Drag queens to the rescue

Kita Mean, right, and Aubrey Haive, at Drag Con Los Angeles Photo: Aroha Awarau
Kita Mean, right, and Aubrey Haive, at Drag Con Los Angeles. Photo: Aroha Awarau
Everyone relax, drag queens have it all under control, writes Eva Wiseman.

Doesn’t it feel, perhaps, as if drag queens are about to save the world? For a long time the most public threat to drag queens were other drag queens, competing in lip-sync battles, or in the art of ritual insult, or throwing shade about back hair. In the past couple of years, though, drag has become a culture war flash point, with a series of US states passing anti-drag legislation. In Britain, in the summer of 2022, protesters started turning up at libraries hosting Drag Queen Story Hour. These protest groups, often including anti-vaxxers, white nationalists and conspiracy theorists, claimed to advocate for the protection of children. Conservative politicians described the events — typically drag queens reading stories about the joy of being yourself — as "inappropriate" and "propaganda". Videos appeared on social media, edited to suggest children were present at explicit nude performances, rather than, as was the case, an afternoon of fairy tales in fancy dress.

Between the summers of 2022 and 2023 at least 57 all-ages drag events were disrupted in the United Kingdom. Something was building. A man was found guilty of a public order offence after protesting at a drag queen story-telling event at Tate Britain. He was accused of being "aggressive and intimidating" and making comments motivated by "hostility relating to sexual orientation and transgender identity". It would all be quite funny, if it wasn’t also terrifying.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is responsible, first for taking drag mainstream and then for showing, week by week, that queer people are not odd or inferior, but funny and nuanced and human, and worthy of respect. In his Emmy acceptance speech last month, RuPaul said: "If a drag queen wants to read you a story at a library, listen to her, because knowledge is power. And if someone tries to restrict your access to power, they are trying to scare you."

While anti-drag activism was undoubtedly inspired by United States groups, it quickly found its feet in the UK, where cultural anxieties about gender are high and, instead of focusing on policy, politicians lean into feelings, focusing on divisive issues to show voters what they stand for, or against. They have created a sort of bitter fire around drag, a mix of homophobia and panic about trans people, kept alight by the media and people like Laurence Fox, who turned up at the drag event in south London in a little lilac scarf .

Fox’s picture has been in the UK papers a lot lately. He was in court after calling drag queen Crystal (real name Colin Seymour) and former Stonewall trustee Simon Blake "paedophiles" online in 2020. They sued him, he counter-sued, and lost. Crystal got up at 3am the following morning in order to put on two hours of drag makeup before her Sky News interview with Kay Burley. "Do you have any sympathy for Fox?" she asked. "I have sympathy for people who have been targeted," replied Crystal, who’s had death threats and countless accusations of paedophilia since the trial began. "There’s a huge swathe of the population that experiences this nastiness." She calmly and sensibly explained why she’d pursued this through the courts for more than three years, because baseless accusations of paedophilia against queer people are an "old trope" and one that needs to be exploded. There’s a long history to this — to the threat of paedophilia being used in dehumanising, homophobic and transphobic ways, tapping into parents fears by branding queer people as predatory. These moral panics that locate the threat to children as drag queens in libraries are a distraction of course, from decades of research that confirmed the places that young people are actually most at risk of sexual victimisation are their homes, churches or schools.

Drag has always been a political act. It has disrupted conformity, protested queer invisibility in the mainstream, brought razzmatazz and glee to otherwise grim occasions, on hospital wards or picket lines. It is a form of protest in itself, a glamorous reminder that it’s OK to be visibly different and that you can be adored and celebrated and even happy while doing so. Crystal showing up to the news studio in drag, discussing her libel victory feels both radical and completely correct, an important, inevitable performance. Drag queens, for so long now the focus of bad faith debate and confusion, are fighting back, unpicking the culture war to provide a kind of calm and glittering hope. — Guardian News and Media