Columbia, Missouri, is a typical midwestern college town. Much like Ames, Iowa, or Lawrence, Kansas, or Champaign, Illinois, or Bloomington, Indiana, it has a population of roughly 100,000, sits in the middle of the state, and enfolds a large state university, in this case the University of Missouri. Full of college-related activities and removed from both urban angst and rural isolation, it presents an idyllic setting for raising children and edifying adults. Columbia is also typical in its standing as a center of liberal political sentiment amid great surrounding swaths of conservatism in rural and small-town areas (“oasis” and “desert” is the usual metaphor one hears from its academic denizens). Over the last couple of decades, Missouri has moved from being a long-time swing state to being a conservative bastion, as Republicans fill nearly all of the state’s congressional and Senate seats and state government offices. Columbia, however, like most college towns, has maintained a strongly progressive sensibility akin to the nearest urban centers, St. Louis to the east and Kansas City to the west. Progressive Democrats tend to dominate its city council, school board, and local state representatives.
A strong tradition illustrating the city’s liberal atmosphere is the annual Columbia Values Diversity breakfast, an event held for some 30 years on or around the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Hosted by the city government, it traditionally features speakers and presentations focused on the African-American civil rights movement, with representatives of the NAACP, local civic groups, and community leaders extolling King and his legacy. This year’s edition on Jan. 19, 2023, was typical, as a female African-American vice president of a WNBA team, and former star player, gave the keynote address, and a local African-American nonprofit leader was presented with an individual diversity award.
The gathering, however, featured one notable departure. The last item on the program was a 20-minute performance by Nclusion Plus, a drag queen troupe, which presented four lip-synched musical numbers accompanied by sashaying and posing. At the end of the songs, several attendees rushed forward to give them dollar bills. It is hard to gauge the general reaction to the show, with film of the audience depicting some clapping and cheering while others appear to look on uneasily in disbelief or amusement. Then it was discovered that about 30 middle school children from the Columbia Public Schools were in attendance, as had been a custom for years, and witnessed the drag queen show. Upon this news, controversy erupted: the governor and attorney general of Missouri publicly condemned the drag queen portion of the event as inappropriate for kids, some Republican legislators threatened legislation restricting such shows, some parents of juvenile attendees expressed outrage that they had not been told about the drag show, Columbia leaders defended the performance and accused critics of anti-LBGTQ bigotry, and heated letters to local newspapers took sides. Public school officials scrambled to offer explanations.
As is true in many communities where drag queen performances or “Drag Queen Story Hours” for children have ignited controversy, the Columbia Values Diversity breakfast imbroglio raises several important issues with which concerned citizens are wrestling, either directly or by implication. What exactly is the agenda of drag queen performers and how does it impact the sexual values of our society? Are drag queen shows or story hours appropriate for children? Do drag queens and other sexually marginalized groups now have equal standing with racial and ethnic minorities to demand civic inclusion? A deeper dig into this heartland drama suggests some answers, while also shedding light on the larger culture wars roiling American society.
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While episodes of cross-dressing date back centuries, the history of drag queens in America is more recent and has gone through several stages. Emerging surreptitiously in the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, drag queens outfitted in extravagant women’s clothing offered underground urban displays of sexual exhibition in clubs that piqued the attention of curious city-dwellers and attracted wide-eyed stares from provincial visitors. Beginning with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, however, drag became politicized as it was swept up in the burgeoning movement for gay liberation. It transformed from private titillation into a public display of rebellion against stuffy sexual restraints of bourgeois America. By the 1980s and 1990s, drag queens had emerged as important figures in the radical gender theorizing of figures such as Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler, who drew upon the influential work of French theorist Michel Foucault to argue that a standard of heteronormativity provided a key support for Western patriarchal capitalism and needed to be overturned. In this sexual calculus of oppression, married heterosexuals stood at the top of the erotic pyramid, and stacked beneath them in descending order stood unmarried heterosexual couples, lesbian and gay male couples, promiscuous males and females, and finally, in Rubin’s nomenclature, “transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists, sadomasochists, sex workers such as prostitutes and porn models, and lowliest of all, those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries [pedophiles].” Queer theory, as it came to be generically known, aimed to overthrow this hierarchy, replace the binary structure of male-female, and create a world of unbounded sexual expression. Drag queens — adult men wearing ball gowns and high-heels, glitter and sequins, outlandish face makeup, and bombastic hair — emerged as vivid symbols of sexual transgression that promised to undermine repressive Western norms.
