On a recent Saturday afternoon, four drag performers gathered in a hotel lobby that doubles as a bar just west of the University of Texas at Austin. It was time for the monthly Divacakes Drag Revue show, the first since a gunman killed five people and injured more than 20 others at a queer club in Colorado.
“It’s absolutely horrendous and awful, and it’s terrifying,” said Noodles, one of the show’s hosts. “But you can’t let things like that make you not keep doing what you’re doing because otherwise, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
The act of violence sent shockwaves of grief and fear through the American LGBTQ community. But on that Saturday in November, the Austin performers strived to shift the mood while lip syncing for a small crowd — Noodles emoted to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” after her co-host, Diamond Dior Davenport, nailed every single beat of Lizzo’s “About Damn Time.” Dior Davenport said drag is about self-expression — and spreading lighthearted fun.
“I like performing to give them that,” she said. “I like to bring joy to other people.”
While there were no protesters outside the Divacakes show, Texas drag performances, particularly those where children are present, have increasingly become the targets of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric this year. Far-right groups have labeled drag performers as “groomers,” a homophobic and transphobic slur that insinuates LGBTQ people are pedophiles, and fanned baseless fears that they’re “sexualizing” children and “indoctrinating” them into queerdom.
This comes after Republican Texas lawmakers have spent years targeting LGBTQ people — particularly transgender Texans — with bills that seek to limit everything from which public restrooms they can use to whether they can access gender-affirming care. GOP lawmakers have already filed a bill ahead of next year’s legislative session that would ban children from attending drag shows and classify show venues as “sexually oriented businesses.”
“Like any form of art, drag can be modified to be appropriate for children,” said Brigitte Bandit, an Austin drag queen who has performed at family-friendly events. “We are smart enough to know what that is.”
Drag performers and LGBTQ advocates say the groups targeting shows are misrepresenting what happens at them. They say demonstrators are using children as an excuse to propagate hate and violence against queer people — something people calling for protests and claiming that drag shows are never appropriate for children deny. (See: “In Local Interview, Paul Renner Repeats Baseless Claims About Drag Queens and ‘Sexualization’ Of Children.”)
First: Books set at a table where Bandit read at a local literacy event in Austin in November. Last: Bandit clasps her hands at the literacy event. Credit: Montinique Monroe for The Texas Tribune
“It seems like any comment that opposes allowing children to be exposed to sexually explicit events with scantily-clad men dancing provactively is going to be deemed as ‘hateful’ by those who disagree,” wrote Kelly Neidert, the executive director of Protect Texas Kids, a nonprofit that organizes protests at all ages-drag shows, in an email to The Texas Tribune.
Misinformation experts say these protests are the first phase of a rising wave of right-wing extremism.
“This hate does not happen in a vacuum,” said Jay Brown, a senior vice president at the Human Rights Campaign who is transgender. “In Texas — an open carry state — we see multiple armed protests in opposition to LGBTQ+ bars, culture and events each week. These attacks in Texas aim to perpetuate lies about who LGBTQ+ people are and set a dangerous precedent of singling out members of the community that will only result in higher instances of violence.”
Far-right extremist groups and white nationalist hate organizations like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front have become more engaged in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks political violence and protests.
“Demonstrations are over four times more likely to turn violent and/or destructive when far-right militias or militant social movements are involved,” ACLED wrote in a November report.
This coordinated online targeting and political rhetoric has left performers and venues across Texas to choose between canceling shows for their own safety or performing anyway.
“I think some of these people that are mad about kids being at drag shows think that we’re trying to get children at the drag shows at the gay bars at 11 p.m. at night,” Bandit said. “That’s not what anybody’s fighting for.”
From Shakespeare to modern expression
The roots of drag can be traced back to Ancient Greece, Shakespearean times and traditional Japanese kabuki shows, Frank DeCaro told NPR in 2019. DeCaro is the author of “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business,” a book of essays about the history of drag.
In modern times, drag queens became staples of underground gay bars, which were often raided by the police, who arrested people for dancing with members of the same sex. In 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City, drag queens like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought back in an uprising that launched the gay rights movement.
In the 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic wreaked havoc on a generation of LGBTQ Americans and federal officials bungled the public health response to what they deemed a “gay disease,” drag shows became an integral part of the LGBTQ community.
