Jun 21, 2022

The drag show controversy.

The drag show controversy.

Plus, a question about Julian Assange.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Drag shows are now a political controversy. Plus, a question about Julian Assange.

A drag queen story hour in California. Photo credit: Jonathan Moore
A drag queen story hour in California. Photo credit: Jonathan Moore

Clarification.

Yesterday, in responding to a reader question, I wrote that Judge Luttig did not say “the former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy," but that the former president and his allies were a threat.

This was right in relation to Luttig's testimony, which I was addressing. But several readers pointed out that Luttig did actually say the quote the reader cited in an NPR interview that was released after the testimony. To me, this doesn't really count as a correction, since I wrote that he didn't say this during his testimony. But it does feel like a clarification worth making.


Quick hits.

  1. Alabama and Georgia have primary runoff elections today, and Virginia has primary elections. (The elections)
  2. The Jan. 6 Committee will hold its fourth public hearing today to focus on the pressure state officials faced following the 2020 election. (The hearings)
  3. Israel will be forced to hold another election to determine its leader, the fifth in four years. (The elections)
  4. Hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed in Ethiopia in what appears to be an ethnically motivated attack. (The attack)
  5. Gasoline prices fell below $5 per gallon, its first weekly decline in over two months. (The prices)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Drag shows. One of the newest culture war battlegrounds in the U.S. is the exposure of children to drag shows.

Since Pride Month began on June 1, more and more attention has been paid to Drag Queen Story Hour, a nonprofit started in 2015 that helps fund drag queens who read to children and their parents at libraries, bookstores, fairs, parks and other public spaces. The events are billed by the nonprofit as a fun and entertaining way for kids to learn basic lessons in an imaginative setting which encourages children that it's okay to be different.

But in the last few weeks, drag shows more generally have become an increasingly strident point of contention.  Activists who say it is inappropriate to expose kids to drag are protesting across the country. On social media, influential conservatives like Christopher Rufo and the account Libs of TikTok have shared videos of some lewder drag shows happening in schools or public spaces with children in attendance. Much like the controversy around gender ideology in classrooms and Florida's parental rights bill, conservatives have said drag shows are designed to "groom" children into subscribing to more progressive ideology, or being trans or gay.

In Texas, Republican Bryan Slaton has said he would propose a bill banning people from hosting drag shows in the presence of minors. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Republican Arizona state senators then followed suit. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said child protective services may consider drag shows "child endangerment." Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called for a drag queen story time to be canceled, describing it as a "gross abuse of taxpayer funding to place children in a sexualized environment." This weekend, members of the extremist militia group the Proud Boys disrupted a drag show reading event at a library in California.

The controversy has drummed up a lot of commentary about drag, what we're exposing our kids to, and what is appropriate for kids in school or public spaces. It has become a deeply divisive political and cultural issue.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left says drag is a perfectly innocent and fun way for kids to learn, and objections to it are rooted in homophobia.
  • Some call out the increasingly common trend of demonizing LGBTQ people.
  • Others say we are in the midst of a new "Rainbow Scare."

In NBC News, the children's book author and Drag Queen Lil Miss Hot Mess said attempts to shut down story hours are an attack on freedom of expression and imagination.

"While I have grown used to backlash from conservative groups, I am disturbed by the recent mainstreaming of overtly anti-LGBTQ and racist discourse, especially legislative attacks on trans kids, attempts to falsely discredit queer people as 'groomers' and efforts to ban books with diverse themes," they wrote. "Drag Queen Story Hour’s most potent teachings, like any good drag performance, are best read between the lines. Parents and educators often assume that what children can learn about most from drag performers is to challenge gender stereotypes and celebrate diverse LGBTQ leaders and histories. While these are certainly important learning objectives, drag is also a creative portal to a new world; through drag we’re able to see those elements of society that are a hot mess and find the courage and creativity to change them.

"Drag activates creativity and play, expanding traditional ways of thinking," Lil Miss Hot Mess said. "Drag offers a textbook example of imagination: transforming society by making a new image of ourselves and the world around us. Drag queens and kings turn trash into treasure, taking our inner spark and allowing it to shine on the outside. And we invite respect through the audacity of being our most fabulous selves, holding our heads high even against the toughest critics. In research I have published with education scholar Harper Keenan, we argue that drag echoes many of the most effective learning practices, according to prominent schools of educational theory. Among other things, programs like ours invite a sense of wonder and curiosity through our larger-than-life and engaging presence in classrooms and libraries, replacing scripted ways of learning with improvisation and inquiry."

