Why drag cannot “Sashay Away” from the United States

As I close out my second year here at Wilkes, it’s hard to imagine our campus without the Welcome Weekend Drag Bingo, which has been a staple for the last few years. It feels like drag is a part of the larger Wilkes-Barre community. Heat, a local gay bar and nightclub, is splashed across billboards and frequently hosts events and shows, featuring queens we’ve become familiar with, like Memphis Divine and Estella Sweet.

But college drag shows aren’t just a staple here in NEPA. Appalachian State University in North Carolina hosted Jujubee for their Welcome Weekend and West Chester University welcomed Shuga Cain for a Drag Show just last month. In many places across the country, Wilkes events like Programming Board’s Rainbow Bingo and the gender and sexuality alliance’s Drag Show could be considered illegal.

The first anti-drag bill was passed earlier this month in Tennessee. The bill does not specifically reference “drag,” though it does heavily restrict “adult cabaret performances” in public or other places around children. This legislation expanded the definition of an “adult-oriented performance” to include “male or female impersonators.”

Not only does this restrict the performances people all over the country enjoy, but it also introduces an insane level of governmental regulation over our own bodies. How do you classify a male or female impersonator? To what level does it extend? Unclear wording like this stands to potentially threaten transgender individuals.

Under this law, transgender and non-gender conforming individuals may not be able to wear what is most comfortable for them in public spaces. In addition, this bill automatically assumes drag is pornographic in nature. Drag artists don’t necessarily have to be sexy: they can be funny, beautiful, fashionable, talented or anything in between.

These laws don’t just impact drag artists, but also the theater world. “Drag” has been used in theater for centuries. In Shakespeare’s day, every role was played by a man. Kabuki theater, a traditional Japanese style of performance, is only practiced by men, including the female roles. Under these laws, a Kabuki artist would not be allowed to perform. These restrictions carry over to Broadway, with shows like The Lion King, Hairspray, 1776, Kinky Boots, My Fair Lady, Cabaret, Chicago, South Pacific, and even more either depicting drag queens, trans individuals, or brief references of “cross-dressing.”

Drag is a quintessential part of LGBTQ+ history and culture. Drag shows were a major part of the Vaudeville style of performance and later, the Harlem Renaissance. At some point in the 20th century, the art form became popular at gay bars and continues to delight audiences.

You may be familiar with Divine, a prolific Drag Queen from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not only did Divine amass countless film credits over her brief career, but she also influenced the character Ursula in The Little Mermaid. The two share mannerisms and physical looks.

Lady Bunny, another prolific queen, is the founder of Wigstock, a drag festival that began in 1984. Though this annual event went on a 12-year hiatus, it was revived in 2018 by Lady Bunny and Neil Patrick Harris.

Any discussion about drag would be incomplete without the mention of RuPaul Charles. She is arguably one of the most successful drag queens in history, acting in films, lending her voice to animated projects, recording best-selling albums, and hosting the show that, without a doubt, made drag so accessible to the American public: “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Of course, it is essential to mention that RuPaul is not without her faults, as she has been known to make transphobic comments and is very much a “gatekeeper” when it comes to the art of drag. Even more drag queens are also transgender women, including Coccinelle, Slyvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and many of the queens you’ll find performing at Heat.

Drag is a form of self-expression. For some, it is freeing to play a sport, write a story, sing a song, or act in a show. That same incredible feeling you get from your passions and hobbies is what Drag Queens get from donning makeup and eight-inch heels and stepping onto the runway.

Pretending to be somebody you’re not can be exhilarating. It is a break from the societal pressures and expectations placed upon you. With drag, you can create a character who embodies all the parts of you that you can’t show on a daily basis. Any TV show that does a “drag queen” story references these empowering terms.

In 2007, the adult-animated “King of the Hill” aired an episode that dealt with one of the main characters, a suburban housewife, is mistaken to be a drag queen by another drag queen. At first, she is deeply hurt that her close friend is a drag queen and offended that she was mistaken for a man. Towards the end of the episode, a club full of queens explains that the women they choose to represent, either through a fictional character or by imitating an existing artist, are powerful. They want to embody that power and confidence that women like Cher bring to the world.

This sentiment was echoed 11 years later by The Simpsons, in an episode where Marge adopts a drag persona to better sell tupperware. The idea is the same: The drag character has all the power, confidence and sexuality that the individual wishes they could better represent.

Drag doesn’t exist to corrupt. It’s an art form with roots that go back centuries. It is a form of empowerment. Often, those of us in the LGBTQ+ community are marginalized. Drag is just one way we are able to take back our power in a way that also allows us to express ourselves through song, dance, comedy or art.

Tennessee’s bill restricting LGBTQ+ art, culture, and history officially goes into effect on July 1. Other states have passed similar laws and more are still in the works. I recommend writing to your congresspeople, regardless of whether you are a Pennsylvania resident, and tell them you want drag to stay. If you’re truly passionate about drag and LGBTQ+ rights, check the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for updates and information.

If our elected officials want to politicize drag, then let’s show a united front and say: Drag is here to stay.