Over the last two decades, queer theorists and drag queens themselves have issued numerous analyses and declarations of intent. Sarah Hankins, a queer theorist specializing in the study of drag queens (as well as an enthusiast for the genre), did extensive fieldwork in Boston-area drag venues and wrote an influential 2015 article describing drag performances as “potent stagings of gender, sex and social power as intersectional categories,” an endeavor that ranged from “on-stage teasing to lap dancing, grinding, kissing, mock oral sex, and sadomasochistic scenarios.” Hankins noted that drag queens employ “tropes of primitivism and degeneracy as tools of protest and liberation,” all in the interests of upending sexual hierarchies. Describing drag bar acts as “sex work” where drag queens labor for tips, she classified three types of performance — “Straight-Ahead Drag,” “Burlesque Drag,” and “Genderf**k Drag” — that employed varying techniques to present violations of the gender binary, titillating sexual display, and striptease. But regardless of the drag style, Hankins concluded, “overwhelmingly within this community, among performers and audiences alike, the affective pleasures of sex, arousal, and desire are valorized [i.e. the value is enhanced].”
In 1921, “Lil Miss Hot Mess” (the drag queen stage name of Harris Kornstein, a professor at the University of Arizona) co-wrote along with Harper Keenan, a transgender male queer theorist at the University of British Columbia, a piece that illuminated another important aspect of the drag enterprise: its educational mission, which focuses on reaching children. Titled “Drag Pedagogy: The Playful Practice of Queer Imagination in Early Childhood,” this handbook contended that the standard education system aimed to reproduce “the state’s normative vision of its ideal citizenry,” a crucial part of which was heteronormative gender roles. In the authors’ words, “the institutional management of gender has been used as a way of maintaining racist and capitalist modes of (re)production.” Drag queens promised to disrupt this indoctrination with “drag pedagogy,” which plants the seeds of “gender-transgressive themes” that subsequently grow to undermine the family, marriage, work, and other foundational elements of bourgeois capitalist society. But there is a broader drag educational goal: inspiring disruption and disobedience. Lil Miss Hot Mess and Keenan explain that drag pedagogy “is all about bending and breaking the rules.… There is a premium on standing out, on artfully desecrating the sacred. In other words, what we refer to as strategic defiance is encouraged …. [F]ostering collective unruliness also helps children to understand that they can have a hand in changing their environment.… [Drag] performers demonstrate a refusal to be told what to do.”
The revolutionary praxis of the drag queen movement appears in its clearly stated goal of transformation. Its theorists admit that talk of inclusion is just a ploy. Hot Mess and Keenan, for instance, describe the drag movement’s efforts to “actively destabilize” existing norms of gender and sexuality as “a fundamentally different orientation than movements towards the inclusion or assimilation of LGBT people into existing structures of school and society” since “efforts aimed at LGBT inclusion have replaced one monolithic script of gender with another.” Hot Mess spoke more plainly in an interview with Teen Vogue: “When I think of inclusion, I think about almost a patronizing approach. It’s sort of saying, ‘Well, you’re different and we’re going to include you because we have to.’ We’re going beyond that. It’s about disrupting the status quo.” Hot Mess and Keenan go on to clarify that playing the inclusion game is necessary to gain acceptance. Drag queens “recite lines about alignment with curricular standards and social-emotional learning in order to be legible within public education and philanthropic institutions. Drag itself ultimately does not take these utilitarian aims too seriously (but it is quite good at looking the part when necessary).” The authors’ conclusion underlines this Trojan-horse tactic. While the drag queen movement may present itself as “‘family friendly,’ in the sense that it is accessible and inviting to families with children, it is less a sanitizing force than it is a preparatory introduction to alternate forms of kinship,” they write. “[It] is ‘family friendly’ in the sense of ‘family’ as an old-school queer code to identify and connect with other queers on the street.”
The revolutionary quality of the drag queen movement also shines through in a second characteristic: bestirring and fashioning children’s sexuality. At a practical level, this endeavor involves performing before children as well as the aforementioned educational forays into classrooms and other learning sites. Lil Miss Hot Mess and Harper Keenan explain that appearing in “family-friendly” environments sets the stage for “positioning queer and trans cultural forms as valuable components of early childhood education.” This sexual agenda involves “bringing queer ways of knowing and being into the education of young children.” By singing and dancing before kids or reading to them in public libraries, bookstores, and classrooms from books such as Bye Bye Binary, The Gender Wheel, or Kornstein’s own, The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, drag queens show children how to “live queerly” and generally heighten their awareness of sexual possibilities.
