The anti-drag movement encapsulates everything that’s going wrong in the United States – a country in the grip of an extremism crisis that is spiralling out of control. But how did we arrive at this point?
In a public library in San Francisco, in the middle of summer, a drag queen is reading a storybook to children. She’s wearing bright, colourful make-up, but her outfit (a San Francisco Giants T-shirt and baseball cap) is hardly out-there. The storybooks she reads tend to carry similar messages: how it’s OK to be yourself, to be different; how boys sometimes like to wear dresses; or the meaning behind Pride and the rainbow flag.
Today though, her reading is interrupted by eight men who suddenly barge into the library. They start aggressively shouting transphobic and homophobic slurs – calling her “a paedophile”, “a groomer”, “a thing” – and yelling about the need to “save” the children. One of them is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of a rifle and the slogan, ‘Kill Your Local Pedophile’.
The drag queen freezes: she wonders whether it’s an ambush, whether the men are armed. Her mind turns to a recent school shooting in Texas. Within seconds, a security guard quickly ushers her to another room for safety, while they wait for the police to arrive – but it takes a few more agonising minutes before they finally do. Dusting herself off, the drag queen goes back into the room, picks up the book and continues to read. “I was terrified,” she went on to say. “I knew that this was something I had to do, and I knew I was putting myself in danger to do it, and I had to push through.”
Drag Story Hour, a children’s literacy programme founded in San Francisco in 2015, has always faced opposition. But the protests used to be mild, usually involving a group of evangelical Christians standing across the street from an event and quietly praying for the souls of those inside. That is no longer the case. “We have had to start running workshops on how to prevent people bleeding out from gun wounds,” Jonathan Hamilt, the organisation’s executive director, tells Dazed. Armed protests now regularly disrupt its events; lawmakers are attempting to legislate it out of existence; and Hamilt and his colleagues are subject to a constant stream of death threats and online abuse. This is not just about drag, nor trans people (although it is certainly linked to a wider assault on trans rights). Instead, it is an issue that encapsulates everything that’s going wrong in the United States, a country in the grip of an extremism crisis that is spiralling out of control.
WHEN DID IT ALL BEGIN?
According to Hamilt, the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 marked a turning point. This event – often described as an insurrection or attempted coup – failed to prevent the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, and many of its instigators were later arrested. But rather than being deterred by this lack of success, far-right extremists were emboldened, expanding their influence and increasingly turning their attention towards the LGBTQ+ community. Alongside a wider uptick in homophobic and transphobic attacks, 2022 saw 141 incidents of violence that targeted drag events specifically, many of which were carried out by extremist groups like The Proud Boys. These crimes took place in 47 states, from liberal strongholds like New York City and San Francisco to the heartlands of conservatism (Texas saw the highest rate of incidences). Outside of the US, including here in Britain, far-right groups are increasingly following suit.
Throughout 2022, the far-right mobilised against Drag Story Hour events with shocking regularity. These incidents have involved protesters waving guns around, hurling rocks and smoke bombs, and screaming slurs at families in attendance (a strange strategy for a movement ostensibly concerned with “protecting children”.) The police response to these incidents has often been lacklustre to the point of collusion: at one event, a police officer allegedly left the scene right as a man with a gun marched into a library, leaving those inside to fend for themselves. Separately, police officers have allegedly high-fived and fist-bumped protestors who, moments before, had been shouting homophobic obscenities.
It wasn’t until November that the year reached its terrible culmination, when a gunman killed five people and injured 18 at an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs. The Club Q massacre wasn’t just about drag (though none of these incidents really are), but it began just as a drag show was ending, and took place the evening before an all-ages drag brunch, which had been organised to honour the Transgender Day of Remembrance. There is ample evidence that shows that the shooter, the then-22-year-old Anderson Lee Eldritch, was influenced by far-right ideology. He had allegedly created a “free speech” website where people would post antisemitic and racist rhetoric; an acquaintance reported that he regularly used homophobic and racist language, and had spoken about the need to “cleanse society”.
None of these crimes occur in a vacuum. There are plenty of examples of inflammatory anti-drag rhetoric which relate to Colorado specifically. Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who represents a district in the state, had previously tweeted a photo of a flier for a Drag Story Hour event with the words, “Sending a message to all the drag queens out there: stay away from the children in Colorado’s Third District!” Separately, the Twitter account ‘LibsofTikTok’, which posts content made by left-wing and LGBTQ+ people as a means of attacking them, had spent the previous months whipping up fury about drag events and inclusive education, including a number of cases that focused on Colorado.
HOW DID IT GET TO THIS POINT?
The pattern of behaviour engaged in by LibsofTikTok and other far-right media figures has been described as encouraging “stochastic terrorism”. This term refers to ideologically motivated acts of violence against minority groups, which are committed by individuals of their own volition but ultimately inspired by the rhetoric of media pundits and politicians. These public figures aren’t explicitly inciting their audience to commit violence (although in some cases, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson telling his viewers they have a moral duty to “fight back” and “defend their children'' from LGBTQ+ teachers, they may as well be). Instead, they are creating a climate and set of narratives in which these outcomes become inevitable. This isn’t just conjecture: experts have found a direct link between “bellicose, dehumanising and apocalyptic” rhetoric on the right and an increase in both threats of violence and actual attacks. Several of the drag events that were attacked last year had first been targeted by LibsofTikTok and Fox News.
