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Drag Queen Conservatism
A toxic, stupid sideshow is defining the post-liberal right as scolds.
When I first heard of the concept of Drag Queen Story Hour, I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, at first blush, it was a strange juxtaposition — but encouraging children to read by having glitter-bombed men in dresses read to them in libraries seemed like pretty harmless fun to me.
As for kids and drag queens, I once took my niece and nephew — ages 7 and 5, as I recall — to see Dina Martina in Provincetown. No stripping, no sexual jokes, nothing that could faintly be inappropriate for children. And they absolutely loved it. The worst moment, I suppose, was when Dina turned around and you could see a hairy back above her dress. The next day when we happened to bump into Grady West, who plays Dina, my nephew refused to believe it was the same person.
As a child, I’d been taken to pantomimes myself — the British tradition of Christmas musical plays, usually based on some fairy story, but always with a big and ugly man in a dress and a wig as a main character. These shows were specifically designed for children. No sexual content. Just slapstick. Silliness. Fathomless misogyny (it was Britain in the ‘70s). Audience participation. Woo-hoo!
Drag more generally — defined as men in dresses performing — goes back, of course, to Shakespeare’s time, when all the female parts were played by men or boys. For that matter, drag was for a long time ubiquitous in US military shows, where soldiers put on over-the-top dresses to entertain each other, and in Hollywood movies from “Some Like It Hot” to “Tootsie” to “Mrs. Doubtfire” and Tyler Perry’s character, Madea.
Drag comes, in other words, in many, many forms. There’s no one definition. It can be broad humor, or elaborate, loving re-enactments of famous torch-song singers, designed to mimic, sometimes uncannily, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, or Judy Garland. In Provincetown, rival Chers compete — and on a summer evening, you can see them all “barking” for their shows on the street.
There are the post-drag drag queens, who are comedic performance artists, who wear fake horses’ heads as hats. There are also bawdy and burlesque types who live by sexual double entendres, and untalented ones who resort to crude humor to get a laugh. I honestly don’t know of any who actually strip — unless you count dropping a bigger dress to reveal a more glamorous one underneath — because stripping would destroy the “illusion.” Lots of false boobs. Fewer free willies than a Games of Throne episode.
Would I take my niece and nephew to all of them? God no. In Ptown, we have a weekly talent-show contest called “Showgirls” — which starts at 9 pm and is obviously for adults only. And I wouldn’t dream of taking my niece or nephews or my mother to it. A couple weeks ago, two of the opening numbers were song parodies about the new plague — “Hey, Hey, Now It’s Monkeys!” (from “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees!”) and about trannies shopping for vaginas in a time of inflation: “The First Cunt Was the Cheapest” (from “The First Cut Was The Deepest).
Grown adults regularly walk out of the thing — I saw a bunch of woke-scolds leave at that last number — and children aren’t allowed. But most of us love it for its transgressions against puritans right and left. Wokeness has crept into Ptown — all those cringe-inducing “Progress Flags” everywhere — but the drag queens keep the humor-free bores mercifully at bay. On a bigger stage, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” with its salacity and crude stereotypes, has a rating of TV-14. Not elementary school. In bars and clubs, drag can become much more risqué on the sexual front — for adults only.
So where do Drag Queen Story Hours fit in among all these varieties? We have no comprehensive surveys or research that I know of. But I would very much hope and expect they’d be in the completely kid-friendly category. I’ve seen quite a few videos showing exactly this. They’re in libraries, after all, not Hooters. The handful of videos that the activist Chris Rufo has put on Twitter are not, so far as I can tell, in a library setting — but in clubs or restaurants, full mainly with adults, a few of whom appear to have foolishly brought young kids. If you check out the website of DQSH, there’s no stripping or cussing or sexualized content.
What there is, however, is indoctrination in the various precepts of critical gender and queer theory. From the DQSH site: the hour “captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models … kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real.” Oy vey. The woke can truly ruin anything, can’t they? Of course it’s fine for kids to dress up as they wish. And it’s good to teach tolerance of different ways of dressing and appearing. And why not encourage reading with costumed clowns?
But the idea that a drag queen — rather than, say, a firefighter or a pilot or a tennis player — is somehow an ideal role model for young gay children is, in its misguided progressivism, actually regressive. A hefty majority of gay kids have absolutely no interest in being a drag queen. Presenting it as a model for gayness is part of a misguided bid to impose the postmodern concept of “queerness” on all gay people. It’s right back to my own childhood, when I could see no role models for being gay except drag queens or flamboyantly effeminate men. Drag queens actually made me think I wasn’t gay, because I had no desire to be one. In the gay rights movement, we spent many years getting past these stereotypes — only to have the woke reimpose them with as much zeal as the religious right used to.
It seems to me that DQSH should do all they can to make sure there are no even vaguely sexual shenanigans and no politics. Just men in silly costumes encouraging kids to read. Beyond that, the dispositive thing for me is that DQSH is a voluntary activity. It’s not compulsory. Parents can choose to take their kids or not. (The introduction of this into public schools where kids cannot opt out and parents aren’t told is another matter entirely.)
