The governor of Tennessee is about to sign a bill targeting drag performers, the latest in a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation orchestrated by the religious right.During a hearing on a similar anti-drag bill in Montana, Representative Zoe Zephyr stood up and told the legislative body:
The bill purports to be about drag, and let me start by saying what drag is. Drag is art. Drag is beautiful. Drag is important to my community.
What supporters of these bills seem most angry about is a program called Drag Queen Story Hour, which they claim is an attempt to indoctrinate kids into the gay agenda, or something. In reality, the program was started by queer author Michelle Tea, who couldn’t find any reading circles for LGBTQ families after becoming a mother. It wasn’t initially created for straight people at all, as Zephyr explained:
We adopted children, we grew up. And now, we’re taking some of our children, and sharing an art form that is valuable to our community in a way that is age-appropriate to them.
Drag is no stranger to moral panic, as an art form that has been challenging social norms for centuries. In his book on drag history, the late gay journalist Roger Baker explains that the stage was a place where firmly held social codes for dress and behavior in Elizabethan England were not so firm:
..Actors were given permission to violate these codes, and when the social codes are broken then the puritan imagination can run riot — usually into visions of sexual mayhem.
In 1597, the Lord Mayor of London accused the theatre of being “a special cause of corrupting youth”, and here we are in 2023, over 400 years later, with conservative politicians still repeating the same tired shit! In response to the attacks the program has received, DQSH performer Lil Miss Hot Mess told LGBTQ Nation:
…Drag Queen Story Hour might be a face of queer culture at the moment, but the bigoted response is what we’ve dealt with for centuries. They like to think it’s some new culture war, but it’s them trying to keep alive this culture war that no one on our side is actually fighting. We’re trying to live our lives and make the world a more fabulous place, and they’re trying to drag us back to the Dark Ages.
I did a bit of digging to see what the anti-trans side is really saying about Drag Queen Story Hour, because I don’t think it’s possible to make a good argument if you don’t understand what you’re arguing against. One thing that kept coming up in the horrid blog posts I subjected myself to was a 2021 paper written by Lil Miss Hot Mess, who is also a media studies professor, and education researcher Harper Keenan.
It’s called Drag Pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood, and honestly, I love it. Anti-trans groups have been deliberately misreading this text and presenting it as proof that queer people are preying on children.This is a bold-faced lie; what the paper really does is present an approach to early education that values unproductive play, “defanging” shame through camp, and embracing disruption instead of punishing it.
Of the drag queen, they write:
“She breaks the limiting stereotype of a teacher: she is loud, extravagant, and playful. She encourages children to think for themselves and even to break the rules.. She is a queer teacher.”
Anti-trans groups misunderstand this use of the word “queer” as a literal reference to identity, but academic jargon is never so literal. There is an entire paragraph in the beginning of the paper explaining the use of the word “queer” as an analytic frame that allows us to consider “how often-impossible standards of normalcy are formed.”
She is a queer teacher not because she is gay or trans or gender non-conforming, but because she does the opposite of what a “normal” teacher is expected to do:
Drag queens have little interest in such mechanical and dull ideas as “classroom management.” Classroom management, as a framework, relies on rules and procedures as a sort of factory model for quality control. It stifles creativity and aims towards order, marching towards a mirage of identical outcomes and efficient productivity.
A lot of kids struggle in the rigid, formulaic structure of mass education, and they are punished, pathologized, and medicated for it. Drag pedagogy’s openness to play and curiosity toward disruption strike me as a supportive approach to teaching children:
Many young students, like hecklers, interrupt or “act out” because they are genuinely curious and excited, don’t fully understand something, or feel excluded and are looking for a way to participate. By playfully responding to and incorporating children’s feedback rather than dismissing it, teachers might invite their students into co-constructing the classroom environment.
They are advocating for a classroom model that acknowledges and respects the agency of children, that engages their voices rather than silencing them. I guess that would be extremely threatening to someone who views children as property and school as a training ground for tomorrow’s compliant workers.
Of course, there’s no way a teacher could get through the demanding workload of their curriculum if they took time to explore every child’s interruption — the business of education runs on a tight schedule. Drag pedagogy is just an attempt to offer kids an alternative space to explore in a world where they are so often shut down:
For any child who has ever asked a parent or teacher “why?” and been unsatisfied with the answer, “because I told you so,” drag may help elucidate the arbitrariness of rules.
I have always been that kid who asked why too much, and I want the next generation to get the chance to explore the questions I had to wait until adulthood to really ask. Unlike the Christian right, drag queens aren’t telling kids what to be or do — they’re just illuminating more possibilities.
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It’s the same people writing all these bills — this report in The New Republic is a great explainer on who they are and how groups aligned with the Christian right have twisted feminism to divide the LGBTQ community. For more analysis on anti-drag laws and moral panics, see this piece by Jules Gill-Peterson.
If I was being charitable I would say that maybe they just have poor reading comprehension, but because I like to presume competence in everyone, instead I believe they know what they’re doing and they’re doing it on purpose!
Co-signed as a teacher for over two decades and someone in my 15th year of parenting. Long live the Hecklers and the teachers who aren’t afraid to change their set.
I love this