Typically, the demonisation of drag performers, along with trans people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, is based on the idea that they pose a danger to children. According to the charity Media Matters, the use of the word ‘groomer’ as a slur skyrocketed across social media throughout the year (increasing even further after Elon Musk bought Twitter). It would be one thing if this narrative was the sole preserve of internet trolls, but there’s evidence to suggest that it has spread more widely: according to one recent poll conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, 42 per cent of people agreed, to some extent, that “transgender people are trying to indoctrinate children into their lifestyle,” a figure which rose to 63 per cent among Republicans.
‘It’s ironic that conservatives are accusing us of indoctrination, because their worldview is much more restrictive than ours. They are the ones who are really trying to impose their values. They want to retain rigid gender binaries, they want a more conformist style of thinking’ – Lil Miss Hot Mess
Sometimes, the right uses the ‘groomer’ trope in the most literal sense: they are accusing queer people of trying to sexually abuse children (whether or not they sincerely believe this is a different matter). But it’s also about the broader and more vague notion that queer people are attempting to ‘recruit’ and ‘indoctrinate’ kids, whether into being queer themselves or simply being tolerant of difference. This is the oldest trick in the homophobic playbook: when you look back to similar moral panics, such as Anita Bryant and the ‘Save Our Children’ campaign in the late 1970s, you find strikingly similar rhetoric. Today, it’s at the heart of why Drag Story Hour has become so demonised. That said, the organisation does have an agenda – it’s just not a sinister one. They want kids to encounter positive queer models, to become more compassionate towards those who are different and, in the words of their website, “imagine a world where everyone can be their authentic selves.”
“All education is in some ways about imparting values, norms and ways of doing things in the world,” says Lil Miss Hot Mess, a children’s author and performer who has been involved with Drag Story Hour for years. “It’s ironic that they’re accusing us of indoctrination, because their worldview is much more restrictive than ours. They are the ones who are really trying to impose their values. They want to retain rigid gender binaries, they want a more conformist style of thinking.”
THE LEGISLATIVE ATTACK ON DRAG
The physical violence directed at drag events is just one side of a two-pronged assault. “They are losing the culture war. This is why they’ve pivoted to legislation, because it is the only fight they have a chance at winning,” says Panda Dulce, a writer, drag queen and Story Hour reader. “Over 300 anti-LGBTQ and trans legislations have been introduced within the last year alone. This is where the fight is.” Several states – including Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina Tennessee, and Texas – have recently proposed bills that target drag directly, primarily by classifying it as an inherently sexual form of adult entertainment, akin to stripping, which appeals to a ‘prurient interest’. These laws would make it illegal for children to watch drag, no matter how wholesome or age-appropriate, and criminalising drag in public places could create a legal pretext for banning Pride events.
What’s even more troubling about this latest slate of bills is that – by design – they are worded so vaguely. This means they could be used to criminalise trans people who perform in any capacity, such as acting or stand-up comedy: Montana’s bill, for instance, defines drag as a performance in which someone “exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth.” According to Jules Gill-Peterson, associate professor of history at John Hopkins University and author of Histories of the Transgender Child, this is exactly how the law is meant to operate. “The county fair in Texas is not going to be banned because the kids’ beauty pageant is technically drag.”
As a trans woman who regularly gives public lectures, Gill-Peterson could theoretically be targeted by these bills – if, for example, she was giving a talk at a university and a 17-year-old student was in the room. “But I doubt it,” she says. “There would have to be an active political intent to arrest me, which could happen. But my guess is that middle-class, professional trans women will be significantly less likely to be targeted as a matter of routine policing.” Instead, she suspects it will be working-class and racialised trans women, street sex workers, and anyone else who is already a disproportionate target of state aggression, who bear the brunt of whatever legislation passes.
‘The right claim this affects millions of youth, when the figures are nowhere near this. The government spends more on erectile dysfunction medications than on trans youth annually’ – Panda Dulce
It’s important not to collapse being a drag artist and a trans person together, but the fact they are being attacked simultaneously is no coincidence: many of the anti-drag laws are being proposed alongside measures seeking to ban gender-affirming care for minors or to legally enshrine the right for students to misgender their classmates. They’re also taking place alongside efforts to ban LGBTQ+ books from school libraries and to prevent teachers from discussing issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. “The Right are claiming to protect children, and pushing to deprive children of gender-affirming medical care that is supported and corroborated as life-saving by all of the world’s leading medical and psychological institutions,” says Dulce. “They are leveraging an erroneous social contagion theory to claim this affects millions of youth, when the figures are nowhere near this. The government spends more on erectile dysfunction medications than on trans youth annually.”
