How drag became a battle in the culture wars

Reading events for children targeted by far-right and anti-woke groups on both sides of the Atlantic

Illustration of protests against drag queens
Protesters have targeted reading events known as Drag Queen Story Hour
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Drag reading events for children have become the latest culture war issue to cross the Atlantic, sparking a growing backlash from conservative and anti-woke groups in the UK.

It is “the latest battlefield in America’s rolling ‘culture wars’ over gender and education”, said France 24, with “conservatives around the country training their sights on drag shows – assailing them as a threat to public decency and family values”.

In the US, the debate has centred on events known as Drag Queen Story Hour. Primarily aimed at children aged three to 11, these reading groups led by drag artists take place in libraries, schools, bookshops and museums and have spread across the country since being launched in San Francisco in 2015.

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“The idea is hardly a shock in a country where drag has moved from niche nightlife spots into the cultural mainstream,” said France 24. But “that is not stopping part of the right from portraying Drag Queen Story Hour as a national nightmare: progressive activism gone wild at best, and at worst a sexually charged threat to ‘children’s innocence’”.

What has brought drag into the firing line?

Drag Story Hour “has always faced opposition”, admitted Dazed, “but the protests used to be mild, usually involving a group of evangelical Christians standing across the street from an event and quietly praying for the souls of those inside. That is no longer the case.”

Protests “have arisen fairly suddenly around a form of entertainment that has long had a place on the mainstream American stage”, said Fortune. The American magazine pointed out that “drag does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in the separate art of burlesque”.

The storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 marked a turning point, Jonathan Hamilt, Drag Story Hour’s executive director, told Dazed. The magazine said that “far-right extremists were emboldened” and are “increasingly turning their attention towards the LGBTQ+ community”.

Fortune said “vitriol has become violence”, with protesters now routinely waving guns, hurling rocks and smoke bombs and screaming at families attending the small-scale events. In 2022, according to GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), there were 141 incidents of violence targeting drag events specifically.

This culminated in November when a gunman opened fire at the end of the drag show at an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs, killing five and injuring 18.

How is it playing out?

While TV shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race continue to pull in large audiences, “lawmakers across the country are engaged in a different sort of race: to restrict drag performances in the name of protecting children”, said The Economist.

Last month, Tennessee became the first US state to ban drag shows in public after the governor, Bill Lee, signed a law criminalising “male or female impersonators” performing in public spaces where they could be seen by children.

The Times reported that at least a dozen other states have proposed similar bans on drag shows, “which have become a fixation on America’s political right, which claims that the performances are a pretext for ‘grooming’ children”.

What about the UK?

While Drag Queen Story Hour has been in the UK since 2017, anti-drag sentiment has yet to enter the mainstream, although there are signs it could follow a similar trajectory to the US.

Appearances have begun to be met by fierce protests from those claiming that the acts are sexualising children, with parenting and anti-woke groups concerned at a 300% increase in the number of drag acts performing at UK schools, libraries and churches over the last year.

“The sexual element of drag is impossible to deny,” wrote Andrew Doyle for UnHerd. And “while many drag queens are happy to tone it down, others have made little effort to modify their raunchy style for children”.

The Times reported this month that drag queens dressed in bondage-like gear and underwear had performed at a sensory event for babies in south London, sparking protests and death threats for the organisers, said the paper.

“Since there hasn’t been a single instance I can find of drag queens grooming children for sex (those who do that tend to dress up as respectable middle-aged men),” said David Aaronovitch also in The Times, such a claim from anti-woke groups simply “constitutes an unpleasant libel”.

You can now find “voluble groups who will argue that drag queen storytelling is part of a war on our western culture”, he said, but “the reality is that most of us want little part in these conflicts and would rather be guided by moderation and common sense”.

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