"Today, as before, drag queens have become targets as the visible symbol of all gender-nonconforming individuals." Photo: Rochelle Brown

At the root of revolution is revolt–a revolt against oppressive power. Once again in our history, we must rise up against a deranged right-wing front that is harnessing political and social power to legislate and discriminate LGBTQ+ people out of existence. Once again, the revolution will be led by drag queens.

The earliest uprising of drag queens fighting against anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination has become known as the Cooper Do-nuts Riot of 1959 in downtown Los Angeles. Open all night, the cafe was a popular hangout for gay men and drag queens, who were not welcome in the gay bars next door. One night in May, police entered the cafe and harassed patrons by asking for IDs. They attempted to arrest two drag queens and a few men and put them in a police car. Bystanders threw donuts and trash until the police fled, fueling a growing crowd that rioted and celebrated in the streets. Later that evening, the police returned to beat and arrest several people.

In August 1966, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was a response to constant and violent police harassment of drag queens and transgender women. When a transgender woman resisted arrest by throwing her coffee at a police officer, the patrons erupted by fighting police using high heels, handbags, sugar shakers, tables, and plates. A newsstand was set ablaze and a police car was damaged before rioters were beaten and arrested by police. The next day LGBTQ+ people picketed the cafeteria because they were denied entry. These two incidents preceded the most famous LGBTQ+ revolt in U.S. history.  

The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 was the purported beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. The Stonewall Inn is a popular bar for LGBTQ+ people in New York City, but it was also frequently raided and harassed by authorities decades ago. On a hot summer night in June, the bar’s patrons, including many drag queens, finally had had enough and fought back against police brutality, ending after several nights of protests and riots that are considered a turning point for LGBTQ+ people’s freedom.

From this revolt, inspired in part by the Black freedom movement, emerged Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Johnson was a self-identified Black drag queen who became a prominent LGBTQ+ rights activist in New York City during the 1970s. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founder with Rivera of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization that provided housing and support for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Rivera, the child of a Puerto Rican father and Venezuelan mother, identified as a drag queen for most of her life and later as transgender. She was an early activist for transgender representation and participation in the movement, both of which had been sidelined almost immediately by cisgender gay white men for not being a respectable face for the “gay rights” movement. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged the LGBTQ+ community, drag queens were at the forefront in promoting awareness about the disease. The virus disproportionately affected gay men and led to widespread discrimination and homophobia. Drag queens organized and performed at benefit shows and bars, raising spirits and millions of dollars for research and treatment and many community organizations like AIDS Project Los Angeles and Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco, a group of drag nuns, created the first safe sex brochure, “Play Fair,” in 1982. Lady Bunny, who co-founded the AIDS fundraiser and drag festival Wigstock in 1985 and has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, once said, “We have a lot of people who are going to fight tooth and nail to keep us down. But as drag queens, we’re used to fighting for what we want.”

New challenges

In the 1990s, the LGBTQ+ rights movement faced new challenges with the rise of the religious right-wing and accompanying conservative backlash. Yet again, drag queens continued to be a powerful force in the fight against bigotry by using their art and activism to challenge anti-LGBTQ+ laws and attitudes. After the 1993 release of his debut single recording “Supermodel (You Better Work),” RuPaul rose to international fame as a drag queen performer and later the host of the hit reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Still in production and syndication, the show, which has launched the careers of a universe of drag artists, has helped  mainstream drag culture breach the barriers of intolerance and reinforce self-affirmation–and this drives the right wing into a vindictive rage.

And not all drag revolutionaries are adults. Desmond is Amazing (Desmond Napoles) is a young drag queen who gained national attention in 2017 when he performed in drag at a Brooklyn drag club at the age of 10. Since then, he has continued to use his platform to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues and to advocate for the rights of transgender youth. He has been featured in numerous media outlets and has become a powerful symbol of resistance in the face of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and discrimination.

Today, as before, drag queens have become targets as the visible symbol of all gender-nonconforming individuals. Their performance and undermining of gender expectations are regarded as creative entertainment and camp by the LGBTQ+ community, but have been slandered as a dangerous threat to children by homophobes. The hysteria over drag queen storybook readings for children has been opportunistically subverted by the far right using an old slur: the readings are a plot by pedophiles to “groom” children for sexual abuse. This organized campaign against drag queens performing for children is a real and symbolic attack on all LGBTQ+ people.

Under the cover of concerned parents protecting their children from indoctrination and sexual confusion, the far right and conspiracy theorists have whipped up hateful and vile objections to drag queens reading to children. Drag Story Hour was started in 2015 by San Francisco author and activist Michelle Tea to increase literacy and creativity among children. Now a national nonprofit, the events aim to expose them to ideas of diversity, inclusion, and empathy, and provide a safe and supportive space for children to explore and celebrate their own unique identities and differences.

“Under the cover of concerned parents protecting their children from indoctrination and sexual confusion, the far right and conspiracy theorists have whipped up hateful and vile objections to drag queens reading to children.”

Michael Yamashita

These are important lessons for all children, but especially for the survival and success of LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health  found that 45% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth and one in three cisgender youth. 36% of LGBTQ youth reported being physically threatened or harmed due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Seventy-three percent of LGBTQ youth reported that they have experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity at least once in their lifetime. The hateful drumbeat of rhetoric and actions from the right wing threaten the safety and mental health of all children regardless of their sexual identity because it conditions them to be bullies or victims. 

And just this month, Tennessee became the first state to pass a law limiting drag shows. Many legislatures in red states are floating variations on outlawing drag queens or gender-nonconforming attire.

The American Civil Liberties Union is now tracking 435 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, fueled by extreme right-wing politicians, media, churches and others. Drag queens nationwide are organizing to fight back, but it won’t be easy. The “Drag Up! Fight Back!” march and rally are scheduled over the Easter holiday weekend in San Francisco. “These fascist laws are an attempt to silence, criminalize, and eradicate our community,” stated Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who is helping to organize the event. “‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ is a call to action for everyone who believes that drag is not a crime and knows that queer and trans rights are human rights.” 

The revolution, as always, will be led by drag queens.

Michael Yamashita is the publisher of the Bay Area Reporter.

Michael Yamashita is the publisher of Bay Area Reporter.