These attacks on the queer community are part of a larger project. Within a similar time frame, and using very similar rhetoric, several states have also legislated against ‘critical race theory’ in public education, effectively censoring any discussion of structural racism. These measures are being championed by the exact same people, just as extremist groups are simultaneously targeting movements for racial justice, pro-choice demonstrations and abortion clinics. The far-right is nothing if not intersectional.
THE RISE OF EXTREMISM
In a sense, the war on drag is nothing new. There have always been both legislative and physical attacks on LGBTQ+ people, and these have always happened alongside one another. But there is greater collusion today between the mainstream rights and the extremist fringes than ever before. “Gay and trans people would get murdered and beat up in the 70s, but there wasn’t organised political violence like this,” says Peterson. The Proud Boys enjoy a particularly close relationship with the Republicans; they have been invited to give speeches at mainstream party events and provided private security for a number of high-profile political figures associated with Donald Trump. As reporter Andy Cambell writes in his recent book, We Are Proud Boys, the group, which has been most vociferous in its attacks on drag, is “revered and normalised by sections of the political right, they’re running for office, they have cops in their ranks and standing in their defence, and they have a supportive network of media personalities to boost them and deflect for them.”
‘The median suburban voter doesn’t really want children to be punished, to suffer, to be ripped away from their families, to be forcibly detransitioned or commit suicide. That doesn’t really play well outside of extremists’ – Jules Gill-Peterson
The encroachment of extremism into mainstream politics is concerning for a host of reasons, not least because it means that the far-right can still achieve its goals even when legislation fails. If people are too frightened to organise drag shows because they’re worried about terrorism, it doesn’t matter if every single anti-drag bill is defeated in court (as several already have been), because the effect is still the same. The historian Robert Paxton argued that ‘stage 2’ of fascism, the point at which it becomes rooted and influential, would arrive if “important elements of the conservative elite begin to cultivate or even tolerate [far-right extremists] as weapons against some internal enemy”. Written in 2003, this reads like an eerily accurate description of the current attacks on LGBTQ+ people. It’s true that extremist groups represent a tiny minority of the population, but they’re not an insignificant one: if they’re willing to commit political violence, then a small number of people can exert a profound impact on public life. This kind of chilling effect is already starting to take place. “I was going to do a Drag Bingo in New York City, and I was told I couldn’t use the word ‘drag’ in my show because that makes the insurance premiums go up,” says Hamilt. Even if these people lose – if their legislation fails to pass, if public opinion turns against them – they can still win.
When the homophobic ‘Save Our Children’ campaign was at the height of its power in the late 1970s, there was no broad public support for gay rights. But even in the face of widespread hostility and indifference, the gay movement still won (broadly speaking). The landscape today is much more promising. “It seems like the median suburban voter doesn’t really want children to be punished, to suffer, to be ripped away from their families, to be forcibly detransitioned or commit suicide. That doesn’t really play well outside of extremists,” says Gill-Peterson.
Today there is broad popular support for gay rights in the US (public opinion on trans rights is slightly more complex, but the majority oppose discrimination on the basis of gender identity.) Moreover, plenty of Americans are fans of drag, an art form that has exploded in mainstream popularity within the last decade; it’s harder to convince someone that it represents a sinister plot to molest their children if they’re tuning into RuPaul’s Drag Race every week. The idea that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is stretched to its limit when fascists start arriving with semi-automatic rifles, but according to Lil Miss Hot Mess, the protests often lead to more people showing up: “They want to support us, they want to show that the community overwhelmingly has our backs,” she says. While the growing threat of political violence adds a new element to the struggle, the overall terrain is arguably more favourable than it was during anti-LGBTQ+ panics in the past.
‘Drag is about entertainment and having a good time, but it’s also about challenging the status quo. So the answer is probably more drag, right?’ – Lil Miss Hot Mess
In response to the threat of violence, Drag Story Hour is creating a volunteer-led safety group – ‘the Royal Guard’ – which will escort performers to and from events. No one involved is backing down any time soon. “Once we’ve stopped gathering, they win,” says Hamilt. And as Lil Miss Hot Mess sees it, conservatives have picked a fight with the wrong group of people. “Drag queens, historically, have not been ones to back down easily,” she says. “We were some of the leaders of the fights for LGBTQ+ rights, certainly in the US, and in many places around the world.”
It helps that drag has such a strong history of political resistance, having played a generative role in the Stonewall riots, the 1970s gay liberation movement, the response to the AIDS crisis and even the struggle for reproductive justice (in the early 1990s, when abortion clinics were being protested, drag performers would gather outside and sing classic songs with specially tailored pro-choice lyrics). This is the tradition that’s being called upon now. “Drag is about entertainment and having a good time, but it’s also about challenging the status quo. So the answer is probably more drag, right?” says Lil Miss Hot Mess. “Instead of giving in, we need to lean into the celebratory and joyful nature of this art form, which has given so much comfort, joy and resilience in other times of distress. They want us to be so afraid that we stop doing what we’re doing. So I think the only thing we can do is to twirl harder.”
Lead image credit: Photography Nikolas Gannon/Via Unsplash