Silver Spring, Maryland: It’s shortly after 1pm and about 20 children are sitting in a bookstore in downtown Maryland, listening attentively as drag queen Charlemagne Chateau reads an adaptation of the classic nursery rhyme“If You’re Happy and You Know it.”
“If you’re a drag queen and you know it, blow a kiss!” she sings, as children and their parents respond in unison by smacking their lips and blowing kisses across the palm of their hand.
Charlemagne has been conducting Drag Queen Story Hour at libraries and bookstores for months, using the art of drag – dressing up in elaborate outfits to exaggerate a gender identity – to read age-appropriate books that celebrate LGBTQ diversity.
But on this particular Saturday, attendees were greeted by angry protesters from the far-right group the Proud Boys yelling slurs and claiming the event was akin to paedophilia.
“Stop Bringing Children Around Men Dressed as Strippers,” read one placard. “Groom beards, not children!” screamed another.
Drag Queen Story Hour was developed in 2015 by a queer parent of a young child who wanted to make an inclusive space devoid of gender restrictions. But as the event has expanded into libraries, schools and family-friendly bars across the US, it has become the latest front in America’s culture wars, attracting the outrage of conservative politicians, parents and right-wing extremists who claim it is indoctrinating children.
Tennessee last week became the first state to enact a law explicitly targeting drag shows, criminalising performances that take place in public or where they can be seen by minors.
About 13 other Republican states are hoping to enact similar laws, with more than a dozen bills introduced into the 2023 legislative session so far that seek to curb drag performance. Some of those bills would make it a crime to allow a minor to view a drag performance; others would hold a drag performance within a designated distance of a school or public playground.
Meanwhile, violent protests are also on the rise. In Oklahoma in November, a doughnut shop was firebombed after it hosted an art show that featured drag queens.
In Ohio, a few weeks later, a holiday story time event was cancelled after far-right members gathered near the inclusive church where it was due to be held, armed with guns, tactical gear, and face masks that obscured their identities.
And in Texas last September, a drag bingo night was mobbed by hundreds of far-right extremists after Trump ally Steve Bannon amplified a call for the event to be protested.
The trend is part of a long-term campaign by national groups that see gender identity and LGBTQ rights as an issue with which they can harness anger among voters.
Just as campaigns against “critical race theory” or remote learning during the pandemic have reshaped school boards across America, drag performances have become a rallying cry for parental choice and family values.
“It’s illegal for children to patronise strip clubs, and we don’t allow them to hang around adult movie stores, so why do we allow sexualised drag exhibitions in places like public parks and community libraries?” Idaho Family Policy Centre spokesman Blaine Conzatti said in a statement.
But LGBTQ advocates and civil liberty groups argue that events such as drag queen story hour are not “sexualised.” They also make the point that if the books were read by a clown, or a woman dressed up as a princess – rather than a cisgender man or nonbinary person in a costume – there would likely be no outcry.
And when it comes to drag brunches and drag performances more broadly – which have become mainstream thanks to reality TV shows such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race – questions remain about whether the new or proposed laws actually stack up.
Tennessee’s law, for example, will take effect later this year, and those who breach it will be charged with a misdemeanour or a felony for subsequent offences. However, despite the politicians behind it targeting drag performances, the legislation does not explicitly refer to “drag shows” per se. Instead, it limits “adult cabaret” performances involving “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators.”
“The law bans obscene performances, and drag performances are not inherently obscene,” Stella Yarbrough, the legal director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Tennessee branch, whose group has vowed to challenge any charges in court.
“However, we are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate, chilling protected free speech and sending a message to LGBTQ Tennesseans that they are not welcome in our state.”
Others have also called out the hypocrisy of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, after photographs surfaced of the Republican politician, purportedly taken when he was in high school, wearing a dress, a wig and pearls.
The Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ lobby group, even took out a full-page ad in The Tennessean featuring the photo next to the words: “This kid enjoyed drag. Guess what happened to him? He’s our governor.”
Asked at a press conference if he remembered dressing in drag in 1977, Lee was visibly furious – but did not deny that he was the man in the photo.
“What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is,” he responded. “Conflating something like that to sexualised entertainment in front of children!”
Tennessee’s bill is just the latest in a slate of much broader anti-LGBTQ bills that have been considered by state legislatures over the past few years. The Human Rights Campaign says that this year alone, it has been tracking 340 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in statehouses across the country, the bulk of which attack transgender rights.
Last year, 315 discriminatory anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced, according to the group, from blocking trans participation in sports and barring access to gender-affirming care to removing books about sexual orientation and gender identity. Twenty-two passed into law.
Many, including US president Joe Biden, expect the issue will only become more vexed and vicious as the 2024 presidential election nears. At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, for instance, which is usually a barometer of the Republican base and a presidential testing ground for would-be candidates, there was no shortage of speakers attacking LGBTQ rights.
Among them was Donald Trump, who boasted about banning “transgender insanity from our military”; Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who introduced a Protect Children’s Innocence Act that would criminalise gender-affirming care for minors; and Daily Wire contributor Michael Knowles, who went so far as to declare that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
In a tweet on Friday evening (Saturday AEDT), Biden called out the Republicans’ attack and declared: “To every LGBTQI+ American: I have your back against this hatred.”
Back at the bookstore in Silver Spring, Charlemagne Chateau is putting on a brave face amid the sounds of angry protesters outside, who have been held at bay by volunteers forming a picket line of rainbow umbrellas to usher families to safety inside.
Dressed like a princess in a pink frock, white opera gloves and a gold tiara, the drag performer has just wrapped up the last children’s book for the hour – I Am Ok to Feel by Queer Eye TV host Karamo Brown – and is posing for photographs with families from the audience.
She admits she didn’t expect that far-right extremists would try to ambush the event, which was the first Drag Time Story Hour to take place in Montgomery County for months after extremist groups targeted the event last year, but is hopeful the program will continue to go from strength to strength.
As for the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ bills in America?
“I guess it’s easy for some to attack gender non-conforming people,” Charlemagne says. “But basically, it’s just a bunch of insecure people looking for an easy target, rather than legislatively addressing things that would actually benefit people in their jurisdictions.”
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