By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Girls will be boys and boys will be girls.
It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.
–“Lola”, The Kinks, 1970
Among things that are harmful to children, where do you rate exposure to drag culture?
I feel the far more pressing concerns are social media’s effects on self-esteem and mental health, violence (abuse, school shootings, crime), drugs (including tobacco and vaping), and poverty. Heck, junk food and its relationship to childhood obesity and diabetes deserve serious attention, yet former First Lady Michelle Obama was mocked for encouraging good nutrition, and opposed by the processed food industry that still ensures that kids get their ample daily doses of fat, sodium and sugar at school and at home.
I see violent and sexualized popular entertainment, especially video games, as harmful, but I’d never heard of a drag queen story hour for kids until right-wing politicians started raising a stink about them during the past eight years. I’m still unaware of exactly how these events pose a clear and present societal scourge.
So pardon me if I don’t get the mad rush in at least 15 states to pass laws that make it illegal to authorize, host, or perform in public “adult cabaret” entertainment featuring female or male impersonators who can be seen by minors 18 years of age and under. Merely singing, lip syncing, or dancing in ways considered “sexually suggestive” by a beholder can lead to prison terms of two-to-20 years, fines of up to $20,000 and status as a sex offender.
One wonders what the prosecution-minded would make of this performance in 2000 by right-wing stalwarts Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani.
All of this legislating is being done under the banner of protecting kids. Who could be against that? No one in their right mind advocates taking children to strip clubs or exposing them to graphic or even suggestively sexual performances. But not all drag performances are lewd, just as not all straight entertainment is larded with innuendo and worse (see network and cable comedies and dramas).
According to psychologists who specialize in child and adolescent mental health, merely watching men dressed as women acting in campy ways, as Trump and Giuliani did, does not harm kids, who are inclined to be excited by colorful characters, costumes and music without automatically seeing anything sexual in them. It’s adults who project the worst onto it when sexual intention isn’t there.
Kids often take things more in stride than adults do and the political/social uproar may be actually making matters worse than they would be. But parents have the power and obligation to view, discuss and explain what children watch. They also have a choice whether to take kids to shows. Yet even parental warnings in advertisements for drag events are not enough for some firebrands. Merely announcing these performances is tantamount to “encouraging kids” to go.
Drag has been a part of mainstream entertainment since the days of William Shakespeare. It is featured prominently in Monty Python’s classic sketches and popular films such as Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Hairspray as well as in glam rock music. RuPaul’s Drag Race reality show helped make LGBTQ culture in all its flamboyance more accepted.
But this acceptance has alarmed conservatives, especially religious ones, who are twisting even mere attempts to understand and acknowledge the existence of gay and transgender people as some kind of sinister plot to subvert heterosexuality and the traditional family via “gender ideology.”
The constant charges of “grooming” and “indoctrination” are false, according to groups such as The Zero Abuse Project, which point out that research shows the vast majority of child molesters are straight men with a sick desire for power and control over the vulnerable and a depraved idea of their ideal sexual partner.
The myth that homosexuals are recruited also undergirds much of the right’s actions. I had gay friends when I was growing up and have worked around gay men throughout my life. None has ever tried to persuade me to be like them and I’ve never met anyone who claimed they were coaxed and convinced to become gay. My heterosexuality wasn’t a conscious choice. Attraction to women was something I naturally felt and acted on. I’ll bet the vast majority of humans can say the same thing, no matter which gender they desire.
Even so, LGBTQ people are falsely accused of being natural pedophiles. Frankly, I find the right’s almost obsessive preoccupation with pedophilia and perversion to be alarming, particularly the QAnon trope about Democrats cannibalizing children. Yet to my knowledge there has been no widespread call for draconian legislation to combat the horrifying child molestation scandals that engulfed the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America. The targeting seems awfully selective.
The claims of upholding morality also ring hollow. Donald Trump’s brand of “grab ’em by the pussy” locker room talk is admired by his followers as “manly” and vulgar “F—k Biden” flags fly within sight of schools. Now, protestors threaten to kill drag performers and sympathizers while violence against transgender people rises. So much for preserving wholesome values. Neo-Nazi, political and religious beliefs that encourage kids to hate their gay friends can hardly be considered healthy either.
But we are now getting a slew of laws against drag shows and even discussing gender identity and roles in kindergarten through eighth grade. At a time when many of us, myself included, need to learn all we can from reliable experts about drag performers, LGBTQ people, and the causes and reality of transsexuality, this crusade comes across as a cheap, easy way to avoid uncomfortable realities, pick on vulnerable minorities, and avoid proposing legislation on more substantive and challenging issues. (We’re still waiting on Republicans to disclose Trump’s great new health plan.)
Anti-drag and anti-LGBTQ hysteria is invading libraries where books are being banned and librarians face prosecution, and school theatre productions where the presence of gay characters incite parental complaints. Hey, I know from my own parental experience that schools can present, in my opinion, inappropriate material. Parents should express their concerns. As it is, I feel there is way too much gratuitous sex and violence in our culture and I can see how the traditionally raunchy component of drag is not alleviating fears.
Comedian Andrew Doyle, a comedian who frequently appears at drag events, notes the increased attention being given to drag queen story hours but wonders why such performers feel the need to read books to children. “It’s perfectly possible for performers of Drag Queen Story Hour to read stories to children without all the eroticized preening and pouting we have come to expect from them,” Doyle wrote on UnHerd.com. “But why would any self-respecting artist want to do it? There is something deeply mystifying about drag queens who choose to anaesthetize their art form in order to regale infants with tales of teddy bears and picnics.”
I understand the desire to promote acceptance and understanding, but such an endeavor must be undertaken carefully in our fearful, polarized, hateful atmosphere. The danger in many of the new laws is their lack of clear definition of what constitutes “obscene” and “objectionable.” They become open-ended opportunities for bigots to persecute and prosecute on the flimsiest of grounds. No wonder many teachers are afraid to address gender and sexual topics. There is concern in the LGBTQ community that even their pride events will be targeted.
One also can’t help but wonder why, if ensuring that children see only “wholesome” entertainment, there are no moves to prosecute movie theatre owners and personnel who allow kids to see films filled with graphic sex and violence. Which do you think is more likely to disturb a young mind: a man in a dress and wig who is reading a story book or the horrendous torture scenes in mainstream movies like Reservoir Dogs and the Hostel series?
A case-by-case sense of propriety, proportion and perspective is sorely needed. My main question is this: Are drag shows and story hours really worth ruining lives over with one-size-fits-all punishments like prison stretches and permanent sex offender stigma? There must be a more thoughtful way to respect the views and comfort levels of others while protecting kids. But politics is not the realm of careful thought. It is the home of visceral overreaction.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.