Ja'han Jones said a growing number of high-profile conservatives have spent the last year "demonizing LGBTQ people."

"Lately, that’s led many right-wing figures to become bizarrely infatuated with drag shows," Jones said. "For Republicans who try to enforce rigid and outmoded gender roles in nearly all aspects of society, drag shows are an easy target. People — often, queer people — happily wearing clothes that defy gender norms embody a world conservatives want us to believe is dangerous, especially to children. Ironically, these claims have come from members of a party servile to former President Donald Trump, who’s made sexual comments about his daughter in the past, been accused of walking in on teen beauty pageant participants as they were changing, danced around with Jeffrey Epstein, and offered kind words to Epstein's partner Ghislaine Maxwell ahead of her trial.

"Nonetheless, Republicans baselessly claim queer people, and drag queens especially, are the real child predators. And across the board, they’re embracing extreme measures to oppress and ostracize these people," Jones wrote. "All of this rhetoric has fed a culture of violence and intimidation that is being waged against queer people and their supporters... On Saturday, members of the Proud Boys extremist militia disrupted an event in California where people in drag were reading stories to children... In a separate incident on Saturday, 31 people affiliated with the white nationalist group Patriot Front were arrested after piling into a moving truck to allegedly disrupt a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho... And in Arizona last month, a right-wing extremist who has appeared in photos with several local politicians threatened to 'hunt' LGBTQ supporters in Phoenix, saying in a video that these people are 'not safe.'"

Allison Hope said Americans are "facing a rainbow scare."

"The Rainbow Scare has haunting echoes of the Red Scare and related Lavender Scare (as historian David K. Johnson coined it) from the mid-20th century, when fears about the spread of communism during the Cold War emboldened Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and others in the US government to persecute and ostracize people who were deemed to be 'communist sympathizers,' cavorting with the Soviet enemy," Hope wrote. "Today, extreme right officials and community leaders are heinously using LGBTQ+ students as pawns to stoke fear (and win votes). Banning books, censoring curricula and silencing LGBTQ+ students and teachers are the latest tactics in the right's efforts to perpetuate regressive discrimination under the guise of a culture war.

"The Rainbow Scare is evident in the more than 200 bills in state legislatures that aim to or already have stripped LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender kids of the right to access life-saving health care, to play sports or even to talk about orientation or gender identity in schools,” Hope said. “It's there in the coordinated efforts to ban books in libraries and schools that have LGBTQ+ characters or themes. And in bills like the one passed by the Ohio House of Representatives, which would -- in addition to banning trans girls from sports -- require a genital exam and verification by a doctor if a student's sex were questioned."


What the right is saying.

  • The right says it is about protecting children's innocence.
  • They argue that drag shows are inappropriate for kids, no matter what the content is.
  • Some call out drag queens who have been accused of sexual crimes.

In Fox News, David Marcus said the left is abandoning the idea of a child's innocence.

"Protests erupted over the weekend as a gay bar in Texas hosted a 'Drag Your Kids to Pride' event, at which, among other things, kids tipped dancers in drag with dollars bills, mimicking the common strip club practice," Marcus wrote. "Defenders of the youth themed show call it harmless fun, but it raises serious questions about whether children need to be protected from this overtly sexual entertainment. Put simply, do we have, as a society, a responsibility to protect the innocence of children?... Eighteenth Century French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau is generally considered the father of this movement which held that children enter the world blameless and should be protected from negative influences until they develop into fully reasonable adults."

"But today, the American left is abandoning this principle," he said. "Does it still believe that childhood should be a time of innocence? Recently, an article in Fatherly argued that we should bring our young children to Gay Pride events even though they may well be exposed to public nudity and kink. It’s the kind of commonplace thing said today that not very long ago would have sounded completely insane. The message is a clear one, the risk of harming a child with inappropriate images is worth ensuring they wind up with the right politics... Now, nobody thinks that progressives today would put 12-year-olds back in coal mines, but we know that they are very willing to place them on the barricades of their political and culture wars, both literally at Pride events and figuratively by making little, tiny activists out of them at school."

In the Washington Examiner, Kimberly Ross said "yes, children are too young for drag shows."

