The drag queens were out in force across New York’s recent Pride parade triggering cheers and waves with their flamboyant and extravagant costumes.
But this year the world of American drag has been marred by growing fears of violence and intimidation as they have been specifically targeted by conservatives and extremist far-right and militia groups amid a general rise in anti-LGBTQ hate.
One of the main targets for rightwing ire has been Drag Queen Story Hour events where drag queens will read books to children at public libraries.
Three weeks ago at a reading in a library in San Lorenzo, 30 miles from San Francisco, a group of men, one wearing a T-shirt stenciled with the image of an assault rifle, interrupted a drag performer reading The Kindness Book to pre-schoolers, frightening all.
Authorities said at least five men who appeared in the black and yellow uniform aligned with the extremist Proud Boy group hurled homophobic and transphobic slurs at the story hour’s performer, Panda Dulce, who later said the interruption was “a brazen act of vitriolic intimidation”. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime.
Members of the same organisation – designated a hate group by The Southern Poverty Law Group – also disrupted a Pride story-time event in South Carolina where kids were being read Daddy and Dada and Heather Has Two Mommies. One parent was told they were a child abuser.
Last week a drag event at a California bar, Mojos, was cancelled after protestors yelling homophobic abuse sought to enter the premises.
The pattern of intimidation, in cases not limited to the intimidation of drag queens, comes as Pride month itself has become a target for rightwing extremists in the US. Recently in Idaho a group of far-right Patriot Front extremists were arrested amid fears they intended to attack a Pride march in the state.
Drag queens themselves, however, are standing their ground.
“The drag queen story hour is super important for kids,” said Diamante Habibi, a drag queen working the door at New York’s Stonewall Inn. “You need a creative person to bring an imaginative state to the kids and we’re able to do that in a way that’s safe for them and entertaining for everyone.””
Habibi added: “They’re afraid of the stigma of what a draq queen is, which in their in their minds is over-sexualization and sexual puns. But we know how to work with audiences. ‘What’s for the 21 and plus is for 21 and plus, what’s for children is for children.”
Drag performance has long served as popular entertainment and is largely understood as such. RuPaul’s Drag Race TV show finished its fourteenth season in April, with the recent premiere being the most watched for several seasons. The winner was Willow Pill, who became the first transgender contestant to win the main contest. And it was RuPaul who famously remarked: “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”
In fact, because of the longstanding mainstreaming of drag culture in the US, some of the recent rightwing critics have been outed for their hypocrisy on the issue.
A Phoenix-area drag queen named Barbra Seville recently busted Kari Lake, a Trump-endorsed frontrunner for the Republican nomination in Arizona’s governor’s race, for being an enthusiastic patron of drag performance – even while publicly denouncing the after-school reading program.
“They kicked God out of schools and welcomed the Drag Queens,” Lake had tweeted . “They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow.” Lake went on to talk up her back-to-basics platform: “God, Guns & Glory.” In later posts, she accused drag queens of “grooming” children.
But Seville called Lake a “complete hypocrite” by revealing the politician had long been a frequenter of drag shows herself, including with family.
“She’s friends with drag queens. She’s had her kid in front of a drag queen,” she told the Arizona Republic. “I’ve done drag in her home for her friends and family. She would come to shows constantly.”
But the exposure of Lake is unlikely to stem a rising tide of anti-drag queen rhetoric, and more broadly anti-LGBTQ sentiment, that frequently sinks into wild conspiracy theories around child abuse and even satanic rituals, reminiscent of the QAnon conspiracy movement .
Between Lake’s persona; enthusiasm for drag acts and her public disavowal of drag in schools is an ocean of anti-LGBTQ hate across the country, with far-right forums describing Pride marches as satanic rituals, and each energizing extremists toward expressions of denunciation.
And that is starting to drive mainstream, politics on the right.
Republican legislators in Arizona recently announced they would seek to bar minors from drag shows in the state. Meanwhile n Florida, governor Ron DeSantis – who is a rising figure in the Trumpist movement, has said he might urge the state’s child protective services to investigate parents who take their children to drag shows.
Lady Bunny, the famous drag queen founder of the annual Wigstock festival, New York’s pre-eminent drag event, believes drag queens will be able to withstand the latest hysteria.
“They’ve been focusing on drag queens for a while, and whereas someone like me can say, ‘Oh drag is on TV and in movies, enhanced opportunities,’ these people see this as something unhealthy that’s being pushed on children as family-friendly. So we have to debate them, and make our stance clear,” she said.
She also believes that the issue of Drag Queen Story Hour, and much else besides, is often used as a distraction by Republicans while important issues like anti-discrimination legislation, housing rights and universal healthcare, is sidelined.
Meanwhile, she, and many other drag queens in the US, will continue to do what they do best, whether in a nightlife venue or a classroom: fighting against prejudice of what they actually do and stand for.
“I can’t pretend that coming from nightclubs at 2am where I do salacious, outrageous stuff is the vibe you want in a classroom. [But] I don’t think it’s the vibe most story hour performers give in the classrooms,” she says.