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Drag queen Ambrosia Starling gifts marriage equality artifacts to the Alabama Department of Archives and History on October 30, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama.
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Drag queens are more political than ever. Can they lead a movement?

Drag has always been political. But with RuPaul’s Drag Race ushering in a new era of performers, fame comes with a powerful platform. 

Earlier this year, influential drag performer RuPaul sat down for a political conversation with New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow during the fourth annual RuPaul’s DragCon in New York. After their discussion — which covered President Donald Trump, youth voting, and other issues — an attendee asked RuPaul about drag’s connection to the #MeToo movement. RuPaul said that both have a rebellious spirit.

“We’re saying to the structures of society, ‘Fuck you!’” RuPaul said. “In that regard, I think we’re well aligned with the movement.”

Although DragCon is a convention where drag queens can meet their fans, both the convention and the reality TV show that spawned it have become increasingly political over time and increasingly popular with teenagers, preteens, and younger kids who ask their parents to take them to the convention.

A mother and her preteen daughters pose for a picture with drag queens during RuPaul’s DragCon at the Los Angeles Convention Center, May 7, 2016, in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Recent seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race have featured House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a guest; contestants discussing conversion therapy while applying their makeup; and one performer, Bob the Drag Queen, describing his arrest during a 2011 marriage equality protest.

Similarly, previous DragCons in New York and Los Angeles have featured panels like “Drag In Trump’s America,” “The Art of Resistance” and “Liberty and Justice for All,” in which presenters from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showed everyday citizens different ways to become politically active.

At another panel, drag nuns from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence shared their group’s 39-year history of activism. Meanwhile, in the exhibition hall, groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Swing Left, an organization focused on congressional races in US swing districts, educated attendees about policy issues and the importance of voter registration.

“DragCon has never been a bubble in denial about reality,” said Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, co-founders World of Wonder and DragCon and executive producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race, in a statement to Vox. “It’s a celebration of life through difference and diversity, and it’s about planting that flag in the ground and claiming our place in this world.”

Nonetheless, classifying drag only as a guilty pleasure underestimates its power, Bailey and Barbato say.

“Because as playful and as fun as drag can and will always be, it can also be serious fun, by playing with society’s norms in a very profound way. And drag only becomes more pointedly political in an environment where an illegitimate regime seeks — picking just one example — to impose reductive and cruel ideas about gender that fly in the face of gender’s proven complexity.”

While the US Supreme Court justices hear arguments surrounding the same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8, A man dressed in drag known as “Queen,” from Florida, dances in front of the Court on March 26, 2013, in Washington, DC.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

In the modern age, drag queens have risen from obscure gay-bar performers to celebrities with an ever-expanding social media reach. As entertainers who straddle the gender divide and are known for their irreverent outspokenness, they may seem to be in a particularly unique position at this exact political moment to address the Republican pushback on the #MeToo movement and transgender rights.

But a closer look reveals a hazy view of the political change drag queens can actually create, a view that has some social conservatives alarmed nonetheless.

The rise of political drag queens

Drag queens as we know them in America really developed from vaudeville acts in the early 1900s that caricatured feminine stock characters like “the wench,” “the damsel” and “the prima donna,” according to Roger Baker, author of Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts.

Since then, drag queens and impersonators of women have gone from kitschy 1930s comedy acts enjoyed by everyone alike to gay club acts where publicity would risk criminal charges, including transvestitism, prostitution, sodomy, and other “lewd and lascivious” acts that officers generally considered offensive, until around the 1970s.

But Chris Mitchell, a doctoral lecturer of gender and sexuality studies at Hunter College, told Vox that the current generation of politically active drag queens found early incubation in the Cockettes, a 1970s San Francisco queer performance troupe. Their ragtag shows lampooned highbrow theater musicals and satirized political events — for instance, their staging of the wedding of Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia ended in an LSD-fueled orgy. While their performances failed to attain a national following, their free-spirited satirical irreverence arguably planted a seed that would later sprout around 1980 with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

The Sisters reportedly formed as an antidote to the boring conformity its founders saw occurring in San Francisco’s gay Castro District. So they donned nun’s habits, painted their faces in white and glittery makeup, and began different spectacles of public activism.