When people were diagnosed with AIDS, “they lasted hours to days,” said Judy Reeves, chair of Texas’ Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History. “That’s when a lot of people that were still [HIV] negative, obviously, stepped up and started doing drag shows for money. We did many of them for money to bury a friend or, you know, anything we could do.”
Today, drag performers say their work is valuable as both a means of queer expression and joy and a form of constitutionally protected speech about societal gender norms.
“I think the importance of drag is expressing yourself through aspects of gender and art and also kind of the kickback toward societal norms of what gender norms are,” said Nayda Montana, a Dallas-based drag queen. “It’s a political statement against what gender is supposed to be and also a celebration of your gender and the artistic ways you can create.”
Drag queens who spoke with the Tribune acknowledged that there are plenty of drag performances that are not appropriate for children. Particular performers and regular late-night shows at venues across Texas are known for raunchy banter and references to sex, which is the allure for adults who attend these drag shows at nightclubs and bars that already don’t allow children inside. But performers say that’s not what happens at daytime, kid-friendly shows.
She said drag appearances and shows where kids are present aren’t about sex at all. They’re often about exploring the fluidity of gender expression.
“Just like you have movies that can be G-rated and R-rated, you have drag shows that can be appropriate for kids, and you can have drag shows that are not appropriate for kids,” Bandit said.
Days after the shooting in Colorado, Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire, a right-wing digital media outlet, described drag as “inherently sexual and ideological” and suggested drag artists — and all queer people — stop expressing themselves to avoid attracting future violence. While these ideas are effective at winning many to the side of extremism, drag performers and misinformation experts agree that these arguments aren’t based in reality.
“This idea that it’s indoctrination is just hate. It’s just mindless,” Bandit said. “I think it’s kind of stupid. I think ultimately it’s sad because [they] are ignoring the real issues and the real problems that actually do hurt kids, you know?”
A litany of threats and protests
Extremists are targeting drag performers as just the latest in a “long line of threats” to the LGBTQ and trans communities, said Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Elizabeth Bibi.
“What we’re seeing is that these threats are starting online, kind of being perpetrated by a select few extremists … who are then kind of siccing their followers on LGBTQ events and medical providers and drag shows and drag queen story hours and kind of all of these people, and it’s leading to offline violence,” Bibi said.
While the LGBTQ community is one of the main victims of rising extremism, they’re not the only group suffering from it.
“What we’re seeing is a full-scale rise in discriminatory rhetoric online and harassment online,” Bibi said. “It’s targeting the LGBTQ+ community. It’s targeting the Jewish community. It’s targeting migrants. It’s targeting anybody who may be a little bit different than the people that are perpetrating this misinformation and disinformation.”
An HRC report from August found that the use of “groomer” rhetoric about the LGBTQ community increased by more than 400% following the passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in March.
Protect Texas Kids, the group that Neidert leads, alerts its followers to drag shows advertised as kid-friendly or open to all ages. Its aim is to combat attempts to corrupt children’s identities and turn them queer, its website says. Its mission statement includes misinformation about gender-affirming care for trans minors and public education’s “leftist curricula.”
“Our goal as an organization is to protect Texas kids from indoctrination and exposure to harmful, inappropriate content,” wrote Neidert, a well-known conservative figure on the University of North Texas campus, in an email. “Our goal is to get drag shows for kids banned; we believe these shows should only be open to people 18 and up.”
While a bar in Denton canceled its Disney-themed drag brunch after receiving threats spurred by Protect Texas Kids calling attention to the show, Neidert refuted the nature of the messages her group encouraged its followers to send.
“I did not personally see anything that would be deemed a ‘threat,’” she wrote.
Neidert also said she attended drag shows to capture footage of the performers but had never seen a full show. In the past, Neidert has called for attendees of pride events to be “round[ed] up” on social media. Since then, her Twitter account has been suspended.
This weekend, far-right social media personality Tayler Hansen released a video from a drag show in San Antonio, alleging the performers were inappropriately interacting with a child in the audience. The venue canceled all of its drag shows for the rest of the year out of safety concerns after being “bullied and threatened” and “made to feel unsafe in [its] own space.”
“We stand by our queens and the sentiment that there was nothing wrong done at this past Friday’s toy drive,” the venue said in a statement published to social media on Sunday. “The story is being twisted into something disgusting to fit a political narrative. It’s sad, frustrating, & disappointing.”
