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The drag queen Panda Dulce was at the San Lorenzo Library in California when members of the extremist group the Proud Boys barged in.
They interrupted Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), where performers read books to kids as a means toward literacy and compassion for others, and, per Dulce, slung insults such as “groomer.” One man’s T-shirt instructed, “Kill Your Local Pedophile.”
A month later, Dulce is still reeling from the confrontation.
“The right’s alarmist, downright fascist bias of who should or should not exist will never override the indisputable reality that we (LGBTQ people) do exist,” she told CNN.
What happened to Dulce wasn’t a unique incident in the context of our present day. In recent weeks, some conservative politicians and right-wing groups have directed their fury at drag, insisting that children must be shielded from a supposedly pernicious art.
A bookstore in the DC area said that protesters interrupted DQSH at one of its events just this past Saturday. Last week, protesters in Houston staged a demonstration outside a drag show at Hamburger Mary’s, a popular restaurant and queer institution. The agitators were with Protect Texas Kids, a nonprofit organization that baselessly claims that LGBTQ people and their allies are “indoctrinating” children, among other things.
In June, in response to a celebration in West Palm Beach that advertised a “drag show for kids” – part of Pride on the Block, which included arts and crafts, cooking classes and a variety of other youth activities – Florida Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini stated on Twitter, “I will be proposing Legislation to charge w/ a Felony & terminate the parental rights of any adult who brings a child to these perverted sex shows aimed at FL kids.”
Days later, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed to back Sabatini’s proposal, saying, “We have child protective statutes on the books. We have laws against child endangerment.”
According to scholars and advocates, the targeting of drag queens fits into a broader reactionary counter-mobilization against the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial society, and this concerted effort is already taking a psychological toll on marginalized people.
Here’s how we got here:
The fabulous defiance of drag
Given that a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in 2022, it’s no surprise that some conservative politicians and right-wing groups are picking fights with drag queens.
After all, drag has long centered LGBTQ people. It challenges expectations attached to gender and sexuality – subverts narrow beliefs that say that there’s a certain way we must be in the world.
“If you’re a more conservative-minded person, then you likely have a specific idea of what it means to be in your body and how to live your life,” madison moore, an assistant professor of critical studies in the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California, told CNN. “But the effervescence and joy and lyrical expression that drag represents are seen as a threat, because drag is saying, You don’t have to do that. You can play with all the colors in the crayon box. You can express yourself and expand.”
To a large extent, what moore described is the striking and usually queer aesthetic of fabulousness, which he explores at length in his moving 2018 book, “Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric.”
The culture critic and DJ argues that being fabulous isn’t only about looking exquisite. For LGBTQ people, it’s also about arguing for their existence in a society that routinely dehumanizes them for not harmonizing with a fantasy about how the world ought to be arranged.
“Sometimes visibility can be a trap. Once you’re more seen, you’re subject to greater surveillance and control,” moore said. “That’s exactly why drag is an easy target. It’s like, Attack that person with the seven-foot wig and heels. Some conservatives see drag as ‘indoctrination.’ I would say that it’s just showing that there are more options. You don’t actually have to be confined to the little box you were assigned at birth.”
Panda Dulce shared similar convictions, stressing the value of representation that bucks prevailing social narratives.
“Growing up, I experienced very little positive queer or Asian American representation in media, literature or American culture to which I could anchor myself,” she said. “Drag Queen Story Hour offers a robust slate of LGBTQ and gender-affirming stories to LGBTQ youth as they’re developing their sense of self.”
Dulce added, “What I would’ve given to have had that ounce of reassurance as a kid as I contended with homophobia, transphobia and abuse.”
Or as the drag queen Logan Stone put it, “So many conservatives think that Drag Queen Story Hour is about sexualizing children. It’s not. It’s about educating and about offering representation of underrepresented people.”
She said that she was leading DQSH on Saturday in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, when protesters disrupted the event, which was sponsored by Loyalty Bookstore, and one man shouted, “Everything he says is a lie! If you’re born a man, you’re a man! If you’re born a woman, you’re a woman!”
Stone said that security guards intervened and escorted her to her car. But the clash profoundly unsettled her and the children, some of whom began to cry.
“I remember that I was shaking,” she said. “It was just terrifying.”
‘One big reactionary political project’
The harassment of drag queens and LGBTQ people isn’t occurring in isolation. Rather, it’s part of a wider movement seeking to undermine the rights and status of certain groups, according to Thomas Zimmer, a visiting professor at Georgetown University, where his research focuses on the history of democracy and its discontents.
“I think that it’s easy to lose sight of how things are connected, but they really are connected,” he told CNN. “We’re not seeing different political conflicts. We’re seeing one big political conflict – one big reactionary political project.”
This movement is visible – even if it isn’t always obviously coordinated – in US Supreme Court rulings, in political rhetoric, in reactionary think tanks, in a highly effective media machine and, increasingly, in far-right paramilitary groups.
“There’s an overriding concern, and to me it’s the maintaining of traditional political, social, cultural and economic hierarchies. That’s the underlying political project,” Zimmer said. “It’s about weaponizing unease over changes the country has undergone over the past few decades and restoring and entrenching traditional authority, not just on a political level but also in the local community, in the public square, in the workplace and in the family. The assault on LGBTQ rights is very much a part of it, and must be seen in this context.”
Earlier this year, Judith Butler, the author of the 1990 book “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” made a similar observation about the interwoven attacks on equality.
“Right-wing movements appeal to an enormous anxiety people have that their worlds are falling apart and that gender and critical race theory have this enormously destructive power,” the UC Berkeley philosopher told CNN. “There is a lot that is very wrong and very terrifying about our world. But to focus that anxiety on gender and critical race theory without even knowing what these are is both a deflection and a way of inflaming prejudices against queer people and Black and brown people.”
Notably, this project is minoritarian.
“Conservatives are acutely aware that they don’t have numerical majorities for this project of basically turning the clock back to 1950s-style White Christian patriarchal dominance,” Zimmer said. “This is important, I think, because of the specific political strategies that the Republican Party is committed to.”
Members of the GOP, he explained, understand that the numbers don’t help them. Therefore, they’ve designed ways to realize their vision of the US without broad support.
Advocates caution that the recent surge in legislation and rhetoric against LGBTQ people shouldn’t be viewed purely through the lens of political gamesmanship.
Already, these attacks have had a harmful impact on people’s lives.
“The wave of anti-LGBTQ bills that we have been witnessing in states across the country, and the ugly rhetoric surrounding them, is taking a toll on the mental health of young LGBTQ people – especially transgender and nonbinary youth, who are most often targeted,” Sam Ames, the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, told CNN.
They added, “The Trevor Project has heard from a number of LGBTQ youth who have shared that these bills are making them feel stressed, scared or worse. Our research has found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, with 1 in 5 trans and nonbinary youth making an attempt.”
Nikole Parker, the director of transgender equality at the civil rights organization Equality Florida, echoed some of Ames’ sentiments.
“I transitioned 10 years ago, and I’ve never seen the political obsession with the trans community that I’m seeing now,” she said. “The fact that we can cut on the news every day and see somebody debate our existence – that gets to folks.”
People, in other words, are living in very real states of vulnerability.
How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-271-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.