In 1980, they held a public “Rosary in Time of Nuclear Peril” to protest the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, chased anti-gay Christian protesters out of the Castro and Polk neighborhoods, and raised money for Cuban refugees in a combination bingo game and disco.

Over the next two years, they’d host the first-known HIV fundraiser and support Sister Boom Boom’s campaign to unseat then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, now a US senator. (Sister Boom Boom lost.)

Sister Missionary Position, a member of the activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, holds gold-wrapped condoms they will distribute during Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1987.
Bettmann via Getty Images

The Sisters’ unique brand of community activism has continued into the present day as a global nonprofit organization with more than 1,000 nuns of every race, gender, and sexual orientation currently serving in 42 states, nine countries, and four continents.

Since then, Sister Roma from San Francisco has emerged as the organization’s most outspoken and visible member. Serving since 1987, she joined the San Francisco order when HIV and internal divisions had reduced its ranks to just five sisters.

During her service, she has helped fundraise more than $1 million for various LGBTQ charities and served as an emcee for numerous local non-LGBTQ related events and fundraisers, like Outward Bound and the Boys and Girls Club.

“We always believe that we should follow our hearts to the voting booth and remember that we’re voting for the future, we’re voting for the planet, we’re voting for our friends, our family, our community, equality, women, people of color, LGBTQ, all of that, all the good stuff,” Roma told Vox.

As a nonprofit, the Sisters cannot endorse any political candidates, but Roma says the San Francisco Sisters are pushing for Proposition C, a measure that would tax certain businesses to fund housing and homelessness services.

By simply going out in public, Roma tells Vox that her appearance as a drag nun immediately brings different layers of social activism like homophobia, misogyny, and religious oppression.

Sister Dana Van Iquity, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, serves dessert to John McKay at a community Thanksgiving meal organized by a gay church and a Catholic church in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood on Thursday, November 25, 1999.
Dan Krauss/AP

“I really do enjoy the power of the drag and the way that you see different people’s reaction to it,” Sister Roma says. She says when she’s in drag, people feel more inclined to donate money or speak personally to her. But naturally, some people find Roma and the Sisters off-putting because of their clownish makeup or the perception that their work mocks religion.

Sister Roma adds, “The Sisters quite often say, and I believe it’s 100 percent true, is that we are mirrors — really a reflection of the people who look at us. I can walk down the street from one corner to the next and get the entire gamut of reactions,” from people complimenting her makeup or asking to take pictures with her to people making snarky comments or calling her homophobic slurs. “I learned pretty early on is that people’s reactions to me say a lot more about them than they do about me.”

During her activism, Roma crossed paths with another drag queen called Lil’ Miss Hot Mess. The two worked together on the #MyNameIs campaign opposing Facebook’s 2014 “Real Names” policy that temporarily forced users to only create profiles based on the names on their government-issued ID.

Roma, Hot Mess, and other activists successfully argued that the policy unfairly targeted trans people, Native American people, well-known performers, and survivors of abuse who each use non-government-issued names for different legitimate purposes.

Drag queens Lil’ Miss Hot Mess (left) and Sister Roma (Center) and others walk to a news conference after meeting with San Francisco city officials to discuss Facebook’s name policy on September 17, 2014.
Eric Risberg/AP

But since that battle, Hot Mess has gone on to become a board member of Drag Queen Story Hour, a different sort of community group that has recently gained the ire of social conservatives.

The battle over Drag Queen Story Hour

Drag Queen Story Hour was started in 2015 by Michelle Tea, an author and queer San Francisco parent who wanted more programs for LGBTQ parents and their kids.

The program is exactly what it sounds like: Drag performers wear extravagant makeup and age-appropriate outfits and read books to children for an hour. Though the queens sometimes read books with themes of diversity and inclusion, like And Tango Makes Three or Princess Boy, Lil’ Miss Hot Mess, a board member of Drag Queen Story Time, tells Vox that libraries and individual organizers choose what to read, sometimes choosing titles that fit seasonal themes.

It’s now a national nonprofit organization whose program has been replicated in public libraries in 27 states.

