I was recently at my favourite Hamilton gay bar (which is also, to my knowledge, Hamilton’s only gay bar) watching the incomparable Kenadie St. James. I don’t know who—or quite what—Kenadie St. James is, but she’s certainly amazing. The St. Louis-based entertainer has gigantic, real (I think) breasts, and refers to herself as female, but definitely identifies as a drag queen. At one point, while flirting with a lesbian in the front row, she made a reference to her vagina—making it clear, however, that she doesn’t have one, because, as she said, “Down there is just duct tape.”
This is the usual atmosphere at a gay drag bar: that is, anything goes. Drag queens are sexy, flirty, and obscene. They make you feel uncomfortable, but only in a very comfortable way. It’s somewhat of a roller coaster ride. But if you are generally secure, you can rest assured that there is no malice here, and that you are “safe.” This is not a “woke” kind of safe though. For this does not mean you are safe from insult, verbal abuse, racism, sexism, or any other ism out there. It just means that the evening is all play, and all fun—a game and a performance—and that the drag queens love you.
They do, they really do.
Kenadie spoke of an experience she had earlier that day at a club in another Ontario city, Niagara Falls. There were protesters carrying signs with slogans such as “Protect our children from groomers!” Kenadie defended her participation in that event, clarifying that it was restricted to patrons over 18. But she couldn’t help hilariously and pointedly misunderstanding the protesters. “What’s wrong with grooming?” she asked. “My mother always made sure we washed behind the ears!”
Poor Kenadie. Like many queer people today, she’s become a victim of a homophobic backlash resulting from the popularization of Drag Queen Story Hour, or DQSH. In case you haven’t heard, this is an event that features drag queens, often in a library or school setting, reading stories to little children. It’s a completely new development. I’ve been doing drag for nearly 40 years. And I first heard of it maybe five years ago.
Of course, both the Left and the Right—the (for want of better terms) “woke” and “unwoke”—have significantly different understandings of Drag Queen Story Hour. To the (very) proudly progressive activists who loudly champion these events, they represent an opportunity to expand children’s understanding of those whom they might otherwise view as “different” (including, perhaps, themselves). It’s hard to argue with this noble purpose; but right-wing critics of DQSH certainly do. They see these readings as opportunities to spread radical queer ideologies, which are (according to a 2022 article in the conservative magazine City Journal) “undermining traditional notions of sexuality, replacing the biological family with the ideological family and arousing transgressive sexual desires in young children.”
As a result, drag queens have become headline-making flashpoints in the wider culture war, especially in North America. Earlier this month, Reverend Todd Vetter, pastor of the First Congressional Church in Madison, Connecticut, organized a drag queen bingo event in order to raise money for a youth mission trip to rebuild homes in Appalachia. Though the event was well-attended, Vetter was inundated with criticism—“this sort of explosion of passion and emotion and feeling,” as he described it to CNN—from parents who, in the words of a FOX News report, are “fight[ing] back against the sexualization of children.” About a dozen US states—all of them Republican-controlled—are now pushing legislation that will ban or regulate drag performances in front of children.
The situation in Canada has become equally agitated, with “dueling protests,” as the expression goes, now regularly appearing outside DQSH events. This includes a January event in Coquitlam, BC, the advertisement for which read: “Join us for a very special family story time with the unstoppable Conni Smudge! A North Shore icon, Mz. Smudge will lead us in stories, songs, and crafts. You will get the opportunity to make your own drag queen doll!” Right-wing social media attacked the provincial premier for supporting the event. But Canadian media can generally be counted on to support DQSH and present its opponents as bigots. Support for drag events comes from on high, after all, with Justin Trudeau himself having appeared briefly in December on an episode of Canada’s Drag Race: Canada vs. the World.
The hosting of drag spectacles at straight venues and events isn’t new. Even when I was young, in the 1970s and ’80s, drag queens would perform in straight bars in big entertainment hubs such as Las Vegas, New York, and Chicago. But they were often billed as “female impersonators,” and were viewed as a kind of novelty act. This is very different from holding DQSH in libraries, or drag-queen bingo in churches, where drag queens are presented as everyday ambassadors of queerness, often in a self-proclaimed “family” environment.