The San Antonio incident follows several family-friendly or all-ages drag shows that have been protested, canceled or threatened this year. In June, demonstrators gathered outside a Dallas bar where the performers encouraged children in the audience to walk alongside them during the show. In August, protesters and armed counterprotesters clashed at a Roanoke distillery.
In September, a progressive church in Katy hosted a drag bingo night to raise funds for its free closet for transgender and questioning members of the community. The church’s senior pastor estimated around 300 people showed up to protest, including a prominent Houston neo-Nazi and others holding antisemitic signs. In October, footage of a drag show in a Plano bar went viral because a young girl was spotted in the audience while a queen performed to an explicit song. The bar’s owner said the girl’s family understood what they were going to see. A right-wing group similar to Protect Texas Kids even created an “alert system” for Texans to report drag shows happening in the state.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorism bulletin last week that said the country is in a heightened threat environment as “lone offenders and small groups … continue to pose a persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland.” LGBTQ people and spaces are among potential targets of ongoing violence.
“Following the late November shooting at an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado … we have observed actors on forums known to post racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist content praising the alleged attacker,” the bulletin said.
Texas lawmakers reviving push to target LGBTQ people
In the 2021 legislative session, Republican lawmakers pushed a slate of bills that sought to restrict or punish gender-affirming health care, like puberty blockers. Most didn’t pass, though LGBTQ advocates said the mere idea of such measures becoming law damaged the mental health of transgender people.
Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to open child abuse investigations on parents who provide gender-affirming care to their kids. Abbott’s order largely can’t be enforced as a court challenge plays out.
Already, Republican lawmakers are targeting LGBTQ people ahead of the 2023 legislative session, including drag performers. State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, has filed House Bill 643, which would classify any venue in Texas that hosts a drag performance as a “sexually oriented business,” the same category that strip clubs and sex shops fall under. That means those businesses could not allow minors to enter their premises and would have to pay the state comptroller $5 for each customer who enters. Allowing a minor inside would be considered a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 or up to a year in jail.
The bill would legally define a drag performance as one where “a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.” This definition encapsulates many drag performances, but not all of them. Many drag artists perform under a drag persona whose gender expression matches the gender that the performer was assigned at birth even though many others do not.
Patterson declined to comment.
“They don’t really have any ground to hate gay people other than the fact that they’re gay, so they’re using this as a weapon to weaponize [against] queer people and be like, ‘Well, look at what they’re doing with our kids,’” Montana said. “They think that they can use this as something that will make us look like bad people in some way, when really we’re just living our lives.”
State Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, the vice chair of the Texas LGBTQ Caucus, said the bill would have “significant implications” for queer Texans.
“Drag shows are sometimes the only place LGBTQ individuals feel comfortable expressing their true selves,” González wrote in a prepared statement. “This bill is another attempt by Texas Republicans to try to shut out the LGBTQ community from existing.”
“At least I was living honestly”
The Divacakes show in Austin last month avoided controversy. There were only a handful of attendees, including one mother who brought her 2-year-old daughter. The performers joked with them and made sure to prance by their table during their numbers.
At one point, a performer asked the girl if she wanted to walk with them. She didn’t, but at another point, she got up and handed one of the performers a dollar bill after some encouragement from her mother.
Dior Davenport and Noodles made sure to keep their language and stories kid-friendly when they bantered. The young girl was under her mother’s supervision the entire time, and none of the performers exhibited inappropriate behavior toward her. They did not force her to interact with them, their outfits were not revealing and their performances were not sexual or suggestive.
Montana said entertaining people does make her worry about her safety, but she’s willing to risk it for her art.
“I’m going out and doing what I love, and that’s what matters,” she said. “If something happens to me, going out and doing what I love, then at least I was living honestly.”
Each drag performer whom the Tribune spoke with agreed: The show must go on. They refuse to give into fear and retreat into the closet.
“They’re not going to win that from me, at least,” Montana said.
–Trent Brown, The Texas Tribune
For LGBTQ mental health support, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.
Disclosure: Human Rights Campaign, University of Texas at Austin and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here. This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/09/texas-drag-shows-all-ages-family-friendly/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.