Lil’ Miss Hot Mess reads to a group of young children during Drag Queen Story Hour at the Brooklyn Public Library in Park Slope on May 13, 2017.
Mary Altaffer/AP

A group of anti-gay activists in Houston filed a federal lawsuit against the mayor and the head of the municipal library system for allowing Drag Queen Story Hour to happen at a local library. The Campaign for Houston PAC helped file a lawsuit stating their opposition to “taxpayer dollars [being] used for a drag queen to come in and indoctrinate our young kids.”

The group that filed the lawsuit became known among LGBTQ activists around 2015 when they successfully overturned the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance preventing any forms of discrimination against transgender people.

Hot Mess told Vox that Drag Queen Story Hour operates largely without taxpayer funds — all a library needs to host one is a children’s book and a drag queen willing to volunteer. Chief US District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the lawsuit a hearing four days after it was filed, stating, “There is no basis to support the requested relief.”

Nonetheless, Campaign for Houston PAC attorney and spokesperson Jared Woodfill says his group will spend $500,000 on mailers and TV ads to oppose the program and shut it down. The group has already started running campaign ads and postcards (with images of drag queens reading to kids) to urge voter to choose Republican candidates.

“In some ways it feels like a backlash,” Hot Mess says, “but I think the reality is that this is exactly the kind of hate that’s been going on for a long time, that queer people have been fighting for a long time. It’s really just the bias of conservative and right-wing people who think we shouldn’t exist at all.”

Protesters of the Drag Queen Story Hour hold a cross outside of the Mobile Public Library in Alabama on September 8, 2018.
Dan Anderson/AP

Meanwhile, in the face of mounting political opposition, Drag Queen Story Hour is currently crowdfunding $10,000 to offer support to current and future programs across the US. This support will include a database of drag queens and public libraries interested in participating; a guide to putting on these events; and suggested reading and conversation guides for librarians, teachers, and parents to foster larger conversations about diversity and acceptance.

Hot Mess says many children’s books, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, tell stories about kids standing up to authority and resisting unfair social standards, fighting evil, and working together to build a better world.

“I think that what drag queens are doing, hopefully or ideally, isn’t really all that different,” she says. “I think the only thing that we’re ‘indoctrinating’ are values of acceptance and diversity and letting people express themselves and be who they are. It’s shameful to me that those kinds of values are things that people want to protest.”

Drag queens in the age of #MeToo and transgender politics

In the April 26, 2018, episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, then 22-year-old performer Blair St. Clair unexpectedly became the face of #MeToo in drag when she explained that her delicate, feminine aesthetic stems from experiencing a sexual assault earlier in her life.

She tells Vox she hadn’t planned on discussing it beforehand and shared viewers’ surprise at the sudden admission. But by uttering it, she has become the only queen among the show’s 126 competitors over 10 seasons to ever discuss sexual assault on the show.

“I’m overwhelmed in a positive way at how many people — gay men and queens especially — have opened up to me privately,” St. Clair tells Vox. “I never expected to be that voice or that face. It has been incredible … I always needed someone to look up to. If I can be that person for those people, then I feel like I’ve done some justice.”

Blair St. Clair poses for a photograph at RuPaul’s DragCon at the Los Angeles Convention Center on May 12, 2018.
Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

It’s important to assess the impact of St. Clair’s story on the show’s small but fiercely devoted viewership.

St. Clair’s admission compelled various LGBTQ and mainstream websites to publish articles about sexual assault in the gay community, a topic that rarely, if ever, gets mentioned at gay bars where alcohol and cruising add to the atmosphere.

A 2015 report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center said that 40.2 percent of gay men and 47.4 percent of bisexual men experience sexual assault; 63 percent of assaults go unreported, partly because of social expectations that men should always enjoy sex or be “strong” enough to fend off an attack.

In subsequent interviews, St. Clair stressed the importance of speaking openly about sexual assault and alluded to her long, personal healing process. And yet she told Vox that she’s saddened by the fact that other sexual assault survivors often face accusations of being calculating or fabricating their stories.

“It’s so ridiculous that people have to live in fear now of telling their stories … [and] in fear of setting themselves free because they’re afraid of what other people are going to think,” St. Clair says.

It’s also important to emphasize how radically RuPaul’s Drag Race has changed the popularity of drag performers in America. The show snagged six Emmy Awards this year, including the award for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, beating out shows with much larger viewerships like The Amazing Race and The Voice.

