When Drag Gets Demonized: A Call to Action

When Drag Gets Demonized: A Call to Action

Just this past week, Tennessee became the first American state to outlaw drag shows (here’s a piece from PBS that gives some historical context on this). But if you’ve been paying attention, you already know that other red states are working on similar measures. This post will come at this issue from a rhetorical perspective, analyzing how the recent right-wing attempts to ban and demonize drag use strategic ambiguity in really unhealthy ways to target the LGBTQ+ community.

Where I’m Coming From

So as always, I’m coming at this as a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate denomination who grew up to become a communication scholar focusing on stress, trauma, and conflict communication.

Growing Up Anti-LGBTQ+ (Sorry!)

As I’ve written before, most recently here, I was raised to have a very strong moral disgust against the transgression of gender norms when it came to the LGBTQ+ community (apologies in retrospect, friends!).

I would have never ever felt comfortable going to a gay bar or a Pride rally (I’ve discussed the rhetoric of Pride previously here).

But Some Drag Was…Just Fine???

And YET, if I’m remembering right, my first drag show was a dorm event in my Christian college. The (largely very heterosexual) guys in my dorm put on dresses for an evening. It made me a little uncomfortable, but it was fine. It wasn’t sexualized or anything.

And then of course there were cartoons and movies that involved drag. We didn’t watch Tootsie, but Bugs Bunny was a staple in our household. So was Mrs. Doubtfire.


And of course there was Shakespeare. Everyone know men dressed up as women in Shakespeare, just in general, not to mention ALL the cross-dressing roles across all of the plays as part of the plot intrigue.

Nope, No Moral Disgust—as Long as It Was Seen as Heterosexual Drag

Interestingly, none of this was really steeped in moral disgust for me. And it’s only recently I’ve realized that was because none of it was seen as particularly associated with the LGBTQ+ community. It was heterosexual drag, of sorts.

When the Moral Disgusts DID Come In

It was seen to be different, the cross-dressing that was seen to be the source of moral disgusts. The source of what I would have labeled back then as “real” drag.

And I remember it in a visceral sense, this idea. It wasn’t a problem so much when it was seen as a conscious kind of “let’s pretend.” But there was a distinctive line that, when crossed, turned into something that was seen as suspect.

In retrospect, I think it had to do with the line of gender fluidity, though I would never have had that term to put to it then.

It was when it became a gender or sexual identity thing that we found it to be a source of moral disgust and saw it as a moral threat.

Um, Wait, but Cis Heterosexuality Was Also an Identity Thing!

Which is sort of darkly funny, when you think about it, since this twisted kind of cis heterosexuality that finds other gender and sexual orientations to be a threat is very, very much identity based.

Analyzing the Ambiguous Area Where the Moral Disgust Lines Fell

But yeah, interestingly, I wasn’t socialized into such a strong moral disgust when it came to women wearing men’s clothes. Probably because everyone I knew, however they identified, was wearing jeans and T-shirts and flannel shirts.

It was clear—though there were times where it might bother me a bit if a woman looked too “butch,” women dressing in a similar way to men had become mostly accepted.

Heterosexual men occasionally dressing as women out of play acting was also mostly accepted.

“Cross-Dressing” Itself Definitely Not the Problem

In both cases of men and women, it wasn’t actually “cross-dressing” that was the the problem at all, it seems.

So Back to Those Anti-Drag Laws

What was tinged with moral disgust in my socialization was LGBTQ+ populations.

That awareness should give us pause in terms of thinking about discrimination in these right-wing laws and policies, for sure.

These laws against drag, after all, are clearly targeted with that moral disgust in mind.

Strategic Ambiguity Technically Putting All of the Above at Risk

What is interesting about them, though, from a rhetorical perspective, is that although the rhetoric used to sell these anti-drag laws is targeting these anti-LGBTQ+ moral disgusts, the laws themselves aren’t actually written to only ban those things.

They are written vaguely enough—with what rhetorical scholars call strategic ambiguity—ambiguous enough so that they could actually ban public performances of all of the above items, if they wanted to.

Ah, Gaslighting! (Yeah, That’s Really Unhealthy!)

I’ll bet you anything the enforcers will somehow mysteriously be less interested in the heterosexual drag performances, though.

I would imagine a few of them would be under threat, though, if only to provide a sort of surface gaslighting for what’s really being targeted: LGBTQ+ folks. Especially nonbinary, gender fluid, and trans folks.  

The Most Likely Targets

Because yeah, these laws also written vaguely enough that a trans or nonbinary/gender fluid person just living in society as a trans person could be seen as legally out of bounds for doing so.

That Old Tired “Save the Children” Line (All the Eyerolls)

This is a pretty evil thing, because of course the argument for doing this is to somehow “protect the children” at innocent non-sexualized drag story hours.

Seeing Representation Doesn’t Actually Make Kids Change Orientation

Listen: if watching Bugs Bunny and Mrs. Doubtfire and all the rest of it didn’t make me gay or trans (and it didn’t—I’m pretty cis and heterosexual), maybe—just maybe—drag story hour is absolutely no different than that.  

But maybe because of drag story hour, my friend’s trans kid is more comfortable in their skin. Maybe that kid doesn’t feel like an abomination for feeling like they have a different gender identity than they were born with.

