EXPLAINER: Drag Queens and How They Were Drawn into Politics | entertainment

Drag has been dragged through the mud lately.

The art form has been smeared in recent months by right-wing activists and politicians who lament the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Opponents often coordinate protests at drag events involving or aimed at children, and sometimes show up with guns. Some politicians have suggested banning children from drag events and even criminalizing parents who take their children to one.

Performers and organizers of events, such as story time, where colorfully dressed drag queens read books to children, say the protesters are the ones who terrorize and hurt children, turning them into political pawns – just like they have in other campaigns around access to bathrooms have done teaching materials.

Recent headlines about drag events being disrupted and portrayed as sexual and harmful to children may obscure the art form and its rich history.

WHAT IS DRAG?

Drag is the art of dressing and acting exaggeratedly as an opposite sex, usually for entertainment such as comedy, singing, dancing, lip syncing, or all of the above.

Drag can trace its roots back to the days of William Shakespeare when female roles were played by males. The origin of the term is disputed, but one possibility is that it was coined after someone noticed that the dresses or petticoats worn by male actors on stage would drag across the floor. Another pitches it as an acronym — an unproven notion that notes in scripts would use “DRAG” to indicate the actor should “dress like a girl.”

Drag performances were later seen on the vaudeville circuit and during the Harlem Renaissance. They became, and remain, a mainstay in gay bars in the 20th century.

RuPaul took it a step further with his reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which became an award-winning hit and exploded drag in popularity – and into the mainstream.

IS DRAG SEXUAL?

Many opponents of drag cite nudity as their objection. Every performer makes different choices, but drag queens often wear more, not less, clothing than you would see on a typical 21st-century American woman, on a public beach, or on television.

Her costumes tend to be extravagant, sometimes floor-length dresses. Drag queens may use fake breasts, wear see-through costumes, and use makeup or other means to show off their cleavage and appear overly feminine.

The difference, the performers note, is that opponents of drag see sexual deviations in the cross-dressing aspect.

Drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which is more common in burlesque, a separate form of entertainment. Explicitly sexual and profane language is common in performances intended for adult audiences. Such routines can consist of stand-up comedy, which can be raunchy — or pale in comparison to some mainstream comedians.

SHOULD KIDS SEE DRAG OR DRESS?

It’s up to parents and guardians to decide, just as they decide whether their children should be exposed to or participate in certain music, television, films, beauty pageants, concerts or other forms of entertainment, parenting experts say.

Performances at nightclubs and brunches intended for adults may not be suitable for children, while other events, such as drag story lessons, are tailored for children and therefore contain milder language and clothing.

Drag performers, and the venues they book, generally either don’t allow children when a performance has risky content, or require children to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian — basically how R-rated movies are handled by cinemas will.

Drag story lessons, in which performers read to children in libraries, bookstores, or other locations, have become popular in recent years. The events use an engaging character to grab their child’s attention – any parent whose child can’t take their eyes off Elsa from Frozen will come up with the idea. The difference is that the goal is to get children interested in reading.

Some children have performed drag at age-appropriate events. An 11-year-old wearing a princess dress and tiara was recently scheduled to perform at a story and song event at an Oregon pub – but was downgraded to “guest of honor” after protests erupted into fighting outside.

“Part of keeping our kids safe is allowing them to be kids, to be playful, to take risks, and to be silly, without it necessarily meaning anything deeper or more permanent,” says Amber Trueblood, a family therapist. “A lot of parents are okay with kids dressing up as assassins, evil villains, or grim reapers, but they rarely take the costume choice as anything other than playful and fun.”

THREATS AND “CARE”

Opponents of drag story hours and other drag events aimed at child audiences often claim that they “groom” children, which implies attempts to sexually abuse them or in any way affect their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The term “grooming” in the sexual sense describes how child molesters trap and abuse their victims. Its use by drag opponents, as well as by protesters in other branches of LGBTQ opposition, seeks to mistakenly equate it with pedophilia and other forms of child abuse.

Perpetrators of false rhetoric can then pose as saviors of children and try to get anyone who disagrees – for example a political opponent – to side with child molesters.

The objections are often religious in nature, with some opponents citing the devil at work. As the rhetoric has increased, so have the threats against drag events and storytelling classes in particular. In addition to the Oregon protest failing to quell such an event, organizers of a recent one in Florida canceled theirs after saying they were threats from hate groups.

The threats are likely an attempt to scare parents into not taking their children to such events, causing them to fizzle out and force drag back in the closet, observers say. Some organizers, parents and cast members have dug in their heels, insisting they won’t budge.

In another tactic to deter attendance, drag opponents have been known to attend performances, record and post a video out of context, and then troll or “dox” the performer or the venue.

One such video clip showed a profane drag act in front of a young child and framed it as abuse — despite the child being with adults and the venue informing attendees of gross content, suggesting parental discretion and requiring all children to be cleared of the parents are accompanied.

Other undermining efforts include a false claim that a performer flashed children in a Minnesota library and another false claim that the head of the Drag Queen Story Hour organization was arrested for child pornography.

Despite the claims of some opponents, drag cannot make a child gay or transgender, although gender play can be reassuring for children who are already questioning their identity. In this way, therapist Joe Kort wrote in a Psychology Today blog post, gender-nonconforming children “may have different templates as they begin to sort through their feelings about who they authentically are.”

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