Past and present Drag Race competitors can brag upward of a million social media followers — and the show’s young viewership will happily shell out serious cash to see their favorite performers at a local venue or a DragCon event.

RuPaul (center) during the ceremonial ribbon cutting at DragCon NYC 2018.
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

But not all Drag Race contestants speak out politically in fear of alienating fans — something that irritates longtime drag performer Jackie Beat. In July 2018, Beat criticized former Drag Race competitors via Twitter for not using their social media followings to speak out more forcefully against Trump. She tweeted:

“It’s 2018. Our country is going to Hell in a designer handbag. If you’re a drag queen, ESPECIALLY ONE WHO WAS ON THAT TV SHOW THAT INSTANTLY AFFORDS ONE RECOGNITION & FAME AMONG YOUNG PEOPLE, & you refuse to ‘get political’ — FUCK YOU. I’m not asking you to march or give lengthy speeches… Just sit on your padded ass & tweet ANYTHING. Make a point, take a stand. Stop playing it down the middle, bitch. LET YOUR FANS KNOW EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE. And more importantly, WHO YOU AREN’T.”

Beat is a Los Angeles-based drag performer who has performed in numerous benefits for all sorts of causes: AIDS/HIV awareness, animal rights, reproductive justice, immigration, and various legislation. To her, drag queens can be superheroes whose superpower is simply telling the truth, albeit in comedic or entertaining ways.

Beat tells Vox that any drag queen who meets with parents and children at DragCon or a touring drag show should remind them that “beneath the clown everyone is laughing at is either a gay man or a trans person who is directly in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s rifle.”

“If you have been granted a certain amount of mainstream fame,” she tells Vox, “It’s your duty to speak out about things that threaten and/or violate the very rights that allow you to do what you do.”

She continues, “It’s vital for young people to know that what is happening is not right. It’s crucial that people with a strong social media presence remind their many fans that this is not normal. Otherwise, we all just treat it like it’s a crazy reality show. And it’s not. It’s really life. And it’s getting real ugly. I see a lot of queens finally speaking up for our trans brothers and sisters, and it makes me so happy. I’m just saying that if you are worried about losing, alienating or boring your fans then, in my opinion, you’re doing drag for all the wrong reasons. Be a person first and a clown second.”

But if St. Clair now demurs about discussing politics, other former competitors, like season five winner Jinkx Monsoon and season 10 competitor the Vixen, use their fame to encourage fans to vote or to join campaigns against homophobia.

Among the show’s most outspoken and politically engaged winners is Bob the Drag Queen, the season eight champion.

During Bob’s season, the performer mentioned a personal tagline, “Bob the Drag Queen: A Queen for the People,” and discussed his arrest by New York City Police for blocking a roadway with a giant banner during a 2011 marriage equality protest.

“They fucking threw my ass in jail, in full drag, girl.”

Discussing the importance of political involvement, the queen told viewers, “You don’t have to go get arrested. Just [do] something. Something as simple as voting.”

To Bob, Trump is merely a symptom or a reflection of longer ongoing issues in America like racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. Whenever the queen sees white fans publicly declare, “These are the darkest times we’ve ever had,” Bob told Vox that it feels like a slap in the face of enslaved people, prisoners, and other people of color who have faced far darker times.

Bob the Drag Queen performs at New York City Pride on June 24, 2016.
Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Bob agrees that drag has a definitely unique vantage point in the world of gender politics, but, “The more I travel, the more I realize that maybe it’s not as unique ... because drag is basically just performing femininity or … toying with sex outside of the assigned gender you were given at birth,” something that the performer sees people doing all over the world, especially young people.

When Bob first started performing in drag, the audience consisted mainly of other gay men. These days, Bob’s touring audiences consist largely of preteen girls.

“Many of those girls would’ve never had an experience talking about gender or gender issues, or even race issues,” Bob says. YEt the performer hears people in the younger generation saying things like “gender is a construct,” after overhearing their favorite drag queen saying it. These teens don’t emptily parrot these sentiments, Bob says, but start exploring and researching it in their own lives.

