Reviews | Sasha Velor: I’m a drag queen. My art is neither dangerous nor deceptive.
Just as those ancestors lived and made art as authentically as they could, so do today’s drag performers. Our art has never really been about deception. Drag is about shameless self-expression and free-thinking towards others – showing respect and care for everyone and for all the ways we present ourselves. It’s both illuminating and not particularly serious; in drag, we playfully discard our assumptions of how a man or woman “should” act so we can find our own ways of being. And slipping, certainly, is not dangerous.
Critics who scream otherwise do so because they don’t understand drag. They do not want. Right-wing politicians such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene Georgia and Arizona State Senator Vince Leach is not trying to inform the public of a real threat when he condemns the acts of flirting. Their inflammatory rhetoric and scaremongering tactics have one goal: to recirculate deeply homophobic stereotypes about “grooming” to defend their campaign against queer and trans existence.
If these conservatives knew anything about queer history, they would know that no matter how much pain they might cause us, their demonization of queer people and our culture will never make us go away.
We’ve seen a sad pendulum swing many times over America’s last century of drag: the greater our visibility, the fiercer their reaction. It happened with the popular balls at Rockland Palace in Harlem in the 1920s, and the Pansy Craze that followed nationwide in the 1930s, waves of rowdy drag parties and queer life. It happened again with the boom in “copycat” shows in the 60s and 70s, and in the 90s with New York’s Wigstock generation and Club Kids. Now we are in the midst of a “drag race” fueled resurgence. Every time flirting has reached a mass audience, the uninformed have tried to push us to the margins.
It is telling that the Conservatives have centered the debate on picking up on children. Drag is no less appropriate than other forms of entertainment. While most of our bar and club shows are designed for adults, like all artists, we modify our performances to be flawless for family audiences. Whether opponents of the queer community know it or not, they do know that prejudices must be learned and taught early. Writing laws to ban children from our shows is much less about the imagined sexual dangers of a drag show and more about the imagined dangers of not indoctrinating children with fear and shame around homosexuality from an early age.
Drag is, more than anything, an antidote to this fear and shame. A child who sees queens and kings twirling in costume on stage, acting absurdly and authentically in front of all of society, is destined to develop empathy and tolerance. I think it’s healthy! Yet these are menacing traits in the eyes of many powerful people who want to eradicate true gender equality.
Of course, if malicious politicians were to kick us out of public libraries and our (popular!) children’s book readings, we would still have our bars. And if we were kicked out of our bars, we would have our parties and our parks, our bodies and our lives. Part of the history of drag is how we’ve always found ways to transform the world around us to make room for our lives. But haven’t we progressed beyond being criminalized and feared just for who we are?
Gay people are real, even in the face of injustice and discrimination. We deserve to be treated the same whether or not you like our genres, our art or our clothes. Just get to know us. Let your children know about us; the next generation needs to be presented to the world in the fullest and most honest way possible, so that they can determine exactly where they fit in – and celebrate where others fit in as well.
Drag can be that introduction, both for children and for anyone with enough wonder in them to open their hearts to something new. People pushing hateful lies about this art form are dangerous and deceptive. Beneath all the wigs, and the make-up, and the false eyelashes – and perhaps a little because of them – we are telling something true.