At the abstract level, the drag queen movement goes much further by reformulating adult-child erotic relationships. Hankins notes that drag club performances dismantle oppressive, harmful taboos such as “pedophilia” along with “necrophilia, erotic object fetishism, and human-animal sex.” The act of tipping performers also draws in audience members, who, by this transaction, can “temporarily embody” marginalized sexual identities, including “the pedophile … even the sexualized youth/child themselves.” Rubin, the godmother of queer theory, in her groundbreaking essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” defends “boylovers” and “men who love underage youth” and denounces their opponents as purveyors of “erotic hysteria.” Rubin argued that pedophiles’ behavior should be normalized and legalized and confidently asserted, “In twenty years or so, when some of the smoke has cleared, it will be much easier to show that these men have been victims of a savage and undeserved witch hunt.” Michel Foucault, the French theorist whose connection of sexual oppression to Western power structures lay at the heart of queer theory, was notorious for his defense of pedophilia. He signed a petition to legalize adult-child sexual liaisons in France and defended it to an interviewer: “It could be that the child, with his own sexuality, desired that adult.… And to assume that a child is incapable of explaining what happened and was incapable of giving his consent are two abuses that are intolerable.”
Against this backdrop of drag history, declaration, and practice, three Nclusion Plus drag queens presented their show at the Columbia Values Diversity breakfast. Employing the inclusion strategy outlined in the Lil Miss Hot Mess handbook, the drag organization described this civic performance as “a completely G-rated, family-friendly, uplifting, motivational, positive experience.” The trio framed themselves as just another healthy ingredient in the salad bowl of American life — nonthreatening, mainstream entertainers out to generate wholesome fun while simply seeking acceptance for their “difference.” Here were drag queens you could take home to mother.
However, a look at the Nclusion Plus website reveals a somewhat different agenda. Alongside the inclusion boilerplate and listing of sites and organizations that serve LGBTQ people are other sections. A tab for “Health Resources” enumerates clinics that treat sexually transmitted diseases and provide “Transgender Affirming Healthcare,” i.e. hormone treatments, puberty blockers, and breast and genital surgery. Another tab advertises an assortment of drag queen merch, including a bumper sticker emblazoned with “Lick it before you stick it.” A “Books of the Month” menu begins with a children’s book entitled My Shadow Is Pink, aimed at ages 5 through 9, or kindergarten through third grade. It tells the story of a little boy, a lover of princesses and dancing, who goes to school for the first time outfitted in a dress, but flees home when classmates give him skeptical looks; his burly, masculine father then puts on a pink, sparkly dress and takes his son back to school, inculcating the lesson that everyone has to be “your innermost you.” Clearly, Nclusion Plus places transgressive sexuality as the hub of its wheel, while all other spokes of entertainment, uplift, and education radiate from it. True to the aims of the larger drag queen movement, it seeks to subvert the gender binary and undermine the social system with which it is intertwined.
After the diversity breakfast performance, Columbia’s progressive leaders stepped up to support Nclusion Plus and its agenda. The city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the annual event, not only approved the drag queen performance but, it was later disclosed, used taxpayer funds to pay the group $500 for the show. The mayor of Columbia voiced the city’s official stance. Elected as a progressive Democrat in the 2022 election — she specializes in sustainability policy — the mayor attended the event and proudly posed for a picture with the NClusion drag queens after their performance. When criticism of the drag show mounted, she issued a public statement defending it: “Drag is a cross-cultural art form with a long and rich history that is fun and encourages self-expression. As hate crimes against drag show locations and performers are being committed in other communities, we want to reaffirm that Columbia is a community that supports all.”
