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Make drag queens illegal? It’s happened before
The growing campaign to criminalize drag performers may seem quixotic given the mainstreaming of drag in popular culture. Indeed, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its spinoffs threatened to make drag passé, except for the most extravagant, outrageous, and outlandish. But perhaps it was inevitable that a backlash was due, because anti-drag hysteria is nothing new; in fact, it recurs with unfailing regularity.
A person with gender-nonconforming characteristics is the most transgressive and threatening figure to dominant heterosexual culture – a sexual outlaw transformed into a sexual deviant preying on innocent victims. This fear has recently expanded to include the growing number of transgender people who are coming out at younger ages. Gender-nonconforming people are the first scapegoats because they are visually identified and therefore the first to be targeted.
A deadly stew of vitriolic political rhetoric, Christian nationalism, and apocalyptic conspiracy theories have combined in recent years to create a momentum of hate against LGBTQs, particularly aimed at the trans community. Republican state lawmakers across the nation have focused on LGBTQ+ and transgender people by introducing legislation to curtail gender-affirming medical care, restrict the education of gender and sexuality in classrooms, require students to use restrooms that match the gender on their original birth certificates, and bar some transgender students from participating in school sports.
Drag queens are the visible symbol of all that is wrong with gender non-conforming individuals. Their performance and undermining of sexuality are viewed as entertainment and camp by the LGBTQ+ community, but dangerous to homophobes. Today drag queen storybook readings for children have been opportunistically subverted by the far right using an old and recurring slur that it is a ruse used by pedophiles to “groom” children for abuse. This organized campaign against drag queens performing for children is really a symbolic attack on all LGBTQ+ people.
State legislators are trying to pass creative laws that will ban children from being present during a drag performance. The Human Rights Campaign reported that 344 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced across 23 states in 2002. More than 25 bills, a majority of which were specifically anti trans, became law in 13 states. In late 2021, the Trevor Project conducted a national survey of nearly 34,000 LGBTQ+ youth and found that almost one in five transgender and nonbinary people between the ages of 13 and 24 had attempted suicide in the previous year.
Legal attempts to label and control the LGBTQ+ community is nothing new. It happened in Honolulu, Hawaii, my hometown. In 1963, under the pretext of protecting military servicemen and children, the Honolulu Police Department, the Mayor’s O’ahu Committee on Children and Youth, military authorities, and Christian religious leaders combined to support Act 175 (S.B. 870), the so-called Intent to Deceive Law, which “prohibited the wearing of clothing of the opposite sex with the intent of deceiving others.” The law was directed at transgender women especially and assumed that by presenting as women in public, they masqueraded a criminal objective to deceive, as in cases in which military men were accused of murdering transgender women in a drunken fit of “gay panic.”
At the Glade, a nightclub in downtown Honolulu at the time, the “female impersonators” in the “boys will be girls” lounge show were compelled to wear buttons declaring “I Am a Boy.” A judge had commented that if you don’t want to deceive, then wear a sign. So to confront the frequent harassment by police, drag queens and transgender women took to wearing the buttons. Soon, those not wearing a button were exposed to being accused of breaking the law, risking a $1000 fine and jail time. San Francisco had a similar law. Eventually, through the efforts of activists and sympathetic allies, the law was repealed in 1973.
Yes, the LGBTQ+ community has experienced another pattern before too: we’re targeted as scapegoats by homophobes and through relentless confrontation and resistance with the help of friends, in time, we can triumph. The “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was rescinded, which ended the ban on LGBTQ+ servicemembers. The Defense of Marriage Act was repealed, which allowed for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. The battles never end because the attacks never end and the haters never stop hating. And again, this is the lesson we learned from our drag ancestors who were always on the front line against hate: we must be fierce and we must fight like we’ve got nothing to lose.
Michael Yamashita is the publisher of Bay Area Reporter.