To me, both those who oppose Drag Queen Story Hour and those who fervently defend it seem somewhat unhinged. On the one hand, the idea that drag queens who read LGBT stories to children are mounting a concerted attempt to “sexualize” children in hopes of molesting them—which is the implication of loaded words such as “grooming”—is extremely dubious. On the other hand, presenting DQSH as just another regular toddler-centric family reading event is a blatantly manipulative oversimplification.
My guess is that the little tykes at these shows will have no idea what hit them. I know from my own experience of accidentally viewing displays of adult sexuality as a child—and yes, drag getup is a sexualized aesthetic—that I was simply confused, and had absolutely no idea what was going on. The truth is you can’t make someone gay with a reading event. As Lady Gaga says, we’re “born this way.”
On the other hand, right-wing critics are certainly justified in raising concerns about gender propaganda. One selection reportedly favoured at DQSH is Bye-Bye Binary—a baby book with big print on laminated cardboard, which tells children of diaper-wearing age that they needn’t worry about choosing one gender or another. Hopefully this book will someday (soon) be remembered only as a hilarious artifact of a misguided era. It is this kind of ridiculous gender propaganda, not the drag queens themselves, that is bad for children. As we’ve seen lately, the notion that children can “change gender” with little or no consequences can have dire consequences for confused and/or mentally unstable young adults.
That said, I don’t think that drag queens participating in DQSH see themselves as priests of this gender gospel. The real impulse behind these events, rather, is both innocent, and—in my view—appallingly depressing. Although the drag queen at your local children’s story hour may sport huge breasts, bright red exaggerated lips, a sequined mini-skirt, and fishnet stockings, she (or he, or they) is not trying to propagandize, sexualize, let alone seduce your child. Rather, Drag Queen Story Hour represents the sad, absurdist denouement of a doomed campaign to present gay men and their unique forms of cultural expression as safe, respectable, and bourgeois. The children will be fine. It’s the gay-liberation movement that’s dying.
Gay liberation in North America was always marked by a persistent struggle between radical queers and the mild mannered proponents of “assimilation”; between those who believe that the only way to advance the gay cause is to speak openly and honestly about our sexuality, and those who believe that gay men and lesbians are just the same as straight people except insofar as we happen to (as it is euphemistically said) “fall in love” with people of the same gender.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, conservative, assimilationist efforts at gay liberation were in the forefront, with picketers often wearing suit and tie as a means to show everyone how “normal” they were. But it took the valiant, somewhat violent efforts of a countercultural minority of misfits and miscreants to really make progress. At the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City, a lot of the first bricks thrown were tossed by sex trade workers and drag queens, many of them non-white. These historic riots were initiated by street people fighting against the restrictions imposed on them by police, in what they considered to be their own neighbourhood gay bar—the Stonewall Inn. The tone on display—angry, militant, sexual, confrontational—continued on through the 1970s, and became the mood music of gay liberation.
But the AIDS virus put an end to all that, with fear of the disease driving much of the fierce and overtly sexual character of gay liberation into the closet again. Gay marriage became legal in Canada in 2005, and the United States followed suit a decade later. Nowadays, most gay and lesbian people you meet will assure you (in the unlikely event that you ask about this subject) that they are “just like anybody else.”
I don’t see it as a coincidence that the advent of Drag Queen Story Hour and the legalization of gay marriage in the United States took place in the same year. For the last four decades, gay men and lesbians have done everything in their power to convince straight people that they are just the same as everybody else, that they want marriage, children, and families, and that they are perfectly capable of paying mortgages, obeying the law, and even supporting conservative politicians.
The problem is that gay assimilation doesn’t work because it’s based on a false premise. And so these efforts at assimilation have driven many gender misfits out of the mainstream gay movement. For years, we’ve been instructed to avoid stereotypes that present gay men as effeminate and lesbians as masculine. The result of this normalization of gay culture has caused queers who are proud of their gender idiosyncrasies to instead align themselves with the trans movement, while rejecting the notion of the gender binary altogether.