Like Roma, Bob doesn’t begrudge drag queens who don’t use their fame to address politics, but they also don’t think that conservatives and Republicans will find a place on the drag runway.

What drag can’t do in politics

Consider the case of Elaine Lancaster, the South Florida drag performer who, in October 2017, was removed as the emcee of a drag brunch at Señor Frogs after posting a tweet that used the hashtag #JewishCollusion when linking to a story about Facebook’s CEO supposedly meeting with Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta before the 2016 election.

At the time, Lancaster claimed she quit the drag brunch gig to travel the world with right-wing author Milo Yiannopoulos. But three months earlier on CNN, she lamented being professionally “blackballed” from her decades-long drag career after coming out as a Trump supporter.

“I come from a community that touts that we are so inclusive, we are so embracing of what’s different, all we ask for is tolerance and equality,” she told the Miami Herald after her CNN appearance. “I make a living as a female impersonator in the state of Florida. I have hosted all the major events — White Party for 19 years. When I came out as a supporter of Trump … I was thrown off the [White Party] committee. I couldn’t be the emcee anymore. I got death threats. I have lawsuits pending against people.”

Lancaster did not respond to a request for comment from Vox.

Roma says she had known Lancaster for years as a friendly acquaintance, never realizing her far-right political views. “I wonder if she thinks she’s going to be the first drag queen in the White House,” Roma says.

“I don’t know why you’d want to go out and support a candidate, and a political party, that would just as soon throw you in prison or strip you of your human rights or watch you die in the streets … she tried to explain to me that she wants to have a place at the table. I’m like, ‘Girl, they wouldn’t let you anywhere near the table.’”

Miami-based drag queen Elaine Lancasters waits for President Donald Trump to speak at a rally in Estero, Florida, on October 31, 2018.
Susan Walsh/AP

Roma says she admires Lancaster somewhat for facing online harassment and career hardships while voicing her political views, but adds that it has been difficult to watch Lancaster go through it.

Bob, however, supposes, “If you’re a Trump supporter, no other drag queens are going to support you. You’re gonna have a bunch of crunchy, raggedy-ass drag queens who are supporting you, but outside of the community, you will get nothing. … If you vote against the right of your community, you do not deserve asylum from your community … or you [may] deserve it, but you won’t get it.”

Perhaps they feel this way because contemporary politics under Trump seem so antithetical to the gender playfulness and LGBTQ community so closely associated to drag queens.

An aerial view of the convention floor at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC 2017.
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

But even on the left side of the political spectrum, Mitchell from Hunter College thinks drag can only do so much. Mainly because while America’s LGBTQ people have long huddled in gay bars as one of their community’s only safe places, it was more out of necessity rather than commonality, Mitchell says.

Mitchell tells Vox that while drag incorporates cultural aspects from each of the LGBTQ community’s individual segments — with some women performing as drag kings and other trans, queer, and nonbinary performers working as drag queens too — the art form can’t be expected to express the complicated class, racial, and gender divisions experienced by distinct queer groups. This is especially true of drag since it remains largely a cisgender male pursuit whose professional echelons requires lots of free time and money.

Even shows like Drag Race still operate with certain ideas of what constitutes praiseworthy drag, and their acting challenges often rely on clichéd caricatures of histrionic women using their sexuality and feminine wiles to catfight one another.

RuPaul’s comments earlier this year comparing hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries to “performance enhancing drugs” in her reality TV competition showed that even the torch bearer of inclusive queer entertainment still knew little about the number of transgender people already performing in drag.

So while drag queens may find themselves increasingly in a position to sway fans and younger generations about gender expression and political involvement, Mitchell thinks the inherent contradictions of drag performance and LGBTQ politics ultimately limits their power to dramatically shape the political landscape.

”To me, there’s not just one drag, and it is a little bit of a Rorschach test,” Mitchell says. “When you ask different kinds of queers what they see when they look at drag, you’re going to get really different kinds of answers. And a lot of times it’s going to tell you about the identity of the person who’s talking more than it’s going to tell you about drag.”

Lil’ Miss Hot Mess put on the final touches of an outfit before going to reading to children for Drag Queen Story Hour at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Correction: The story has been updated to clarify the funding structure of Drag Queen Story Hour.

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