Ban on US drag shows sparks fear of attacks by far right
On March 3, Tennessee became the first US state to ban public drag performances
Dallas, US — Daphne Rio had been performing a weekly drag brunch at a Dallas cafe for nearly a year when a couple slipped in, snapped a slew of pictures then slipped straight back out.
Their lightning visit set off alarm bells for Rio, no stranger to the drag circuit after eight years of performing in a host of Dallas bars and clubs.
So it came as no surprise when, days later, images of Rio and her fellow performers showed up in a newsletter distributed by a right-wing group that organises protests against drag shows in Texas.
The post was a call to arms.
“Now is the time to take a stand against this disgusting child abuse. Sharing outrageous footage from the show after it takes place isn't enough. We need you out there protesting with us,” the “Protect Texas Kids” group wrote in its newsletter.
Armed protesters duly picketed Rio’s next performance, legal under the state’s lax gun laws. Counter protesters — some also carrying weapons — showed up to support the drag artists.
It was just one small piece in an escalating culture war fragmenting the US, setting advocates of LGBTQ rights and free expression against those who say drag acts are immoral and can corrupt, with the young feared most at risk.
It is a standoff that instils fear in many drag artists who worry that protests, along with a mounting clamour in some conservative media outlets, could yet spill into violence.
“It all works in tandem to create a chilling environment where it’s harder for LGBTQ people to exist openly,” Ari Drennen of Media Matters for America — a left-leaning media monitoring organisation — told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Drag has grown rapidly in popularity in the last two decades, in part due to “RuPaul's Drag Race”. In its 15th season, the TV show has spawned spin-offs worldwide.
Many drag queens now say they can make a career out of an art form that historically lived underground.
Cultural events have followed, such as Drag Story Hour — readings to children in local libraries — which began in 2015 and now has more than 50 chapters around the country.
As the drag scene has grown, it has also spawned a backlash, with opponents especially quick to condemn performances that are open to all ages, saying they could harm impressionable children by exposing them to content deemed sexually explicit.
On March 3, Tennessee became the first state to ban public drag performances, with artists running the risk of a misdemeanour charge, or felony with a repeat offence.
According to free speech group Pen America, bills that aim to ban drag performances in some form have been introduced in 14 US states, including Oklahoma, Kentucky, Idaho and Montana.
Rio’s show went off without a hitch, but she has since started telling her audience to look out for anything “off”.
She also works with venues to come up with security plans in case of a worst-case scenario.
“Drag is a safe space. Even though it is my job, it has always been a safe space for me. So, I want everyone else to feel the same,” Rio said.
“I want my audience to know that they can come and not have to worry about issues like these,” she said by phone.
More than 375 bills targeting the rights of LGBTQ Americans have been filed since the start of 2023, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
These range from banning the use of preferred pronouns in schools to punishing parents who seek gender-affirming care for transgender children.
Multiple bills concerning drag acts seek to include them under the definition of “sexually oriented businesses”.
Tennessee imposed its restriction on drag performances after governor Bill Lee signed a bill that banned “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors” including “male and female impersonators” on public property.
The bill also limits such performances to venues which bar entry to under-18s.
In a media conference, Lee defended the legislation, stating: “Children ... are potentially exposed to sexualised entertainment, to obscenity, and we need to make sure that they're not.”
Republican Chris Todd, who filed the bill, did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
In a recent TV interview, he said those who wanted children to attend drag shows were “supporting paedophiles.”
As states mull bans similar to Tennessee’s, performers feel they risk physical and mental damage if their shows continue and opponents are given free rein.
Already activists say that attacks are on the rise, though it is hard to verify numbers.
But the rhetoric has been a factor behind 141 incidents of protests or threats against drag events in 2022, according to GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy organisation. Some of those threats have led to violence, it said.
An Oklahoma doughnut shop was vandalised in an arson attack in October, according to the Tulsa Fire department. The attack came after the venue had hosted drag events it called “The Queens Dirty Dozen”.
Self-described neo-Nazi protesters also disrupted a “Drag Queen Story Hour” — held to promote diverse role models — at two libraries in Massachusetts in recent months, according to local media and one of the queens who was hosting the event.
In December, a group of at least 10 men gathered at one library in Fall River, Massachusetts, behind a banner saying “drag queens are paedophiles”, according to a video the group NSC 131 posted online.
Police were called, the town’s mayor said, calling it an attempt to “cause chaos and confusion” at the event.
A month later, and Massachusetts performer Monia Moore was hosting her Drag Queen Story Hour at Taunton library when protesters from the same group stormed in. She said they shouted derogatory slurs as she read to the children, until police intervened for her safety.
“They were carrying bags and we don’t know what's in the bags. And then I kept on thinking is this the last time I'm going to see my fiancé and my best friend,” she said.
Taunton municipal officials did not respond to a request for comment.
On social media, NSC 131 said that the group had “shut down” the event causing Moore to be escorted away. The group also began soliciting donations for a legal defence fund after confirming their arrests.
Moore said she had trouble sleeping in the following days and was scared to go out in public alone for weeks.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
BenDeLaCreme, stage name of Benjamin Putnam, has been in the drag industry for more than two decades and has starred in two seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her name is shortened as DeLa.
On a recent tour with the Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Show, DeLa said she was conscious of the security at all the US venues.
But the shows in Canada or Britain lacked the same level of scrutiny, she said, reflecting the current ferocity of the US debate.
“It’s a new level of understanding of how devastating this problem is, specifically in the US,” DeLa told Openly.
Each stop included strict ticket checks, no re-entry and armed security. Guests also were screened with metal detectors.
While it was not new to feel at risk for sticking out, DeLa said today’s level of gun violence and vitriol aimed at performers was novel, and at times frightening.
“It’s not that many decades ago, that it was illegal if you got caught in too many articles of clothing of the, quote unquote, opposite gender. I mean, that is recent history,” she said.
Thompson Reuters Foundation
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