For its part, the Columbia Public Schools administration reacted awkwardly to the diversity breakfast controversy, staggering around in a swamp of evasions and damage control. When state officials and a number of parents launched a fusillade of criticism at the school system for allowing children to attend an event with drag queens, the president of the Board of Education claimed that “other than the keynote speaker most of the [diversity breakfast] program is unknown to the public,” told concerned citizens to contact the city, and headed for the hills. The superintendent followed with a letter that first claimed no advance knowledge of a drag queen show, and then defended it as innocent. “Although CPS [Columbia Public Schools] was unaware what the performance by NClusion+ would entail, their program was not an ‘adult’ performance. This type of misrepresentation is harmful to our students, our staff, and our community,” read the key passage. When news emerged, however, that a high-ranking school district official had served on the organizing committee for the diversity breakfast, and that the city’s official website listed “entertainment by Nclusion+,” these protestations of ignorance struck many as puzzling. It became even more puzzling when news broke that the parental permission slip granting approval for their child’s attendance said nothing whatever about a drag queen performance. This triggered a second, chagrined missive from the superintendent granting that “expectations were not met, specifically regarding the level of communication to parents,” apologizing for the resulting “frustration,” and appealing for “a return to civil and respectful conversation.”
Another key actor in this heartland melodrama, the area’s African-American civil rights leaders, have remained noticeably quiet about this controversial episode. No official or unofficial statements have appeared, while an email request for an interview or conversation with someone from the local NAACP chapter has gone unanswered. This is not surprising. The drag queen performance has placed African Americans in an awkward position, both by completely overshadowing the traditional King-and-civil-rights emphasis of the diversity breakfast and running afoul of the longstanding connection between the civil rights movement and the black church. One suspects that a division of opinion, or at least ambiguous attitudes, linger in the black community: we support inclusion, but do drag queens fit the bill? Off-the-record comments from a couple of African-American friends denote such ambivalence. One said obliquely of the drag show, “I’m glad I wasn’t there,” while another noted judiciously but with a pained look, “I’m not sure this sort of thing really helps much to advance the cause of civil rights.”
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So what can, and should, be made of this culture wars skirmish in the heartland? Can any clear, reasonable conclusions be drawn about the drag queen movement from the Columbia contretemps? Several takeaways seem obvious.
First, drag is inherently, and thoroughly, a sexualized project. Drag shows in clubs are sex shows where erotic display and titillation are its raison d’être, trumping entertainment as drag queens lip-sync rather than actually sing, pose, and strut provocatively rather than actually dance. Moreover, the sexual essence of drag constitutes a revolutionary agenda for overturning the male-female gender binary and subverting longstanding sexual and social norms in American and Western culture. So if you think drag queens are just fun and humor, you’re kidding yourself. If you think drag queens are just an updated version of Milton Berle or Tootsie or Shakespeare, as defenders often argue in asserting the harmlessness of drag, you are either naïve or uninformed. Berle, the 1950s television comedian, occasionally dressed in women’s clothes precisely to wring laughs from a ridiculous juxtaposition, and caricature, of traditional male and female norms (By the way, he launched a 1999 multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Out! magazine when it ran an ad that pictured him in a dress and described him as a “queen”). Tootsie, the charming 1970s movie, put Dustin Hoffman in female clothing as a desperate maneuver to get his out-of-work character an acting gig, during which he becomes a feminist, engages in heterosexual sex, and falls in love with his female co-star. The Bard, of course, employed cross-dressing in plays such as Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It, but they featured women disguised as men to escape the shackles placed on females and claim power usually the preserve of males. None of these older entertainment creations aimed to explode the male-female binary and reconstitute society on a principle of gender fluidity. Conflating them with the drag queen crusade is not just a case of comparing apples and oranges; it is comparing apples and hand grenades.
Second, situating drag queens under the inclusion umbrella is a dicey business. This maneuver runs aground on the issue that drag does not want to enter the mainstream so much as destroy it in the name of gender revolution. Moreover, if inclusion is now stretched to encompass marginalized sex workers, in the interests of fairness and consistency, do we now need to include strippers? Females and males who take off their clothes for payment meet this new standard — they are laborers specializing in erotic arousal, they challenge the boundaries of sexual expression, and they are marginalized by repressive bourgeois standards. So in the name of inclusivity, must we anticipate public stripteases in civic spaces where barely clad females tone it down to discreetly writhe around a dance pole, or perform sedate lap dances for breathless, sweat-sheened burghers who stick dollar bills in G-strings? Or Chippendales dancers reading to children in “family-friendly” settings where they remain mostly clothed, of course, while prompting first graders to explore their sexuality and ditch the repressive mores?