It’s ridiculous really. Drag has been around for centuries. Literal centuries. No one is forcing anyone to attend drag shows. I really wish Republicans would stop with bug government overreach. They want to control books and entertainment. Is movies and music and video games next? What about what I view on the internet. How about how I spend my free time. Republicans are out of control. And what stories come out daily? Another Republican being investigated for sex crimes or arrested for being a pedo (an actual groomer) or accused of rape and sexual assault. I mean come the eff on people. It’s always projection with Republicans.
This weekend MTG was at a young republican event in NYC and hypothesized that is she and Steve Bannon organized J6 they would’ve won. Kind sounds like OJ’s book – If I Did It. What will it take for people to wake up that the Republican Party, a once great party of Eisenhower and Ford has turned into the new Nazi party. Tbh et are so unhinged and fanatical and fascist, no one wants that world. No one. If you think drag queens are the start and finish of their rage, buckle up. They will come after everything – interracial relationships, contraception, property ownership, ability to work, etc. They are starting with a group that makes most people shrug but you shouldn’t. This is just the warm up. Then it’ll be all LGBTQ+ people. Then POC. Then legal immigrants. Jews. Muslims. Hindus. Buddhists. Wiccans. Women. They. Will. Not. Stop.
We cannot allow hate in our hearts. God doesn’t make mistakes. He/She made ALL of us in his image and likeness so let that sink in for a bit. All of us – white, black, yellow, tan, gay, straight, trans, or drag queen. We are ALL made in his likeness and I’m fairly certain Jesus would be so very disappointed in humanity. He loved ALL people. Broke bread with the poor, with gay people. with other POC (because Jesus wasn’t white folks), with diseased, with immigrants, with everyone. He loved people, even the one that betrayed him in the end. Regardless of your religion or non-religion, since when is compassion, acceptance and being kind a bad thing? I don’t understand this world. I really don’t. It makes me sad, mad, disappointed, disgusted…and not just at how we treat each other but how we treat all living beings including this planet.
People – we have to be better than this. We have to fight against oppression, against hate, against big government invading our personal lives. Do not give them even an inch. The moment you do, they will creep closer to you or someone you love.
Nancy N. says
Apparently you missed the Reagan administration if you think the GOP hasn’t already tried to censor music.
jim morrison says
ever heard of tipper gore and her crusade to rate music like movies to prevent the “disadvantaged youth from purchasing satin’s music”?
The dude says
I would allow my child to attend story time with drag queens before I’d allow her to attend story time with MAGA, anytime.
Be Discreet says
Y’all Gay folks Can do whatever you want just keep it to yourselves, Its when you rub it in front of straight folks faces and their kids when we get angry. Why is there is this secondary need for gay people to flaunt their gayness? Your Bedroom, Your Business keep it there.
Pierre Tristam says
Odd how I never hear heteros complain about hetero sex rubbed in front of our faces every other minute from every other TV show or movie or ad or podcast or YouTuber, but the moment the dignities of gay rights are an issue (because gay sex in any of those mediums is still like a sighting of Halley’s Comet), the likes of you come out with that weirdly autoerotic imagery of gays rubbing themselves all over you, or maybe rubbing off you and your children, as if they’d want to be within a mile of you. Finally tried watching “Yellowstone” yesterday. Not a few scenes in, and here was that “bitch” (so referred to in a previous scene, underscoring the show’s affection for standard-issue sexism) fucking one of the ranch hands. Male, of course. All’s right in Montana. Since this is a Kevin Costner vehicle I’m sure he’ll throw in the required token trans somewhere along the way, but the set up flashes all the usual conventions. Is it your business to tell the $24 billion Valentine’s Day industry to stay in the closet? Of course not, because you and your (technically, obsessively) hetero brood fund about 98 percent of it (Freud would have other ideas about your obsession). So why impose it on the rest? Here’s a thought: you might come off better, and more satisfactorily, if you came down from your Stone Mountain and kept your prejudices to yourself. Y’all.
“Freud would have other ideas about your obsession.”
Exactly… These prejudiced people should just come out
of the closet.
I always say: “projecting isn’t limited to movie screens.”
