April 2023 Church & State Magazine - April 2023

Dragging Down Drag: Men Have Been Dressing As Women In Entertainment For Centuries. How Did It Suddenly Become A New Flashpoint In Christian Nationalists’ Culture War?

  Rob Boston

The situation at Wadsworth, Ohio’s Memorial Park got a little out of hand on March 11. 

Neo-Nazis marched and chanted, “Heil, Hitler,” while a band of Christian Nationalists hoisted signs about children being in danger. Against a backdrop of security fencing, a line of police officers worked to separate these extremists from counter-protesters.

What could have possibly sparked such a reaction? In a park pavilion, a drag queen was reading a story to children.

The event was originally planned for another venue. A local resident, Aaron Reed, planned to host the drag event, featuring a story time, music and dancing, at a local business called Wadsworth Brewing Company. 

“I figured I’d bring a little cultural diversity and class to the town where I’m raising my little girl,” Reed told Church & State. He called it a “Rock-N-Roll Humanist Drag Queen” event. 

No Backing Down: Wadsworth residents prepare to defend Drag Queen Story Time (Photo courtesy Aaron Reed)

Some folks didn’t cotton to the idea. Reed said threats started pouring in as soon as he began publicizing the event on social media, with a local fundamentalist preacher stirring the pot. The brewery backed out of hosting, leading Reed to apply for a permit for space at Memorial Park, a facility in town that’s often used by community groups. 

Wary town officials issued a statement that read, “The City of Wadsworth understands there are strong opinions and concerns on all sides of the event being proposed at Memorial Park. We are listening and are committed to making decisions that adhere to the law and ensure the safety of our citizens.”

On the day of the event, hundreds of protesters, including Christian fundamentalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists, showed up and tried to disrupt it. Some were armed. 

“We had literal Nazis waving flags and yelling through bullhorns,” Reed said. “But we surrounded the place with love, and it was a blast. The kids had a great time.”

He added, “It is important for this piece of rural Ohio to see the hate we’re really feeling here.”

What happened in Wadsworth is not unique. In recent months, events featuring drag queens especially story hours designed for children have become flashpoints in a budding Christian Nationalist culture war.

Here are a few examples, pulled from recent headlines:

Silver Spring, Md.: Members of the Proud Boys an extremist, often violent, group that frequently assails LGBTQ people and promotes nationalism targeted Loyalty Books shortly before a Feb. 18 drag queen story hour was slated to begin. They descended on the shop, which specializes in titles relating to racial justice and LGBTQ rights, while yelling and waving signs reading “Proud Boys love children. Proud Boys hate pedophiles. Leave kids alone.”

 Proud Boys had disrupted other drag queen story hours in the area, so defenders were ready to protect the store. Members of the Parasol Patrol, a group that shields children from aggressive protesters during drag events, kept the Proud Boys out of the store. In the scuffle, several people were jostled, and one volunteer was struck in the face. 

 Montgomery County police arrived and restored order, although there were no arrests. Inside Loyalty Books, children were able to enjoy the story time.

Loyalty Books: Site of Proud Boys wrath (Church & State photo/Rob Boston)

Lakeland, Fla.: That same weekend, neo-Nazis assailed a family-friendly drag event at a venue called ART/ifact, marching and waving swastika flags. 

Jason DeShazo, the organizer of the event, told a local television station, “People were walking from the parking lot into the building, and they’re being screamed at, called pedophiles. These people are screaming a ‘Heil, Hitler’ absolutely disgusting things.”

Triadelphia, W. Va.: Organizers canceled a Feb. 26 drag brunch in a Primanti Bros. Restaurant and Bar after receiving a deluge of threats. The event was going to be hosted by a private group that puts on LGBTQ-themed programs. 

Jonathan Haught, a mixed-martial-arts fighter and owner of a gym in the area, offered to provide security, but the organizers called it off, saying in a Facebook message, “Unfortunately, due to the amount of threats towards Primantis, the entertainers, & sometimes even patrons, we’ve decided for the safety of everyone involved to cancel the event.” 

Columbus, Ohio: A Dec. 3 drag queen story event at a Unitarian church had to be canceled after Proud Boys and members of other extremist groups announced plans to protest. Organizers called off the event due to concerns over safety. Local media reported that about 50-70 extremist protesters showed up at the church anyway. Many were carrying guns. 

Miami, Fla.: Officials with the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are moving to strip a Hyatt Regency hotel of its liquor license after a hotel facility hosted an event called “A Drag Queen Christmas” last year. 

Minors were allowed into the event only if accompanied by an adult, but officials with the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation charge that the program violated a rarely enforced state law banning any “lascivious exhibition” before people younger than 16. 

State officials acted after a writer for a conservative website attended the show and posted video of it online, reported the Insider news site.

In recent months, the Proud Boys have been on the leading edge of attempts to shut down drag events through intimidation and violence. The Washington Post recently reported that prior to 2022, less than 1% of Proud Boys protests were related to drag events; such events now account for 25% of Proud Boys protests. (Known for their white-supremacist rhetoric, members of the Proud Boys were heavily involved at the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and some of their members are facing trial.) 

As these raucous protests unfold on the streets, drag performances and events face a different kind of attack in many state legislatures: bills designed to curb or ban drag performances. Several news outlets have reported that at least 26 bills aimed at restricting drag events are pending in state legislatures. Some of the measures seek to make it illegal for parents to take children to drag events, language that, interpreted broadly, would ban the story times. 

