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Texas drag shows become a right-wing target amid rising extremism

 Counterprotesters form a barricade outside of a transgender storytelling event in Denton on Nov. 19 as Sara Gonzales of Defend Our Kids: Texas chants, “There are only two genders.”
Shelby Tauber
/
Texas Tribune
Counterprotesters form a barricade outside of a transgender storytelling event in Denton on Nov. 19 as Sara Gonzales of Defend Our Kids: Texas chants, “There are only two genders.”

LGBTQ Texans say lawmakers and right-wing figures are misrepresenting what happens at all-ages performances to propagate hate and violence against queer people.

For LGBTQ mental health support, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, four drag performers gathered in a hotel lobby that doubles as a bar just west of the University of Texas at Austin. It was time for the monthly Divacakes Drag Revue show, the first since a gunman killed five people and injured more than 20 others at a queer club in Colorado.

“It’s absolutely horrendous and awful, and it’s terrifying,” said Noodles, one of the show’s hosts. “But you can’t let things like that make you not keep doing what you’re doing because otherwise, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

The act of violence sent shockwaves of grief and fear through the American LGBTQ community. But on that Saturday in November, the Austin performers strived to shift the mood while lip syncing for a small crowd — Noodles emoted to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” after her co-host, Diamond Dior Davenport, nailed every single beat of Lizzo’s “About Damn Time.” Dior Davenport said drag is about self-expression — and spreading lighthearted fun.

“I like performing to give them that,” she said. “I like to bring joy to other people.”

While there were no protesters outside the Divacakes show, Texas drag performances, particularly those where children are present, have increasingly become the targets of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric this year. Far-right groups have labeled drag performers as “groomers,” a homophobic and transphobic slur that insinuates LGBTQ people are pedophiles, and fanned baseless fears that they’re “sexualizing” children and “indoctrinating” them into queerdom.

This comes after Republican Texas lawmakers have spent years targeting LGBTQ people — particularly transgender Texans — with bills that seek to limit everything from which public restrooms they can use to whether they can access gender-affirming care. GOP lawmakers have already filed a bill ahead of next year’s legislative session that would ban children from attending drag shows and classify show venues as “sexually oriented businesses.”

“Like any form of art, drag can be modified to be appropriate for children,” said Brigitte Bandit, an Austin drag queen who has performed at family-friendly events. “We are smart enough to know what that is.”

Drag performers and LGBTQ advocates say the groups targeting shows are misrepresenting what happens at them. They say demonstrators are using children as an excuse to propagate hate and violence against queer people — something people calling for protests and claiming that drag shows are never appropriate for children deny.

“It seems like any comment that opposes allowing children to be exposed to sexually explicit events with scantily-clad men dancing provactively is going to be deemed as ‘hateful’ by those who disagree,” wrote Kelly Neidert, the executive director of Protect Texas Kids, a nonprofit that organizes protests at all ages-drag shows, in an email to The Texas Tribune.

Misinformation experts say these protests are the first phase of a rising wave of right-wing extremism.

“This hate does not happen in a vacuum,” said Jay Brown, a senior vice president at the Human Rights Campaign who is transgender. “In Texas — an open carry state — we see multiple armed protests in opposition to LGBTQ+ bars, culture and events each week. These attacks in Texas aim to perpetuate lies about who LGBTQ+ people are and set a dangerous precedent of singling out members of the community that will only result in higher instances of violence.”

Far-right extremist groups and white nationalist hate organizations like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front have become more engaged in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks political violence and protests.

“Demonstrations are over four times more likely to turn violent and/or destructive when far-right militias or militant social movements are involved,” ACLED wrote in a November report.

This coordinated online targeting and political rhetoric has left performers and venues across Texas to choose between canceling shows for their own safety or performing anyway.

“I think some of these people that are mad about kids being at drag shows think that we’re trying to get children at the drag shows at the gay bars at 11 p.m. at night,” Bandit said. “That’s not what anybody’s fighting for.”

From Shakespeare to modern expression

The roots of drag can be traced back to Ancient Greece, Shakespearean times and traditional Japanese kabuki shows, Frank DeCaro told NPR in 2019. DeCaro is the author of “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business,” a book of essays about the history of drag.

In modern times, drag queens became staples of underground gay bars, which were often raided by the police, who arrested people for dancing with members of the same sex. In 1969, when police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City, drag queens like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought back in an uprising that launched the gay rights movement.