Third, the notion of drag queens teaching children is extremely dicey business. And for one big reason — the vast majority of Americans object to pre-pubescent children being sexualized in any way by anybody. Subjecting little kids to lessons on how to “live queerly” is inappropriate, as would be strippers’ admonitions on how to live hyper-heterosexual lives, because children are not equipped either biologically, or emotionally, to understand and process such information. Small children will believe anything they are told earnestly, and it is the responsibility of parents and properly supervised schools to do the telling when they are old enough to grasp such things. As for the drag queen lessons promoting generalized “defiance,” let’s see how real school teachers already grappling with lapsed disciplinary standards and increasing student misbehavior react to this curricular innovation.
Fourth, the Columbia dustup makes clear that progressives provide little guidance for assessing difficult issues such as drag queens and their import. They labor under several weighty delusions. In the progressive view, anyone entering the victimization sweepstakes for any reason qualifies for acceptance and recompense. Obsessed with avoiding the horrors of “judgmentalism,” progressives are unable to offer any standards for parsing claims and analyzing consequences beyond meaningless bromides — “accept people for what they are,” “we all deserve a voice,” “everyone needs to feel safe” — which, of course, can be applied to anyone from the Proud Boys to the Flat Earth Society, Antifa to the Bigfoot Field Research Organization. The resulting stance veers close to “radical chic,” Tom Wolfe’s famous 1970 description of Leonard Bernstein inviting street-tough, violent Black Panthers into his tony apartment to join his elitist friends, share cocktails, and chitchat about revolution. Too often privileged progressives make grand gestures about manning the barricades, while they maintain a safe distance, protect their position within the system sitting in the crosshairs, and get on with their lives. Let’s hurry and destroy the gender binary before the hors d’oeuvres get stale.
These commonsensical conclusions suggest a pair of remedies moving forward, ones that a great majority of reasonable citizens and concerned parents would likely endorse. To begin with, relocating drag queens within an old-fashioned matrix of private and public endeavor would go far to resolve tensions over this issue. Let’s be clear — no one is, nor should be, pursuing a crusade to cancel, forbid, discriminate against, or jail drag queens. If some adult men find happiness in dressing up and performing as women, that is their right. If some adults find enjoyment attending drag queen shows or strip clubs, it’s a free country. If you want to overturn the male-female sexual binary in drag performances or hypercharge it in strip joints, that is your business. But such sexual preferences and predilections are essentially personal and should be indulged in clubs, watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race on television at home, or pursued in other private venues and not shoved into the civic sphere or foisted on the general public, many of whom find them distasteful or perhaps immoral. As with so many other things these days, American society would benefit from honoring the difference between toleration and affirmation. Our system’s protection of the individual’s liberty to embrace what you will, including sexual activities, should not lead inexorably to demands for official, civic sanction of such desires.
In addition, and more simply, keep drag queens away from children, especially pre-pubescent kids. There is simply no logical reason for such interactions, any more than for any species of sex worker to engage with youngsters. In other words, drag queens are adult stuff, not kid stuff. Here the tables need to be turned: those who believe that young children should be sexualized need to be called upon to explain why. Again, the public-private dichotomy profitably enters the picture. If you want to teach your second-grader about gender fluidity, feel free to do so at home, but don’t expect the mass of ordinary citizens, along with public approval and money, to line up in support. Libraries and classrooms, supported by public funds, should not be hosting drag queens or strippers. If private venues such as bookstores want to feature such endeavors, that is their right, just as it is the right of parents to subsequently decide if they wish to spend their money at these establishments.
So a solution to the drag queen problem might be hammered out along the lines of toleration in combination with reasonable restraint. Yet it would be delusional to abandon concern about the larger drag queen enterprise. A spokesman for the movement unintentionally pulled back the curtain, providing a brief glimpse of the force behind, when addressing the Missouri General Assembly a few days after the Columbia dustup. In testimony opposing legislation aimed at restricting the location of drag shows, he bristled at the mention of a danger to children. “Do you think we’re stupid?” sputtered Shawn Stokes, the reigning Miss Gay St. Louis arrayed in a crown, women’s clothes, and glittering makeup he uses for performances under his drag stage name, Akasha Royale. “I would never harm a child. I know how to act when I’m around a kid.” This protestation speaks volumes. Stokes did not say he would avoid inappropriate sexual activities with or around a child because it was wrong; he would avoid it because he was smart enough to know it would land him in serious legal trouble. This statement not only tacitly admits the intense sexuality inherent in drag queen performance, but also confesses that utility and self-protection, not a moral standard or concern for a child’s welfare, determines how the drag queen deploys that sexuality. That is not exactly a reassuring — or “uplifting” or “family-friendly” or “fun” — sentiment.
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