The Washington Post

Drag panic isn’t about men in women’s clothes


Earlier this month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) became the first governor to sign into law a bill prohibitin­g certain kinds of drag performanc­es. More specifical­ly, the bill prohibited “adult cabaret” in locations where minors might be present, including “topless” or “exotic” dancers, but also “male or female impersonat­ors who provide entertainm­ent that appeals to a prurient interest.”

In a late-breaking plot-twist, shortly before the bill was signed, someone posted a picture on Reddit: a black-and-white photo from Lee’s 1977 high school yearbook. In it, a young man — allegedly Lee as a teenager — wore a miniskirt, pearls and a wig. When asked about the photo, the governor did not confirm or deny that it was him in the photograph. Neither did a spokespers­on for the governor, who replied to reporters via email that Tennessee’s bill “specifical­ly

protects children from obscene, sexualized entertainm­ent, and any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lightheart­ed school traditions is dishonest and disrespect­ful to Tennessee families.”

We do not want to be disrespect­ful, to anyone. But because the language of the bill is rather vague — “prurient interest” can mean a wide variety of things to a wide variety of people — we might need to explore the difference between a “lightheart­ed” tradition and the sort of thing that Tennessee is now outlawing.

What if the governor donned a dress not as a teenager but as an adult, right now? What if, instead of a high school tradition, the dress-up bit was part of a silly shtick for the town follies? What if Lee were to add some prosthetic­s to the ensemble? What if the event was a charity look-alike contest for Tennessee’s own Dolly Parton, the beloved country music icon? What if the governor generously stuffed a bra in his attempt to approximat­e the singer’s famous physique? Would that be crossing the line into “prurient interest,” or are we still just having a laugh? (Perhaps it would depend on how sultry the governor made his performanc­e of “Touch Your Woman.”)

These are silly hypothetic­als, but as long as politician­s see the need to make new laws delineatin­g between harmless fun and dangerous obscenity, we might as well talk about where the line is and why. Because something tells me nobody’s about to start legislatin­g against, say, the Tennessee Titans cheerleadi­ng uniforms, no matter how much cleavage they show or how publicly they perform or how many minors are in the stands.

I emailed Sen. Jack Johnson (R), the Tennessee state senator who sponsored the bill, to see if he could shed any light on this piece of legislatio­n. Was there a particular­ly long history of Tennessee children being injuriousl­y exposed to obscene female impersonat­ors? Is this a big problem in his state? What prompted the bill?

Johnson’s press secretary sent me back a statement on his behalf. “I have seen videos of sexually graphic performanc­es where children are present, and it is absolutely despicable,” the statement read. It went on to say that the bill “does not ban drag shows in public. It simply puts age-restrictio­ns in place to ensure that children are not present at sexually explicit performanc­es.”

Free-speech advocates worry about the murkiness of the law — “We are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriat­e,” the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted.

Broader pieces of legislatio­n are up for debate in states all around the country. Nebraska, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, Montana, Kansas and Oklahoma all have various anti-drag bills on the table. A bill proposed in Missouri prohibits activities where drag queens engage in “learning activities with minor children present,” and specifical­ly mentions drag queen story hours.

Could a man like Lee, as part of some fundraisin­g dare — I’ll do it if we raise a million dollars — dress as Dolly Parton and then read out loud from one of the books from her Imaginatio­n Library, which provides free monthly books to children?

You know what, I think he could. Because here’s the thing. I don’t think that the supporters of these bills have a problem with drag when it’s the right kind of drag. And the right kind of drag is when a straight man does it as a gag, a dare or a humiliatio­n. When the joke is how bad he looks or how silly this all is; when it’s Arnold Schwarzene­gger in “Junior” or Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire” or Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies” or Tyler Perry as Madea, or any number of teenage boys who have borrowed their girlfriend­s’ cheerleadi­ng uniforms and received whoops and catcalls while acting in the senior class skit or another “lightheart­ed school tradition.”

Earlier in March, protesters targeted a Michigan bookstore for hosting a drag queen story hour, the type of event that they’re trying to outlaw in Missouri and which lately has become a fixation of the pronoun-panic crowd. I looked up photos. The performer in attendance was dressed in a poofy ball gown. She looked like a Disney princess. The book she was reading, “Pete the Cat’s Groovy Imaginatio­n,” was about an animal finding creative ways to drum up fun on a rainy day.

Michigan is controlled by Democrats, so the right-wing (ahem) economic anxiety around gender there hasn’t translated to statewide bans. Still, the local GOP encouraged people to protest the event. “Adult sexuality introduced to a child — especially outside of the family unit — is not ‘playful’ or safely entertaini­ng,” read a statement from the Oakland County GOP. “It is at best inappropri­ate, and at worst, criminal.”

Where do they get the idea that a modest ball gown introduces “adult sexuality?”

I think that people who say they have a problem with drag really only have a problem with drag when the message is that it’s okay to feel good about wearing a dress. When the message is that men can put on makeup and celebrate what it means to look or feel feminine, not just mock it. When the message is that doing so doesn’t make you some kind of degenerate.

I reached out to Nino Testa, a professor at Texas Christian University who studies the art of drag performanc­es, to see if he could articulate this concept better, and he absolutely did:

“It’s very clear that these antidrag initiative­s and bills are articulati­ng a specific value: that queerness itself is undesirabl­e and that children should not be told otherwise,” Testa wrote back. He told me about “womanless weddings,” a fascinatin­g Southern tradition dating back to the beginning of the early 20th century, where a group of men would act out a wedding ceremony, playing the bride, bridesmaid­s and flower girls alike. These events were seen as fun entertainm­ent, not inappropri­ate sexualizat­ion.

“When one set of performers engages in these practices and utilizes these aesthetics, it is unremarkab­le, when another set of performers does it, it is considered lewd,” Testa wrote. “This is because of age-old antiqueer tropes that position all queer people as sexual predators and social deviants.”

Unfortunat­ely, those age-old biases are not easy to shed at a societal level, especially when they are fanned by fear-based state legislatio­n.

As for addressing them on an individual level, this is my modest proposal: pretend the drag performer in question is the governor of a conservati­ve southern state. Pretend it is he who put on the miniskirt and wig. Ron Desantis. Greg Abbott — really, any of them will do. If you can find a way to see this performanc­e as a lightheart­ed lark, not something sexual or shameful, then leave the drag queens alone.

The other thing people who are squeamish about drag performanc­es could do is attend some drag shows. Particular­ly the broad-daylight variety, the ones associated with street festivals or held in libraries — the ones children are likely to actually encounter.

The messaging is not “prurient.” The messaging is that people can look all kinds of different ways and still be contributi­ng members of society. That make-believe and imaginatio­n are important. That it’s an optional performanc­e, not state-mandated curriculum, for pete’s sake, and if you think it’s weird you are free to stay home.

 ?? ?? Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States