In the 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic wreaked havoc on a generation of LGBTQ Americans and federal officials bungled the public health response to what they deemed a “gay disease,” drag shows became an integral part of the LGBTQ community.

When people were diagnosed with AIDS, “they lasted hours to days,” said Judy Reeves, chair of Texas’ Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History. “That’s when a lot of people that were still [HIV] negative, obviously, stepped up and started doing drag shows for money. We did many of them for money to bury a friend or, you know, anything we could do.”

Today, drag performers say their work is valuable as both a means of queer expression and joy and a form of constitutionally protected speech about societal gender norms.

“I think the importance of drag is expressing yourself through aspects of gender and art and also kind of the kickback toward societal norms of what gender norms are,” said Nayda Montana, a Dallas-based drag queen. “It’s a political statement against what gender is supposed to be and also a celebration of your gender and the artistic ways you can create.”

Drag queens who spoke with the Tribune acknowledged that there are plenty of drag performances that are not appropriate for children. Particular performers and regular late-night shows at venues across Texas are known for raunchy banter and references to sex, which is the allure for adults who attend these drag shows at nightclubs and bars that already don’t allow children inside. But performers say that’s not what happens at daytime, kid-friendly shows.

She said drag appearances and shows where kids are present aren’t about sex at all. They’re often about exploring the fluidity of gender expression.

“Just like you have movies that can be G-rated and R-rated, you have drag shows that can be appropriate for kids, and you can have drag shows that are not appropriate for kids,” Bandit said.

Days after the shooting in Colorado, Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire, a right-wing digital media outlet, described drag as “inherently sexual and ideological” and suggested drag artists — and all queer people — stop expressing themselves to avoid attracting future violence. While these ideas are effective at winning many to the side of extremism, drag performers and misinformation experts agree that these arguments aren’t based in reality.

“This idea that it’s indoctrination is just hate. It’s just mindless,” Bandit said. “I think it’s kind of stupid. I think ultimately it’s sad because (they) are ignoring the real issues and the real problems that actually do hurt kids, you know?”

A litany of threats and protests

Extremists are targeting drag performers as just the latest in a “long line of threats” to the LGBTQ and trans communities, said Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Elizabeth Bibi.

“What we’re seeing is that these threats are starting online, kind of being perpetrated by a select few extremists … who are then kind of siccing their followers on LGBTQ events and medical providers and drag shows and drag queen story hours and kind of all of these people, and it’s leading to offline violence,” Bibi said.

While the LGBTQ community is one of the main victims of rising extremism, they’re not the only group suffering from it.

“What we’re seeing is a full-scale rise in discriminatory rhetoric online and harassment online,” Bibi said. “It’s targeting the LGBTQ+ community. It’s targeting the Jewish community. It’s targeting migrants. It’s targeting anybody who may be a little bit different than the people that are perpetrating this misinformation and disinformation.”

An HRC report from August found that the use of “groomer” rhetoric about the LGBTQ community increased by more than 400% following the passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in March.

Protect Texas Kids, the group that Neidert leads, alerts its followers to drag shows advertised as kid-friendly or open to all ages. Its aim is to combat attempts to corrupt children’s identities and turn them queer, its website says. Its mission statement includes misinformation about gender-affirming care for trans minors and public education’s “leftist curricula.”

“Our goal as an organization is to protect Texas kids from indoctrination and exposure to harmful, inappropriate content,” wrote Neidert, a well-known conservative figure on the University of North Texas campus, in an email. “Our goal is to get drag shows for kids banned; we believe these shows should only be open to people 18 and up.”

While a bar in Denton canceled its Disney-themed drag brunch after receiving threats spurred by Protect Texas Kids calling attention to the show, Neidert refuted the nature of the messages her group encouraged its followers to send.

“I did not personally see anything that would be deemed a ‘threat,’” she wrote.

Neidert also said she attended drag shows to capture footage of the performers but had never seen a full show. In the past, Neidert has called for attendees of pride events to be “round[ed] up” on social media. Since then, her Twitter account has been suspended.

Earlier this month, far-right social media personality Tayler Hansen released a video from a drag show in San Antonio, alleging the performers were inappropriately interacting with a child in the audience. The venue canceled all of its drag shows for the rest of the year out of safety concerns after being “bullied and threatened” and “made to feel unsafe in [its] own space.”