"There has been a growing militancy within the LGBT community. Among other things, normalizing gender transitioning for minors and demanding 'correct' pronoun usage have increased. So have drag queen events geared toward children. Both 'drag queen story hour' and 'family-friendly drag shows' are meant to inspire acceptance and diversity," Ross said. "But introducing sexually exaggerated female characters played by men isn't at all appropriate for children. This position should not be controversial. Some communities, such as one in Apex, North Carolina, reject these drag-related events. And politicians such as Texas state Rep. Bryan Slaton prefer legislation that would actually ban minors from such events. Conservatives are right to be bothered. But the issue should be discussed in a much broader context of parental obligation.

"Rejecting drag queen events aimed at children is considered by some to be homophobic. The truth is, there are many events children should never attend and plenty of entertainment they should not consume. Standing between children and mature, violent, and/or sexually explicit things is what adults should be doing. Instead, the issue has become another culture war topic in which the Left is said to be about diversity and the Right is all about hatred. It's dishonest, lopsided nonsense," she wrote. "No, children should not be exposed to drag shows, even ones labeled 'family-friendly.' Minors aren't allowed at strip clubs, for good reason. Movies have age requirements, too. If I allowed my son to watch an episode of The Sopranos with me, I would be doing him a disservice. He is far too young to view it."

In Spectator, Ellie Gardey criticized Democrats for placing drag queens in schools.

"Drag queens have become symbolic of the indoctrination of children into LGBTQ ideology, as Drag Queen Story Hour has grown in popularity in elementary schools and libraries," Gardey wrote. "The event features men dressed in drag who read children’s books that advocate for radical gender ideology. The story time is sometimes accompanied by sexually explicit dancing. The nonprofit Drag Queen Story Hour says that its events 'capture the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood' and allow children to 'see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish.' The New York Post reported last week that New York City schools have spent over $200,000 on drag queen shows.

"The events have drawn headlines for connections to child predation," she said. "The former president of an organization that sponsored drag story hour events was sentenced to nine years in prison for possessing images depicting the sexual abuse of children. In another incident, the drag queen who read to children at the Houston Public Library was a registered child sex offender."


My take.

When I initially saw drag shows generating political punditry, I wasn't planning on covering it. I felt as if the story was a pure, unadulterated culture war on the fringes, and one that probably wasn't worth engaging. Frankly, I still can’t really believe I’m covering drag shows in a politics newsletter. But when I saw the responses get so hot that lawmakers in several states began floating the idea of legislation, it crossed the Rubicon from culture war to significant political issue — one in the same league as Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill or bans on teaching critical race theory.

My sense from following this story is that there are two kinds of people objecting to the drag shows in schools.

One kind objects on the grounds that there are certain shows, highlighted in videos like this (NSFW), that are simply inappropriate for children. In these videos, drag queens might be wearing thongs, gyrating their hips, showing their crotches, having money stuffed into their cleavage or displaying fake breasts. Many people have reacted by saying there is no place for children at these performances, neither in schools nor if their parents decided to take them to such events outside of school.

Generally speaking, I don't see anything homophobic or otherwise untoward about this position. I've been to a few drag shows, which are always great and unambiguous fun, but I'm an adult. Some of the shows being highlighted by conservative activists do look inappropriate for children, at least to me. And suggesting that these shows shouldn't be allowed in schools for certain ages seems totally rational, for the same reasons I wouldn't want my kid's school to put on a burlesque show. I’ve seen some drag queens argue the very same thing.

There is a limit to that objection, though. When you start claiming that parents might be "endangering" their kids by having them present at these shows, or that it might be grounds for calling Child Protective Services on a family, you've lost me. Even if you think these images are inappropriate for kids, they're closer to provocative cheer or dance routines that you see during some halftime shows than they are to taking a kid to a strip club. I understand not wanting certain drag performances in school, but you can't beat the drum of "parental rights" as Gov. Ron DeSantis has in one breath, and then suggest you are going to take away someone's child in the next because they took them to a drag show. Either you want the parents to have discretion about how to raise their kids and what ages are appropriate to expose them to certain things, or you don't. Otherwise you're just imposing your own views on others using the law.

The second kind of person objecting to these shows seems different, though, and I find them much more alarming. These are the people that suggest any man or woman dressing up as the opposite gender is some kind of sexual pervert or pedophile. These are the people, in videos like this, who are barging into drag queen story hours to call the performers "trannies" and "pedophiles," actions that I imagine traumatize the very children they claim to be protecting.