And that matters, because suicide rates are high for trans and gender fluid and nonbinary folks who are in circles that don’t accept their identities.

Ah, the Complex Hypocrisy

And yeah, in a world where the people I grew up with had no problem disclaiming “God’s fascinating creation” in booming voices while we watched nature documentaries about all sorts of creatures that cross gender binaries and reproduce in all SORTS of ways, I find it extremely disturbing in so many ways to see these same people supporting these laws and rhetoric discriminating against LGBTQ+ people.

Especially when they keep saying they’re not against LGBTQ+ people (all the eyerolls).

First They Came For…

And let’s be clear: these laws are discriminatory against LGBTQ+ folks. They are also an extremely dangerous precedent.

If we ban “cross-dressing,” after all, as illustrated above, there are lots of normative types of heterosexual practices that could be at risk as well.

(Not to mention how ridiculous the idea is when you look at how differently men and women have dressed across the centuries even in Western cultures! Much less, say, looking at how men of Jesus’ day wore, um, robes…dresses, they would be considered by many today?)

Strategic Ambiguity Allows Multiple Groups To Be Targeted at Once

These laws are fascistic. And as Jason Stanley notes in his excellent book How Fascism Works, as I’ve mentioned before, fascistic rhetoric regularly tried to hearken back to a nostalgic vision of an idealized past that never was.

If that past was one in which women only looked “feminine” and men looked “masculine” according to the lawmakers’ standards, well, it wouldn’t take much to argue from these incredibly vague laws that women wearing pantsuits and jeans were “cross-dressing.”

EVERYONE Should Be Concerned about These Laws

Because of that, I would argue that EVERYONE, whether or not you’re usually in favor of equality for the LGBTQ+ community, needs to be stepping up to fight these horrible laws and policies.

They aren’t there to “protect our children.”

What We Could Really Do to Protect Children

If we wanted to do really start protecting children, we should actually pass better laws to do that. Start with things like:

  • Combating things like child hunger.
  • Passing reasonable gun regulations so there would be fewer school shootings.
  • Supporting single mothers.
  • Protecting more children from actual abusers (Google it: drag queens are not the primary suspects when it comes to abusing children by a long shot. Parents, relatives, and clergy are all far far more frequent abusers than drag queens.)

“Blue State Folks” Should Be Standing Up Too

At any rate, if these kinds of laws are actually being passed in red states (and it’s definitely eerie how similar the bills and such in other states are—and it’s all happening at the same time), we all need to be working against them the best we can.

After all, it really is proven by the history of fascism that once one group’s rights are challenged, others are also at stake—and things like this never stay within one state’s lines. (The Roe overturn has already led to proposals for nationwide measures, after all!)

Strategic Ambiguity Makes These Laws More Dangerous

 The above analysis illustrates that with such vaguely written laws, this kind of unhealthy legislation illustrates the point that when it comes to fascistic legislation, the famous Niemoller quote about “first they came for…then they came for” is not a slippery slope argument at all.

Because of strategically ambiguous language, after all, the very same legislation that’s designed to discriminate against one group, in this and other cases, can be easily pivoted to discriminate against anyone the reigning powers don’t like.

And that is truly disturbing.

Let Us Not Grow Weary of Doing Good, Friends!

Let’s all do what we can to make sure these kinds of laws and policies are combated on all levels and in all locations, friends. They really cannot be allowed to stand, for so many reasons.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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6 thoughts on “When Drag Gets Demonized: A Call to Action

  1. Couldn’t help but think of Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for …” quote and imagined that next they’re going to come for women wearing jeans and other trousers. Isn’t that cross-dressing? What about my boy shorts and boyfriend jacket? It’s not even funny; it’s too real. We have history showing us and Niemöller reminding us how people ignored this kind of targeting until they came for “me.”

  2. Some of you may be too young to remember that women wearing any sort of trousers in public were demonized. Jeans or pantsuits. Interestingly., pantsuits and miniskirts were both cutting edge at one time. A woman in a very upscale pantsuit was refused entry to a “nice” restaurant in a big city (NYC?). Because women in pants were simply not acceptable. She famously went to the car, or maybe a restroom, and took her pants off. She returned to the restaurant in only the tunic top, and was readily granted entrance to the dining room. No shorter than a miniskirt-length dress, but certainly no longer. It had nothing to do with “decency” or covering your parts, it was the cultural “wrongness” of a woman in “menswear” (which it clearly was not.) I can easily imagine that happening again. At least if they get a chance to do so before all the legislators and judges over 70 die off.
    Next up: reversing Brown vs the Board of Education. (Since they have reversed Roe, and are pretty well cancelling affirmative action.) Can Loving v Virginia be far behind?

  3. And if you haven’t read “The Handmaids Tale” (that would surprise me), the direction we are heading clearly leads to, at the very least, a culture that pushes women, LBGTQ+, the elderly, the poor, anyone attempting to enter the country from a s*#@hole country etc, to a lowest caste in society. I’m 70 years old, I don’t cook and I pay someone to clean. There is no way that I can be a Martha! If you’re not afraid, you’re not paying attention.

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When Drag Gets Demon…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 8 min