Either you believe in parents’ rights, or you don’t. And I’m happy to leave it up to parents — and no one else. The post-liberal right, we have come to understand, only believes in parents’ rights if the parents are social conservatives. And the post-liberal left would happily take kids away from parents if the parents didn’t approve of a sex change for their child. Once again, the sane middle gets lost in this culture war.
And this seems a particularly pointless battle. What does the new right stand to gain from this fixation? Are they seriously going to ban these activities by law? Or send Child Protective Services to discipline parents who take their kids to them? Do they really want to out-woke the woke with their moralistic scolding? The entire hysteria reveals the depth of the post-liberal right’s dilemma. How do you change a culture in a free country by force of law? You don’t — unless you take an authoritarian turn that won’t work in a country with a First Amendment, and where a fantastic variety of moral and cultural views will always exist.
You can preach. You can bring up your kids to see cross-dressing as wicked. You can encourage church attendance and Sunday school (although churches have not exactly been pedo-free). You can offer alternative culture, movies, activities for kids. You can make a democratic argument that public funds should not be used.
But the rest is fear-mongering and moral panic. I suspect many on the illiberal right see this drag queen fixation as a way to mobilize voters who conflate gays with child-molesters — why else would Chris Rufo be calling drag queens “trans strippers” and sex ed teachers “groomers”? But others recognize not only that this is a trivial issue — when they could be talking about economics, trade, immigration — but a losing one. In other words, it’s become a drag. And not the fun type.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my reaction to the breaking news out of SCOTUS; a conversation with Jill Abramson on her long career in journalism and the scandals she covered; many reader dissents over my latest column condemning Trump; seven notable quotes from the week in news — on the Jan. 6 committee and more; an Yglesias Award for one of the Trumps defending gays; a new transcript for our pod episode with Jamie Kirchick on gay Washington; 14 links to other Substacks we enjoyed this week; a Mental Health Break of a trippy rap video; window views from Ithaca and LA; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
Is Obergefell Next?
I’ll be on “Real Time” tonight with the great Katie Herzog. If you never read her Dish guest-column on disappearing lesbians, check it out.
New On The Dishcast: Jill Abramson
Jill is a journalist, academic, and the author of five books. She’s most known as the first woman to become executive editor at the New York Times, from 2011 to 2014. She’s currently a professor in the English department at Harvard. We’ve been friends forever.
For two clips of our convo — on whether women are better observational reporters, and looking back at the Supreme Court saga of “Long Dong Silver” — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a new transcript of my talk with Jamie Kirchick on gay Washington. You can also find Dishcast listener commentary on the mainstreaming of Pride, the value of character over smarts, and how so many Americans have become successful without schooling.
From a “huge fan of the pod”:
I’m a gay 29-year-old man living and socializing in an extremely queer slice of society in Chicago. I’m sure you can imagine the type of politics I am surrounded by. It’s not entirely the most onerous thing to keep my own political leanings to myself (I’m slightly left of center), but it is of profound help to hear the types of conversations you get to have on your podcast. I’m a gay business owner whose clientele is primarily gay men. Were I to express my more centrist views on trans or social justice movements, I would undoubtedly suffer through the pains of substantial lost revenue and social media harassment.
Anyways, I just wanted this to serve as a short “thank you.” Your pod helps keep me sane as I continually wade through the mire that is the current LGBTQ political psychosis.
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy.
Dissents Of The Week: The Lie Won’t Leave With Trump
After I singled out Donald Trump for the calamity of January 6, a reader dissents:
You’re right to call out individuals, but you’ve got the wrong ones. Mitch McConnell. Bill Barr. Before them, Newt Gingrich. They knew. And they said nothing. Their awful legacy will outlive Trump’s. He didn’t override them; he confirmed their venality. It was “up to Republicans to save us” six years ago. And again four years ago. And again in 2020. And they willfully failed. How anyone can still take these hollow men seriously on any topic is beyond me — and should be beyond you.
I’m trying to insist that they need to change — for their own good. I wasn’t defending their previous toleration of Trump.
Read four more reader dissents, along with my responses, here. A quick correction: Last week I wrote that Sidney Powell is “now disbarred” — she was sanctioned, but her disbarment process is still ongoing. And a reader notes:
One error, regarding conceding “on election night.” Election Day was November 3 and the media called the election only on November 7, due to the time required to count large numbers of absentee ballots. No reason for any candidate to concede before the election is called. In fact, in 1980, Jimmy Carter conceded too early, while polls were still open on the West Coast.
As always, keep the dissents coming: email@example.com.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as GOP isolationism, sexism in hip-hop, and the summer solstice. Below is one example, followed by a few substacks new to us:
Zohar Atkins channels many of the great philosophers to each address the question: “What’s up with the cult of the body?”
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
I’ll be on “Real Time” tonight with the great Katie Herzog. See you next Friday.