Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I have spent the entirety of my adult life believing in, and, when necessary, advocating for gay rights. I firmly supported the national movement for marriage equality and although I’m old and no fun anymore, I spent many a glorious hour enjoying gay pride parades, drag shows, and gay bars. There is absolutely no love lost between me and ultra-conservative religious Christians in America, especially considering the recent resurgence of proudly homophobic Evangelicalism.
But I have a question, one that I just can’t find a satisfactory answer to anywhere: Why is drag queen story hour necessary?
This weird push to involve kids in a form of decidedly sexual adult entertainment defies explanation. Who benefits from this – the kids? If so, how? Why? I hope to raise children with a respectful appreciation of people from all walks of life, but must they be read Dragons Love Tacos by a man in exaggerated makeup, a pushup bra, and fishnet tights to learn tolerance? If not the kids, do the drag queens benefit from this? If so, how? Why? Is drag, which seems to have become weirdly intertwined with trans identity, such an inherent, sacred part of a person that it should be able to be performed anytime, anywhere?
I don’t think so. Instead, I think the people who primarily benefit from this are the adults who get to pat themselves on the back for publicly displaying their tolerant bona fides. These are the parents with the signs out on their lawns – you know the ones – “In this house, we believe…” [insert sacrosanct political liturgy]. Perhaps its just the nascent parent in me, but when I hear about kids performing in drag for any reason whatsoever, my reaction is visceral revulsion – not for the kids, and not for adult drag performers, but for the parents who are so eager to prove their tolerance that they can no longer distinguish between what is appropriate for children and what is appropriate for adults. They can no longer detect the very real dangers inherent in allowing kids to go where they do not belong, around other adults who do not know or care about such boundaries themselves.
This leads to what I think is the more concerning question for me: What kind of adult would watch an 11-year-old perform in drag? My husband and I would laugh at our young sons wearing mom’s heels around the house, but we wouldn’t touch any event featuring a child drag performance with a 10-foot pole; it strikes us both as wildly inappropriate and fucking bizarre. The gay men I know have always strongly disliked having kids in adult gay spaces for many reasons, not least of which was a conspicuous desire to avoid any association with pedophiles.
Generally, I am deeply skeptical if not outright disgusted with the religious right’s “Think of the children!”-ing that functions as a thin mask for overt homphobia. But pedophiles do seek out vulnerable children – there is no question about this – and who more vulnerable that a child whose parents’ inclusive ideology is so open-minded that the parents’ brains have fallen out? What kind of adult comes to an event to watch a child in drag? What kind of a man dresses in provocative women’s clothing to publicly read a book to a child? (Have you ever seen a drag queen read a kid a book in a dowdy librarian’s outfit and hairdo?) And why have we decided that to ask these questions is bigoted and hateful instead of a cautious reluctance to expose young children to adult sexuality?
I have yet to hear one good reason. What I hear instead is a lot of awkward defenses, which, while they have nuggets of truth in them, are hardly proactive justifications. For example, I hear the argument that child beauty queen pageants and high school dance companies in the U.S. are hardly better, putting young women doing unquestionably sexual moves in leotards and heavy makeup in front of cheering crowds. I think this is a fair point in the sense that I actually don’t think 14-year-olds should be grinding to explicit lyrics in school gymnasiums, no matter how commonplace it might be, and it’s a shame that we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t bat at eye at it. But I don’t think the hypersexualization of young people in one arena justifies it in another.
The other defense I often hear of drag queen events involving children goes something along the lines of, “Religious institutions have abused children for thousands of years, and conservatives continue to take their kids to church today, so I really don’t want to hear about how drag queens are a threat to kids.” Again, I take the point. My own family was impacted by a sexual predator who was protected by parents and clergy who covered up the seriousness and extent of the abuse.
We have no data suggesting that priests, rabbis, or bishops are more likely to abuse children than other professions that allow adults to be alone with kids (doctors, athletic coaches, teachers, etc.). However, the broader point is true – kids are especially vulnerable in places where the adults have their guard down. Parents assume their religious leaders would never hurt their child, and their belief in the infallibility of their ideology frequently causes them to go out of their way to avoid seeing abuse, even when it’s staring them in the face.
But I’d say the same circumstances exist in groups oriented towards putting kids around drag queens and other adult situations – perhaps even more so, because religious institutions now benefit from a healthy dose of suspicion and skepticism. There is no such caution with child-involved drag events and I suspect the opposite is true – parents, who are eager to show how tolerant they are, and organizers, who are convinced kids will benefit from exposure to diversity, are as entrapped by their ideology as a Mormon or a Catholic. The adults have the exact same incentives to turn a blind eye to people who are seeking to prey on kids.
Yet there are a ton of great reasons to take your kid to church. Religious community provides kids with a peer group and a network of adults looking out for them (this saved my family when I was young); a strong sense of identity and where they fit in the world, especially in regard to their family history; shared stories and traditions that act as guardrails against unsafe behavior and guidelines as kids transition to adulthood; statistically significant improvements in academic behavior and overall life success; support for parents, both in keeping marriages together and in raising children; etc. Many people opt not to, which I understand, but not everyone needs to get these benefits from church to make them true writ large.
What are the benefits that drag queen story hour or other drag events provide? Fun? Go to the park or watch a movie. Read a book together. Play dress up with friends at home. Kids naturally push boundaries and explore different identities without adult pressure to do so; they don’t need an adult man in a miniskirt twerking in their face to teach them that they can be whoever they want to be. This is all the more true because, so often, these aren’t 16, 17, or 18-year-old kids we’re talking about; they are 10 and 11-year-olds, sometimes even younger. I just don’t understand a parent who doesn’t see the potential for predatory behavior in a situation like that.
Even Dan Savage, the famed gay sex-advice columnist, admonishes parents who take their kids to gay pride parades and then are shocked and offended when their children see a ring of men in puppy masks getting a blow job from a submissive twink on a glittering float: This is adult entertainment. These are not family-friendly events. Gay culture, such as it is, is unquestionably a place where consenting adults can celebrate their love for each other, but it is also explicitly, extravagantly, unapologetically sexual. That’s fine! That’s part of the fun, as any adult who’s drunk at a gay bar will tell you. Mardi Gras is the same way, for the same reasons. It’s good for there to be adult spaces for adult activities. But anyone who denies the sexual component is lying, and knows it. There are goods reasons why so many gay couples exit the “gay scene” as they get older and just live boring, mainstream lives.
There are a thousand and one ways to teach your kids tolerance, including specifically family-friendly gay pride events. I look forward to my kids having warm relationships with the gay adults in their lives, including two of my very best friends, who are among the people I love and admire most in the whole world. If my sons grew up to perform drag as adults, power to them. I’d go and watch. But I just cannot understand why drag events for kids are suddenly the good-person-litmus-test-du-jour. I’m open to explanations. Anyone?