more difficult for them to feel safe and accepted in their communities.
Texas is no different than these other Republican areas. In recent years, there has been a backlash against drag shows in certain parts of Texas. The reasons behind these bans are varied, but they often center around the idea that these performances are inappropriate for children and that they promote “sexualization” or “deviant” behavior. Some conservatives have also argued that drag shows go against traditional gender roles and are therefore a threat to the family structure. This is so far from the truth that it is almost comical, but it is our reality. These events teach not only tolerance but the very idea of self-expression.
The first major instance of a drag show ban in Texas came in 2018 when the city of Austin canceled a drag queen storytime event at the public library after receiving complaints from conservative groups. Since then, several other cities and counties in Texas have proposed or implemented similar bans, including Leander, Lufkin, and Lubbock. In Lubbock, the city council passed an ordinance in late 2020 that effectively banned drag shows and other “sexually oriented businesses” within city limits. “Drag performers and LGBTQ advocates say the groups targeting shows are misrepresenting what happens at them. They say demonstrators are using children as an excuse to propagate hate and violence against queer people — something people calling for protests and claiming that drag shows are never appropriate for children deny….Misinformation experts say these protests are the first phase of a rising wave of right-wing extremism…’This hate does not happen in a vacuum,’ said Jay Brown, a senior vice president at the Human Rights Campaign who is transgender. ‘In Texas — an open carry state — we see multiple armed protests in opposition to LGBTQ+ bars, culture and events each week. These attacks in Texas aim to perpetuate lies about who LGBTQ+ people are and set a dangerous precedent of singling out members of the community that will only result in higher instances of violence.’ Far-right extremist groups and white nationalist hate organizations like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front have become more engaged in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks political violence and protests.”[iii]
As horrendous as these bans and legislations are, drag performers are not sitting back and allowing this hate to take over. These bans have sparked outrage from members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, who see them as a direct attack on their rights and freedoms. Many have organized protests and rallies to speak out against the bans, and some have even taken legal action to challenge them. Nationally known queens, most from the hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race, are using their platform to speak out against these attacks. Recent double winner Jinkx Monsoon stated via Instagram “Last night my heart was broken as I learned that Tennessee’s anti Drag/Trans bill passed. I really had more faith. At this point, I dunno what else to say. We are fighting an uphill battle as a direct result of the progress we have made— and the insidious efforts of the conservative right (and well, ALL republicans at this point, you f*cking evil cowards) I want to be angry, and yell, and scream. I wanna throw a brick through the window of every Chik-f*ck-A. I wanna dismantle every press outlet that continues to give a resounding voice to vitriol and bigotry. I wanna sit every boomer down and educate them on these issues so they stop following misinformation like sheep. But I am so tired.”[iv] Although the post might seem bleak, the mere posting of such a statement from a well-known icon is important. It brings awareness to the issue.
Along with Jinkx, Aura Mayari, a drag queen on the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, stated, “Tennessee is not looking out for children. The legislature is targeting our community. Banning drag performances / cross dressing in public because it exploits children? Let’s take a look at the sexually explicit behaviors that happen on the street of BROADWAY… On a daily basis!….What about our trans community? They cannot be seen in public now? Groomers you say? Let’s talk about thousands of cases in church where children and some adults are sexually abused. Oh wait, y’all benefit from their money is it’s ok?…You are targeting the LGBT community and do not even lie about it!”[v]
However, the pushback is coming from within as well. Drag queens in our very city of Austin are speaking out and making themselves heard.
Local queen Brigitte Bandit stated via Instagram, “Don’t mess with Texas DRAG, my drag queen storytime performance to my queen Dolly’s rendition of Harper Valley PTA for @cheerupcharlies NYE cause I had to sock it to the TX republicans who are more concerned about protesting and introducing bills about drag shows than the fact that our state has seen the most school shootings since 2012, we continue to drop in rank among the states for education funding and teacher pay, that 1/5th of our children are living in poverty and we are the last state in child healthcare insurance coverage. overall we rank as the 5th WORST state for children and it’s NOT BECAUSE OF DRAG SHOWS. continuing to use drag queens as a scapegoat to the real issues these kids are facing only allows them to persist and directly harms our kids and queer people. TX republicans do not care about kids like they want to claim to or they would be protesting the churches who have been abusing children for decades or funding our failing healthcare and education systems instead of harassing people in a f***ing wig and pair of fake lashes. they’re the same kind of hypocrites as in the Harper Valley PTA. and while they may continue hiding behind their deflections, bigotry and guns, I have knowledge, truth, empathy, a couple stiletto heels and a COMMUNITY they can never get rid of. I am a NATIVE TEXAN and I am a DRAG QUEEN and I am not going ANYWHERE cause my state and its children and queer people DESERVE BETTER and I believe we can build a better future for ALL of us and it starts with recognizing the REAL issues we face in this state. LONG LIVE TEXAS DRAG!”[vi] These performances don’t hurt children and the legislation are just a new way to attack a population that has been under attack for a while. The LGBTQ+ community is strong and will not back down without a fight.
However, the broader implications of these bans are troubling for the LGBTQ+ community. They represent a clear effort to limit the visibility and acceptance of queer culture and to impose conservative, heteronormative values on the broader public. They also reinforce the idea that LGBTQ+ people are somehow “deviant” or “abnormal,” perpetuating harmful stereotypes and contributing to a culture of discrimination and violence. The recent drag show bans in Texas are a clear example of the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance in the United States. While these bans may seem like isolated incidents, they are part of a larger pattern of discrimination and hostility that threatens the safety and well-being of LGBTQ+ people. We, as a community, must stand up and fight back. I love drag shows and all they stand for and represent and I will fight. These events and the performers in them are enhancing our lives daily by showing us how to challenge the rigid structures we were told we must live with. It is up to all of us to speak out against these injustices and fight for a world where we can be different and original!
[i] Kindy, Kimberley. GOP Targets Drag Shows with New Bills in at Least 14 New States, Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/02/14/drag-shows-republican-bills-bans/.
[ii] Prager, Sarah. Drag Bans Could Result in Arrests at Pride Parades, LGBTQ Nation, https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2023/02/drag-bans-could-result-in-arrests-at-pride-parades/.
[iii] Brown, Trent. Texas Drag Shows Become a Right-Wing Target Amid Rising Extremism, Texas Tribune. https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/09/texas-drag-shows-all-ages-family-friendly/.
[iv] Jinkx Monsoon Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/p/Co2fuiIpgeF/?utm_source=ig_embed&ig_rid=36f185cd-e3b8-4539-b576-9a46880af702.
[v] Aura Mayari Twitter, https://twitter.com/AuraMayari/status/1626315273845219330?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1626315828567089157%7Ctwgr%5E313ee2ac33795f09fe8ed9fb19f75be2178ed0af%7Ctwcon%5Es2_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thepinknews.com%2F2023%2F02%2F20%2Frupauls-drag-race-tennessee-drag-ban%2F.