Of Course Drag Isn't Dangerous, It's Just Played Out and Corny
the defanging power of normalization is undefeated
The Milwaukee Bucks held a drag show during halftime at a recent game, and there are some conservatives that are big mad about it. This is part of the same energy that’s behind a lot of these awful anti-LGBTQ bills that are cropping up in Republican states. I think progressive people should feel resolved to fight those bills and to oppose the broader right-wing effort to criminalize queer culture - and, maybe, a little sad that drag shows are now so unthreatening that they have them at NBA games. Drag used to be cool and countercultural; now it’s inoffensive enough to be embraced by a sports league, one of America’s most stubbornly apolitical industries. Conservatives don’t want that normalization to happen. I do, but I also recognize that something has been lost.
The obvious moral and political priority here is to fight against laws that target LGBTQ people and seek to restrict consensual adult behavior, and this raft of bills should remind us that social progress doesn’t just happen because the calendar turns. But I also think it’s worth sparing a moment to lament the way that drag has ceased to be countercultural, has become safe in progressive culture. I’m not equipped to talk about drag as an entity; I’m talking about the general public perception of drag. There will always be cool drag shows in out-of-the-way spaces. There’s no doubt a lot of avant-garde and underground drag that doesn’t play to the masses. But come to the average drag show in Manhattan now and you’ll be joining an audience of wine moms drunk on shiraz and bachelorette parties from the suburbs. You’ll find drag shows sponsored by Citibank and groups of employees who have come for corporate team-building. The biggest shows play mostly for tourists. And the really sad part, the existential conundrum, is that the progress that will make the Republican assaults less likely to win will be the same process that makes drag even less subversive.
Some of my more excitable commenters may be popping up to say that drag is corrupting the youth. But, well, it’s not. Drag has never been necessarily or inherently sexual; drag shows certainly can be sexual, but lots of adult human culture is sexual. That does not undermine the appropriateness of any other medium or artistic tradition. Asking “should drag shows be for children?” is like asking “should movies be for children?” I don’t know, which movie? Most parents wouldn’t want their children watching Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, so they… don’t take their kids to see it. You can make the same choice as a parent, not to take your kid to see a drag show. Besides, all of the best evidence I’ve seen suggests that the drag shows with children in the audience are extremely tame. And if there’s a drag show that’s advertised as family-friendly or all ages and a performer behaves in a way that most parents would consider inappropriate, that’s no more an indictment of drag shows in general than a movie with inappropriate content would be an indictment of movies in general. Fears about exposing drag to children only make sense if your fear is not about sexual content as such but about your children learning that gender bending and gender play exist. And, sure, as a parent you can work to try to shield your child from that knowledge, that’s your right. But they have the internet. They’re gonna find out.
And all of that said, again, I think drag enthusiasts could probably stand to have an uncomfortable conversation about the fact that an artform that was long seen as inherently subversive is now so unthreatening that public libraries frequently put on shows. Seems like something has been lost. But that’s obviously a very different concern than “drag queens are coming to corrupt your kids.”
Drag has become a flashpoint in the culture war because it's quickly making its way from one side of the mainstream respectability spectrum to the other, from a cultural practice that was embraced by its participants in part because it was forbidden - because the establishment that attacked it did so as part of a broader imposition of social mores that those participants rejected - to one that's commercial. There’s still an establishment, and there’s still a set of coercive social mores that people resist. But drag’s inherent stance against that authoritarian social order began to die as soon as RuPaul started to use it to sell Vitamin Water, as soon as an army of squares suddenly had favorite drag queens despite never stepping into a club with dirty floors in their lives. This was literally inevitable; it had to happen. It’s the same reason why, to pick a salient example, the day we achieve true racial equality will be the beginning of the end of a distinct Black culture, at least as we know it now. (There will always be Black culture, but in a world of racial justice it will be like Irish American culture is now.) That which mainstream society blesses it consumes. Republicans are freaking out because Republicans are always far behind the cultural curve. But I assure you: in 2023, drag is perfectly safe.
In the mid-2000s I lived in Chicago, just a couple blocks from the big gay neighborhood, Boystown. And though I didn’t understand it at the time, when we went out in those years we were seeing the transition of gay culture into Big Gay. My roommates and I would go to this after-hours club called Hydro, which had until recently been a legendary gay bar called Manhole. (Just a top-tier gay bar name, there.) And I once talked to an older guy who pointed to the conversion of Manhole to Hydro as a symbol of how the neighborhood was changing, how it had become sanitized and was now overrun with straights. This was only a year or two after Karl Rove had used gay marriage as a wedge issue to reelect George W. Bush, so homophobia was still prevalent. But the fact that gay marriage was an issue at all spoke to the increasing visibility and salience of the marriage equality movement. And the same cultural processes that made those annoying straights feel comfortable going to get drunk and mingle in Boystown, which an older generation lamented, were making gay marriage possible. Gay marriage gathered steam precisely as the inherently political nature of being gay died. This is what I’m saying to you today: there is no space between normalization and assimilation. They aren’t entangled or related; one doesn’t lead to the other. They are one and the same.
You hear a lot from LGBTQ people about the depoliticization of homosexuality that came with national recognition of gay marriage in 2015. Many have lamented that the gay rights movement went corporate or got folded into the Democratic party or deradicalized or stopped fighting for others when they got what they wanted. “They got their marriages and then they bought townhouses and bought into the establishment!” But lots of gay men and women stayed radical after gay marriage. There wasn’t some council of gay people who got together and voted to depoliticize; nobody made an active decision at all. Gay people didn’t become more or less political after marriage. Being gay has ceased to be inherently political, and that change simply is the same reality as the greater social acceptance of being gay. And people from other groups, who say that they’re always going to stay radical at the same time as they fight for acceptance - I think they’re being idealistic. Normalization makes you normal; recognition comes with respectability. The system can push you out or welcome you in. It can’t do both at the same time.
Of course, there are material things we’re trying to achieve, and you either achieve them or you don’t; marriage was a real thing that people won. Fighting GOP efforts to criminalize various aspects of queer culture is a fight we can win. We’ll win more in time. But as I frequently lament, the plight of the marginalized is increasingly defined in emotional terms - the demand to be “valid.” Which only further emphasizes the inherent depoliticization of normalization. There’s a lot of marginalized people out there these days who are saying “I want my identity to be respected, to be honored, to be treated as valid, by everyone, but I also want my very existence to be a radical act.” But they can't have that; no one can have that. It's a contradiction in terms.