You may not realize until it is pointed out to you just how prejudiced you are. Your comment is just what i would expect from the closed minded people who think that a man and a woman dating or getting married is all about love, but when two people of the same sex are seen dating or getting married it is just about sex – nothing could be further from the truth. Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I need to keep my feelings or views hidden in the closet just to please you. I guess I’m flaunting my “gayness” merely by living my life and expecting to be treated like you and everyone else are treated in public, and that is a sad thing to experience. You are probably one of the straight people who love to say they are not bigoted and have no prejudice against gays in society while at the same time making statements just like you did that perfectly shows your naked prejudice to all. If you don’t like to see something, you have the right to close your eyes, or how about just ignoring it? But the audacity of thinking you are entitled to dictate how other people should live or think or love is astounding!
“Protect Texas Kids, the group that Neidert leads, alerts its followers to drag shows advertised as kid-friendly or open to all ages. Its aim is to combat attempts to corrupt children’s identities and turn them queer, its website says.”
Turn them queer.
Please tell me, just exactly what day, and event, changed your sexual preference? Be honest! Just exactly when did you decide? People don’t “turn queer.” There is no question, day or time when it happened. I knew what I was from the get-go. My first boyfriend was in the second grade. We shared a lunch together in the school cafeteria, and then basically forgot about each other. Then I got a crush on another boy. No one, and I mean no one, could have changed my mind, and still can’t. To turn someone queer, or straight, is absurd.
This is still all about fear and control. It’s someone to blame, someone to hate and someone to be superior to. What’s happening, is people are in the midst of white fear, losing their position in the hierarchy and instilling this fear into others of the same ilk. Politicians see this and jump on it, which in turn, exasperates the problem. It’s also creating violence and division. It’s incredibly irresponsible.
I wish all these holier than thou, fearful folks would mind their own damned business. Do you see the Proud Boys, et al, going after priests or religious cults? No, drag queens are easier. Grow up, America.
Fascist leaders/movements have a long history of targeting the “other”. They claim it is they who are being discriminated against or persecuted so as to justify their actions. With enough angry rhetoric, particularly amplified in the echo chamber of the internet, there is a certainty that an unstable person or persons will take violent action.
From the story: “What we’re seeing is a full-scale rise in discriminatory rhetoric online and harassment online,” Bibi said. “It’s targeting the LGBTQ+ community. It’s targeting the Jewish community. It’s targeting migrants. It’s targeting anybody who may be a little bit different than the people that are perpetrating this misinformation and disinformation.”
Freedom of speech and expression does not or at least should not protect an individual from the consequences of their words. The author or speaker of rhetoric which includes four critical elements should be held as an accessory to any criminal acts committed as a result. The punishment should be proportional to the damages or injuries which result for promoting violence.
The four critical elements are:
1. A specific group must be targeted and demonized. (“They keep to themselves; what are they hiding? They’re not REAL Americans; are they? They’re not loyal. They should go back to where they came from.”)
2. Inflame an audience’s anger, rage, and/or resentment against the target. (“They’re taking our jobs. They are replacing us. They are grooming our children. They don’t even want to work; lazy welfare losers.”)
3. Encourage violence against the target; imply it is the right thing or only thing to do. (“We have a right to fight back; we must fight back!”)
4. The rhetoric must also be blatantly dishonest.
A classic example: On 1/6/2021:
“All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by bold and radical left Democrats,…” “For years, Democrats have gotten away with election fraud…” 1. The Target.
“That is what they have done and what they are doing. We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that is what this is all about.” “We will not let them silence your voices. We’re not going to let it happen.” “They wanted to get rid of the Jefferson Memorial,…” “…they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people.” “Democrats attempted the most brazen and outrageous election theft.” “…our country, our country has been under siege for a long time.” 2. Inflame the anger.
When the crowd shouts: “Fight for Trump. Fight for Trump. Fight for Trump. Fight for Trump. Fight for Trump. Fight for Trump.” TRUMP: “Thank you.” “We’re just not going to let that happen.” “…we’re going to have to fight much harder.” “…we’re going to walk down to the Capitol.” “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” “The radical left knows exactly what they were doing. They are ruthless, and it’s time that somebody did something about it.” “…we are going to try to give our Republicans — the weak ones because the strong ones don’t need any of our help — going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
3. Trump’s words don’t overtly call for violence. However, the violence which occurred when the crowd reached our Capitol indicates that the crowd heard a call for violence.
4. The speech was dishonest and full of lies.