While there’s no evidence of coordination between the lawmakers who use the legislative process to curtail drag performances and the lawless forces that rely on threats and violence to shut down these events, the result is the same: Drag has become a new front in the nation’s ongoing “culture war.” 

Tennessee recently became the first state to pass an anti-drag measure into law. The provision, according to the Nashville Tennessean, bans “adult-oriented entertainment” that is “harmful to minors” from public property and places where such performances might be seen by children. 

The law lumps “male or female impersonators” with “go-go dancers, exotic dancers [and] strippers.” (Ironically, days before Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee said he would sign the measure, a 1977 high school yearbook photo of him dressed as a woman surfaced.)

Critics say the law is so ambiguously worded that it’s unclear whether any sort of drag performance will be legal in the state. That may be the point; laws like this are designed to have a chilling effect and persuade fans to back away from hosting drag events. 

In Arkansas, state Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R) made no effort to hide the religious motivation behind his bill, which, like the Tennessee law, would classify drag shows as “adult-oriented businesses” and outlaw them in public places where children might be present, reported Politico.

Urging lawmakers to pass the measure, Stubblefield asked his colleagues “if God would approve” of drag queens. (The bill passed the Senate 29-6.)

Some Christian Nationalist extremists would go even further. As Church & State reported in January, John Daniel Davidson, senior editor of The Federalist, wrote recently, “Conservatives need to get comfortable saying … that Drag Queen Story Hour should be outlawed; that parents who take their kids to drag shows should be arrested and charged with child abuse. …” 

How did something so innocuous as a story hour for children garner such bile? In part, the attack on drag events is part of a backlash to shifting gender norms in America. It may also be a reaction to the fact that these events are increasingly more common and high-profile.

Drag performers are alarmed at the growing attacks.

“It is absolutely a freedom of speech and expression issue,” said Daniel L. Hays, president of the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance in northern Virginia, who performs under the name Muffy Blake Stephyns. “Everyone should be permitted to express themselves however they feel, to the extent [that] harm on others is not being done.  I’ve never seen a person voluntarily attend something to be harmed they attend for entertainment and joy.”

Hays told Church & State that the attacks come from members of the far right and that drag is “an easy target since we are not understood by many.”

Added Hays, “Drag is something that literally has saved my life. The ability to self-express and provide joy and a smile to others is priceless.”

For Christian Nationalists and their political allies, attacking drag allows them to hoist the banner for “family values” and claim to be protecting children. But the rhetoric is misleading. Drag events, like many forms of entertainment, come in different forms. Some, which usually take place in LGBTQ-themed bars and nightclubs venues where children are not present are intended for adults. Others, such as drag queen story hours, are specifically for children and are designed to be family friendly.

Drag queen story hour (now often just called drag story hour, as there are drag kings too) began in San Francisco in 2015. The site DragStoryHour.org reports that a small band of drag activists began reading stories to children in the Bay Area, noting, “Drag Story Hour celebrates reading through the glamorous art of drag. Our chapter network creates diverse, accessible, and culturally-inclusive family programming where kids can express their authentic selves and become bright lights of change in their communities.” 

It adds, “We envision a world where kids can learn from LGBTQ+ stories and experiences to love themselves, celebrate the fabulous diversity in their communities, and stand up for what they believe in and each other.” 

Public libraries have become a flashpoint for controversy. Some public libraries have hosted drag story-hour events, but in other cases, private groups have rented space in libraries, which they have the right to do alongside other community groups.

The connection to a public institution in this case, libraries has given opponents an opening to pose as aggrieved taxpayers and complain or even try to disrupt the programs.           

The irony here is that it’s not drag that’s causing the problems it’s the violent response to it by extremist groups. As drag’s defenders note, it has a long lineage in popular entertainment. The ancient Greeks loved stage plays, but they didn’t allow women to take part. Women’s roles were played by men dressed as women, a practice that continued for centuries. 

Shakespeare’s plays contain many juicy parts for women — and in his time, men played them. (A woman first appeared in a Shakespeare play in 1660, but the practice did not become common until the latter half of the 18th century.) Opposition to women appearing on stage was usually spearheaded by church leaders, who argued that it was improper.

Although women eventually won the right to act on stage, drag has remained a popular form of entertainment. In more recent times, characters in drag drove the plot in films such as “Some Like It Hot” (1959), “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975), “Tootsie” (1982), “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), “The Birdcage” (1996) and Tyler Perry’s “Madea” films. Many baby boomers also grew up seeing drag in cartoons. In the Warner Brothers classic 1951 cartoon “Rabbit Fire,” Bugs Bunny dresses as a woman, leading a love-struck Elmer Fudd to shoot Daffy Duck for the umpteenth time. 

The number of actors who have appeared in drag over the years is too long to list, but some notable figures include Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, John Travolta, Johnny Depp, Tony Curtis, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Farr, Tyler Perry and Tom Hanks. 

Activists have vowed not to back down and that includes Reed in Ohio.

“It’s important that we have events like this because they say we can’t have events like this,” he said in an interview with Church & State two days after the ruckus in Wadsworth. “LGBTQ people belong in public spaces like anyone else. Drag queen story hour is our bus and lunch counter. It’s the front lines of our modern civil rights struggle, and I’m just standing there getting the soup poured on my head for          everyone to see.” 

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