“We stand by our queens and the sentiment that there was nothing wrong done at this past Friday’s toy drive,” the venue said in a statement published to social media on Sunday. “The story is being twisted into something disgusting to fit a political narrative. It’s sad, frustrating, & disappointing.”

The San Antonio incident follows several family-friendly or all-ages drag shows that have been protested, canceled or threatened this year. In June, demonstrators gathered outside a Dallas bar where the performers encouraged children in the audience to walk alongside them during the show. In August, protesters and armed counterprotesters clashed at a Roanoke distillery.

In September, a progressive church in Katy hosted a drag bingo night to raise funds for its free closet for transgender and questioning members of the community. The church’s senior pastor estimated around 300 people showed up to protest, including a prominent Houston neo-Nazi and others holding antisemitic signs. In October, footage of a drag show in a Plano bar went viral because a young girl was spotted in the audience while a queen performed to an explicit song. The bar’s owner said the girl’s family understood what they were going to see. A right-wing group similar to Protect Texas Kids even created an “alert system” for Texans to report drag shows happening in the state.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorism bulletin last week that said the country is in a heightened threat environment as “lone offenders and small groups … continue to pose a persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland.” LGBTQ people and spaces are among potential targets of ongoing violence.

“Following the late November shooting at an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado … we have observed actors on forums known to post racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist content praising the alleged attacker,” the bulletin said.

Texas lawmakers reviving push to target LGBTQ people

In the 2021 legislative session, Republican lawmakers pushed a slate of bills that sought to restrict or punish gender-affirming health care, like puberty blockers. Most didn’t pass, though LGBTQ advocates said the mere idea of such measures becoming law damaged the mental health of transgender people.

Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to open child abuse investigations on parents who provide gender-affirming care to their kids. Abbott’s order largely can’t be enforced as a court challenge plays out.

Already, Republican lawmakers are targeting LGBTQ people ahead of the 2023 legislative session, including drag performers. State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, has filed House Bill 643, which would classify any venue in Texas that hosts a drag performance as a “sexually oriented business,” the same category that strip clubs and sex shops fall under. That means those businesses could not allow minors to enter their premises and would have to pay the state comptroller $5 for each customer who enters. Allowing a minor inside would be considered a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 or up to a year in jail.

The bill would legally define a drag performance as one where “a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.” This definition encapsulates many drag performances, but not all of them. Many drag artists perform under a drag persona whose gender expression matches the gender that the performer was assigned at birth even though many others do not.

Patterson declined to comment.

“They don’t really have any ground to hate gay people other than the fact that they’re gay, so they’re using this as a weapon to weaponize [against] queer people and be like, ‘Well, look at what they’re doing with our kids,’” Montana said. “They think that they can use this as something that will make us look like bad people in some way, when really we’re just living our lives.”

State Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, the vice chair of the Texas LGBTQ Caucus, said the bill would have “significant implications” for queer Texans.

“Drag shows are sometimes the only place LGBTQ individuals feel comfortable expressing their true selves,” González wrote in a prepared statement. “This bill is another attempt by Texas Republicans to try to shut out the LGBTQ community from existing.”

“At least I was living honestly”

The Divacakes show in Austin last month avoided controversy. There were only a handful of attendees, including one mother who brought her 2-year-old daughter. The performers joked with them and made sure to prance by their table during their numbers.

At one point, a performer asked the girl if she wanted to walk with them. She didn’t, but at another point, she got up and handed one of the performers a dollar bill after some encouragement from her mother.

Dior Davenport and Noodles made sure to keep their language and stories kid-friendly when they bantered. The young girl was under her mother’s supervision the entire time, and none of the performers exhibited inappropriate behavior toward her. They did not force her to interact with them, their outfits were not revealing and their performances were not sexual or suggestive.

Montana said entertaining people does make her worry about her safety, but she’s willing to risk it for her art.

“I’m going out and doing what I love, and that’s what matters,” she said. “If something happens to me, going out and doing what I love, then at least I was living honestly.”

Each drag performer whom the Tribune spoke with agreed: The show must go on. They refuse to give into fear and retreat into the closet.

“They’re not going to win that from me, at least,” Montana said.

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Trent Brown | The Texas Tribune