Comment: Panic over drag not about men wearing women’s clothing

Conservatives will make an exception for their own ‘harmless fun,’ but label anything else as ‘prurient.’

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post

Earlier this month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Republican, became the first governor to sign into law a bill prohibiting certain kinds of drag performances. More specifically, the bill prohibited “adult cabaret” in locations where minors might be present, including “topless” or “exotic” dancers, but also “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.”

In a late-breaking plot-twist, shortly before the bill was signed, someone posted a picture on Reddit: a black-and-white photo from Lee’s 1977 high school yearbook. In it, a young man — allegedly Lee as a teenager — wore a miniskirt, pearls and a wig. When asked about the photo, the governor did not confirm or deny that it was him in the photograph. Neither did a spokesperson for the governor, who replied to reporters via email that Tennessee’s bill “specifically protects children from obscene, sexualized entertainment, and any attempt to conflate this serious issue with lighthearted school traditions is dishonest and disrespectful to Tennessee families.”

We do not want to be disrespectful, to anyone. But because the language of the bill is rather vague — “prurient interest” can mean a wide variety of things to a wide variety of people — we might need to explore the difference between a “lighthearted” tradition and the sort of thing that Tennessee is now outlawing.

What if the governor donned a dress not as a teenager but as an adult, right now? What if, instead of a high school tradition, the dress-up bit was part of a silly shtick for the town follies? What if Lee were to add some prosthetics to the ensemble? What if the event was a charity look-alike contest for Tennessee’s own Dolly Parton, the beloved country-music icon? What if the governor generously stuffed a bra in his attempt to approximate the singer’s famous physique? Would that be crossing the line into “prurient interest,” or are we still just having a laugh? (Perhaps it would depend on how sultry the governor made his performance of “Touch Your Woman.”)

These are silly hypotheticals, but as long as politicians see the need to make new laws delineating between harmless fun and dangerous obscenity, we might as well talk about where the line is and why. Because something tells me nobody’s about to start legislating against, say, the Tennessee Titans cheerleading uniforms, no matter how much cleavage they show or how publicly they perform or how many minors are in the stands.

I emailed Sen. Jack Johnson, the Republican Tennessee state senator who sponsored the bill, to see if he could shed any light on this piece of legislation. Was there a particularly long history of Tennessee children being injuriously exposed to obscene female impersonators? Is this a big problem in his state? What prompted the bill?

Johnson’s press secretary sent me back a statement on his behalf. “I have seen videos of sexually graphic performances where children are present, and it is absolutely despicable,” the statement read. It went on to say that the bill “does not ban drag shows in public. It simply puts age-restrictions in place to ensure that children are not present at sexually explicit performances.”

Free speech advocates worry about the murkiness of the law: “We are concerned that government officials could easily abuse this law to censor people based on their own subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate,” the ACLU tweeted.

Broader pieces of legislation are up for debate in states all around the country. Nebraska, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, Montana, Kansas and Oklahoma all have various anti-drag bills on the table. A bill proposed in Missouri prohibits activities where drag queens engage in “learning activities with minor children present,” and specifically mentions drag queen story hours.

Could a man like Lee, as part of some fundraising dare — I’ll do it if we raise a million dollars — dress as Dolly Parton and then read out loud from one of the books from her Imagination Library, which provides free monthly books to children?

You know what, I think he could. Because here’s the thing. I don’t think that the supporters of these bills have a problem with drag when it’s the right kind of drag. And the right kind of drag is when a straight man does it as a gag, a dare or a humiliation. When the joke is how bad he looks or how silly this all is; when it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Junior” or Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire” or Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies” or Tyler Perry as Madea, or any number of teenage boys who have borrowed their girlfriends’ cheerleading uniforms and received whoops and catcalls while acting in the senior class skit or another “lighthearted school tradition.”

Earlier in March, protesters targeted a Michigan bookstore for hosting a drag queen story hour, the type of event that they’re trying to outlaw in Missouri, and which lately has become a fixation of the pronoun-panic crowd. I looked up photos. The performer in attendance was dressed in a poofy ballgown. She looked like a Disney princess. The book she was reading, “Pete the Cat’s Groovy Imagination,” was about an animal finding creative ways to drum up fun on a rainy day.

Michigan is controlled by Democrats, so the right-wing (ahem) economic anxiety around gender there hasn’t translated to statewide bans. Still, the local GOP encouraged people to protest the event. “Adult sexuality introduced to a child — especially outside of the family unit — is not ‘playful’ or safely entertaining,” read a statement from the Oakland County GOP. “It is at best inappropriate, and at worst, criminal.”

Where do they get the idea that a modest ballgown introduces “adult sexuality?”

I think that people who say they have a problem with drag really only have a problem with drag when the message is that it’s OK to feel good about wearing a dress. When the message is that men can put on makeup and celebrate what it means to look or feel feminine, not just mock it. When the message is that doing so doesn’t make you some kind of degenerate.

I reached out to Nino Testa, a professor at Texas Christian University who studies the art of drag performances, to see if he could articulate this concept better, and he absolutely did:

“It’s very clear that these anti-drag initiatives and bills are articulating a specific value: that queerness itself is undesirable and that children should not be told otherwise,” Testa wrote back. He told me about “womanless weddings,” a fascinating Southern tradition dating back to the beginning of the early 20th century, where a group of men would act out a wedding ceremony, playing the bride, bridesmaids and flower girls alike. These events were seen as fun entertainment, not inappropriate sexualization.

“When one set of performers engages in these practices and utilizes these aesthetics, it is unremarkable, when another set of performers does it, it is considered lewd,” Testa wrote. “This is because of age-old antiqueer tropes that position all queer people as sexual predators and social deviants.”

Unfortunately, those age-old biases are not easy to shed at a societal level, especially when they are fanned by fear-based state legislation.

As for addressing them on an individual level, this is my modest proposal: Pretend the drag performer in question is the governor of a conservative southern state. Pretend it is he who put on the miniskirt and wig. Ron DeSantis. Greg Abbott; really, any of them will do. If you can find a way to see this performance as a lighthearted lark, not something sexual or shameful, then leave the drag queens alone.

The other thing people who are squeamish about drag performances could do is attend some drag shows. Particularly the broad-daylight variety, the ones associated with street festivals or held in libraries; the ones children are likely to actually encounter.

The messaging is not “prurient.” The messaging is that people can look all kinds of different ways and still be contributing members of society. That make-believe and imagination are important. That it’s an optional performance, not state-mandated curriculum, for Pete’s sake, and if you think it’s weird you are free to stay home.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.” Follow her on Twitter @MonicaHesse.

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