Why drag queens are racing to the rescue – The Guardian

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Everyone relax, drag queens have it all under control
Doesn’t it feel, perhaps, as if drag queens are about to save the world? For a long time the most public threat to drag queens were other drag queens, competing in lip-sync battles, or in the art of ritual insult, or throwing shade about back hair. In the past couple of years, though, drag has become a culture war flash point, with a series of US states passing anti-drag legislation. In Britain, in the summer of 2022, protesters started turning up at libraries hosting Drag Queen Story Hour. These protest groups, often including anti-vaxxers, white nationalists and conspiracy theorists, claimed to advocate for the protection of children. Conservative politicians described the events – typically drag queens reading stories about the joy of being yourself – as “inappropriate” and “propaganda”. Videos appeared on social media, edited to suggest children were present at explicit nude performances, rather than, as was the case, an afternoon of fairytales in fancy dress.
Between the summers of 2022 and 2023 at least 57 all-ages drag events were disrupted in the UK. Something was building. A man was found guilty of a public order offence after protesting at a drag queen story-telling event at Tate Britain. He was accused of being “aggressive and intimidating” and making comments motivated by “hostility relating to sexual orientation and transgender identity”. Another memorable demonstration took place last March outside a pub in south London, which the rightwing group Turning Point UK publicised with the message “groom dogs, not kids”. However, the event listing on the pub’s website was out of date, so there were no drag queens and no readings and no children. There was just the idea of a drag queen – and that was enough. It would all be quite funny, if it wasn’t also terrifying.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is responsible, first for taking drag mainstream and then for showing, week by week, that queer people are not odd or inferior, but funny and nuanced and human, and worthy of respect. In his Emmy acceptance speech last month, RuPaul said: “If a drag queen wants to read you a story at a library, listen to her, because knowledge is power. And if someone tries to restrict your access to power, they are trying to scare you.”
While anti-drag activism was undoubtedly inspired by US groups, it quickly found its feet in the UK, where cultural anxieties about gender are high and, instead of focusing on policy, politicians lean into feelings, focusing on divisive issues to show voters what they stand for, or against. They have created a sort of bitter fire around drag, a mix of homophobia and panic about trans people, kept alight by the media and people like Laurence Fox, who turned up at the drag event in south London in a little lilac scarf and whose picture always reminds me of writer Sarah Dempster’s description that he looks like “a pencil made of horse”.
Fox’s picture has been in the papers a lot this week. He was in court after calling drag queen Crystal (real name Colin Seymour) and former Stonewall trustee Simon Blake “paedophiles” online in 2020. They sued him, he countersued (saying they had defamed him by calling him racist, in response to his criticism of Black History Month), and he lost. Crystal got up at 3am the following morning in order to put on two hours of drag makeup before her Sky News interview with Kay Burley. “Do you have any sympathy for Fox?” she asked. “I have sympathy for people who have been targeted,” replied Crystal, who’s had death threats and countless accusations of paedophilia since the trial began. “There’s a huge swathe of the population that experiences this nastiness.” She calmly and sensibly explained why she’d pursued this through the courts for more than three years, because baseless accusations of paedophilia against queer people are an “old trope” and one that needs to be exploded. There’s a long history to this – to the threat of paedophilia being used in dehumanising, homophobic and transphobic ways, tapping into parents fears by branding queer people as predatory. These moral panics that locate the threat to children as drag queens in libraries are a distraction of course, from decades of research that confirmed the places that young people are actually most at risk of sexual victimisation are their homes, or churches or schools.
Drag has always been a political act. It has disrupted conformity, protested queer invisibility in the mainstream, brought razzmatazz and glee to otherwise grim occasions, on hospital wards or picket lines. It is a form of protest in itself, a glamorous reminder that it’s OK to be visibly different and that you can be adored and celebrated and even happy while doing so. Drag makes interventions about gender and sexuality and beauty, and drag queens talk directly about racism, homophobia and transphobia, often while dancing backwards in high heels. Crystal showing up to the news studio in drag, discussing her libel victory (and last year, Brigitte Bandit challenging an anti-drag Texas senate bill in a gown and pink wig) feels both radical and completely correct, an important, inevitable performance. Drag queens, for so long now the focus of bad faith debate and confusion, are fighting back, unpicking the culture war to provide a kind of calm and glittering hope.
Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on X @EvaWiseman

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