Main content start
Clayman Institute events

The "war on drag" is also a war on youth, on freedom of expression, on bodily autonomy

While drag performance had seemed to gain wider acceptance, with the TV show Rupaul’s Drag Race and various library-sponsored drag storytime events among many examples, state legislation targeting drag performance recently has been introduced in at least 18 states. These right-wing political strategies target drag as a theatrical performance, but they really serve as an attempt to suppress the expression of trans or nonbinary individuals and as a political response to generational shifts in attitudes toward trans and nonbinary people, guests at a recent event agreed. Susan Stryker, a scholar of trans culture and history, explained, “The target is not so much drag per se, but it’s targeting a population of people imagined to be unwelcome in or unassimilable to our body politic.” 

Stryker appeared as part of the online Clayman Conversations event The War on Drag. The panel included Marquis Bey, assistant professor of Black studies and gender studies, as well as English and critical theory, at Northwestern University; event moderator Moira Donegan, writer in residence at the Clayman Institute and a columnist for The Guardian; Jack Halberstam, David Feinson Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University; Mark Joseph Stern, senior writer for Slate; and Stryker, professor emerita in gender and women's studies at the University of Arizona, and currently the Marta Sutton Weeks External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Insisting that biological differences, such as race and sex, anchor a person permanently in a hierarchical society follows a long and troubled historical pattern. “The logic of what our bodies mean and how they’re supposed to be visible to other people is a really important legacy of … European world colonization and chattel slavery,” Stryker said. Drag, however, explodes those categories in defiance of a patriarchal mindset.

Halberstam observed that “the war on drag is of a piece with the war on the university” and other places where conservatives think liberals are winning some sort of ideological battle. “Drag is nested within a whole set of fears that conservatives have right now.”

Halberstam agreed with the ideological roots in religion and white supremacy, but also took a higher-level view of the anti-drag political strategy. The question of why lawmakers are choosing this time to take on drag can be answered by recasting the effort as “a war on young people.” More young people, including those in conservative households, are coming out to their parents as gay, trans, or nonbinary, and many more young people who know gay, trans, and nonbinary people are no longer motivated by their parents’ phobias, Halberstam said. There’s also the specter of losing control of the younger generation. The movement can be viewed as a “generational split that is motivating a desperate ploy by legislators to push back on what they see as a sea change among young people.” Further, young people are angry at the prior generation for contributing to the collapse of the environment and democracy, and for passing on significant debt and financial hardship. Attempts to make voting more difficult, specifically for college students, would seem to fit into such a strategy as well.

Donegan observed that while conservatives may be attempting to control younger generations, they often claim to act out of an interest to protect children. Stern noted the many ways that conservatives at the state level are moving to limit freedom of speech and expression, particularly for young people, about gender and sexuality as well as the history of slavery and colonialism. In Florida, “the governor has decided to make the state a laboratory of oppression of LGBTQ rights,” Stern said. Couched as a means of protecting children, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, book bans, limits on teachers’ speech, and other proposals take a similar strategy as the proposed limits to drag. “The goal here is to prevent children from accessing different ideas through literature, prevent them from hearing different views, and try to give the state a monopoly on what they’re hearing in school,” Stern said. While the GOP often defends freedom of speech, especially in the context of supporting controversial views on college campuses, they are waging a “nationwide campaign” to suppress any kind of expression on gender and sexuality.

Halberstam observed that “the war on drag is of a piece with the war on the university” and other places where conservatives think liberals are winning some sort of ideological battle. “Drag is nested within a whole set of fears that conservatives have right now.”

Stryker observed that even if young people don’t wish to change their pronouns or gender, the challenges really are about a dominant culture proscribing “what your body is supposed to mean…Who can exist in public space? Who can be visible in public space?” The parallels to Roe v. Wade are similarly about bodily autonomy and “who gets to say what your body is for.” Echoing similar remarks from Stern, Stryker said: “If you thought you didn’t care about drag, it’s just a canary in the coal mine for a broader set of interrelated issues that really affect all of us in some way, shape, form, or fashion.”

Bey commented on the treatment of women athletes, who in some states are evaluated or tested in an attempt to challenge their genders. Bey noted the bodily evaluations hearken back to slavery, when enslaved people were publicly touched, evaluated, and humiliated. Bey recommended that coalitions think about various populations that are being marginalized and the systems perpetrating such treatment.

How to resist the war on drag and related movements? The speakers recommended actions small and large. Bey embraced both collective resistance and protest as well as urging action on a person-to-person level. To support a trans or nonbinary acquaintance, we can communicate that it’s safe for them to express themselves in our presence, and “cultivate a small space to let someone live a little more freely.” Such acts of compassion “can make a vast, vast difference.”

Stern advocated civil disobedience, and with a nod to drag performance, said, “the show needs to go on, and the audience needs to be too big to arrest.” Halberstam invoked the large, diverse protests around racial justice in recent years, calling for “massive coalitions” that are queer, feminist, and abolitionist. Stryker agreed, recalling coalitions that formed during the AIDS era, and urging more coalitional politics. A further idea: strategic cross-dressing in public spaces. If enacted on a large enough scale, enforcement of new anti-drag laws would be impossible, Stryker said.

View event video