It should go without saying, but since it doesn't seem to, I will anyway: Drag queens reading children's books featuring LGTBQ characters is not the same as intentionally provocative striptease. Seeing a man in make-up dressed as a woman is not going to harm your child. Most kids I’ve interacted with actually enjoy playing dress up and using their imaginations to pretend to be something they’re not, and I think they can easily grasp what is happening. If anything, it may encourage those who feel they don’t fit in. It's not hard to imagine teachers using this as a kind of theater, a performance, a way to engage kids and break the rhythm of the normal school day. And I'm certain there is even a middle ground where some drag queen performance that includes dancing or singing would be perfectly suitable for kids.

Nevertheless, some people online are doing everything they can to link drag queens to sexual predators. In one of the above pieces, Ellie Gardey calls out an "incident" where a "drag queen who read to children at the Houston Public Library was a registered child sex offender." This is a real story from 2019. But using this as evidence that drag queens are sexually deviant and kids should be kept away is like saying kids shouldn't go to church because priests are sometimes child abusers. It's intended to make all drag queens seem to be a threat, which is the kind of bigoted notion that rightly infuriates the left.

Which is where the story gets messy and convoluted. It puts actual homophobes and transphobes on the same side as well-meaning parents who just don't want their kids exposed to sexualized content of any kind.

I think a simple and direct way to think about it is this way: If a cheerleader was doing the exact same thing as some of these drag queens in front of your kids, would you find it offensive? Or inappropriate? If the answer is no, then it's probably the drag queen making you uncomfortable, which is cause for some reflection on your biases. If the answer is yes, then it's likely you just view the content in front of you as inappropriate for children regardless of performer, and it's perfectly reasonable to object to them being exposed to that content in school.

Unfortunately, it seems clear that journalists are no longer capable of guiding a rational version of this conversation. But I’ll keep screaming into the abyss for as long as I have to.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: News is now coming out that Julian Assange might be extradited to the U.S. What do you think?

— Jermaine, Houston, Texas

Tangle: I think it's bad for press freedom and very bad for Assange.

I've written a good bit about Julian Assange before and my conclusion then was the same as it is now: "Regardless of whether you think Assange is a scumbag traitor or a once-in-a-generation hero, there is an immovable reality of what this prosecution means. As Jacob Sullum so cogently put it, even with the hacking charges removed, Assange is still facing 170 years in prison for doing the things nearly every respectable news organization in the world does. When the initial charges were brought against him, there wasn't as much reason for consternation. But being charged under the Espionage Act for simply obtaining and disseminating classified documents, especially those that expose unambiguous wrongdoing by the United States government, is chilling."

There are good questions to ask about Assange, his motivations, and whether he actually ever committed any hacking crimes. But given the U.S. government has already tried to kidnap him and has made very clear its plans for him if he comes here, there is really no reason to believe he'll get a fair trial. He doesn't have to be a hero and WikiLeaks doesn't have to be a legitimate news organization for these concerns to be real for all journalists. I think Assange has already been punished plenty for his actions, and I don't think any good is going to come from him ending up in U.S. custody. Oddly, that has put me in agreement with a broad spectrum of people, from staunch progressives to Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Airports around the world are being plagued by delays, cancellations, long lines and lost baggage, according to The Wall Street Journal. Soaring demand and staffing shortfalls have set off a cascade of problems for travelers, and it may worsen in the coming months. London's Gatwick airport has gone as far as advising airlines to cut back on inbound flights. In the U.S., about 3% of scheduled flights have been scrapped so far this month, compared with a 2% rate in 2019. The total number of cancellations rose 16% from a year ago. Worse, the surging demand for flights has overwhelmed capacity in some areas. The Wall Street Journal has the story.


Numbers.

  • 104. The number of LGBTQ candidates who ran for House or Senate this year.
  • $11.9 million. The amount of money raised by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in May, the most ever in that month.
  • $8 million. The amount of money raised by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in May.
  • $407,600. The median existing home price in May, the highest on record.
  • 60%. The percentage of homes that sold in May at or above their listing price.

Have a nice day.

A pastor in Flint, Michigan, is launching an affordable laundromat in the basement of his church to help local residents. “There’s no laundromat in a four-mile radius,” North Flint's Good Church Lead Pastor Leo Robinson II told a newspaper. “Over 75 percent of our people in this area depend on public transportation, so you can only imagine taking all of your clothes, getting on the MTA to go to the laundromat to sit for three or four hours to do your laundry, and then come back on that bus route. That’s taking up most of your day.” Robinson never considered a laundromat nearby could be more important than dinner, but when he learned about "hygiene poverty" he decided to take action. With donated laundry machines, he is going to be able to launch an affordable laundromat that will be accessible to the whole community. Good Good Good has the story.


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