Paradoxically, just as people of colour, those with disabilities, and trans persons are urging their membership to identify (and live their lives) based on what separates them from white people, the “able-bodied,” and the “cisgendered,” gay and lesbian people have become fiercely dedicated to erasing any evidence of difference between their culture and straight culture. The fact is that gay men are not just like straight men. And lesbians are not just like straight women. Men and women are fundamentally different from one another, too, even if that’s now seen as heretical to say in some progressive circles.
For years, as a drag queen, I believed that men and women were the same—except for certain (small) biological differences. I dismissed hormones as having little effect; and blamed cultural norms for the socialization of men as masculine and women as feminine. I was a proud gay effeminate male and drag queen. I still am. But the trans movement’s dedication to erasing the gender binary has convinced me that it’s important to stress that I am a man, and always will be, and my goal in life is not to get rid of the gender binary, but to expand the definition of what it means to be male or female. Because biology, and bodies, and hormones do have important effects.
You need only walk into a gay leather bar to understand that our culture is fundamentally different than yours (on the assumption you’re not a gay man). If you do, you may well see explicit porn on TV screens, sexual encounters going on in bathrooms or darkrooms, and men in various states of undress parading their physical attributes and looking for sex. Yes, the stereotype is true—sex is easier for gay men. It is. This is not only because our equipment is easily available and ready for action most of the time, but because, frankly, we are less vulnerable to the kind of abuse that straight women would risk in the equivalent heterosexual environment. And this over-availability of sex among gay men tends to make it difficult for them to be intimate with one another in other ways. These biologically rooted differences also explain, among other things, why lesbians, unlike gay men, are prone to “mate for life,” or at least to build their sexual lives on the basis of long-term relationships and lasting friendships.
This is not to say that gay men can never be intimate or that lesbians can never be sexual. But the cultures they collectively create are different from straight culture. Drag is all about gay culture. And the reason gay men do drag is a reflection of it.
The fact that some gay men are the passive partners in anal sex has historically made all gay men vulnerable to accusations of effeminacy, no matter how masculine they may be. What drag queens have done—which is absolutely liberating for gay men—is own this perceived effeminacy, and hurl it back in the face of homophobes; communicating in their every gesture, in every verbal nuance, in every flutter of a false eyelash, in every click of a stunningly high stiletto—“Yes, do me! Yes, I’m a girly boy and proud of it.”
RuPaul symbolizes the abandonment of drag’s roots. Once a leading crusader for gay liberation, he has done his best to take drag shows out of the bars and into “legit” theatres across North America, cheered on by adoring middle-class straight women who pipe in with slogans to the effects of “Anyone can be a drag queen!” Nowadays, the so-called drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race, having cleaned up their act for a straight television audience, are looking more like rodeo clowns than female impersonators. And RuPaul, who once (properly) made a distinction between trans culture and drag, is now effectively being rewarded for disassociating drag from homosexuality, as he welcomes “trans female newbie Kerri Colby” and “straight cisgender contestant Maddy Morphosis.”
But just as apologists for drag try to disassociate it from gay sexualized culture, glamorous foul-mouthed drag queens such as Kenadie St. James will continue to do real drag in small gay venues. And embarrassing photographs will continue to emerge. Witness the aforementioned Conni Smudge, who reads books to kids in the Coquitlam library by day, but was discovered kissing a dildo in a gay bar by night.
That kind of honest, candid, dildo-kissing culture is what drag is. It’s what drag means to gay men. And so I get it that conservatives would ask why certain gay men would want to invite children to a sanitized version of what has always been a very sexual party. As noted above, it’s absolutely not because they want to molest them. It’s because they hunger so pathetically for the approval of assimilated straight society that they’ll show up to any gig that reeks of straightness. And what in the world is straighter than story time at a suburban library?
Meanwhile, straight progressives have their own kind of desperate aching—an aching to be seen as so abundantly tolerant that they will sit their kid down in front of a man dressed in what is clearly a sexualized imagining of a woman.
In other words, these two communities, both needy and full of self-deception, have become weird co-dependents. What makes it all the sadder is that, in both cases, DQSH is backfiring. Rather than making gay men more accepted, the spectacle is reawakening homophobic tropes about grooming, which could spiral into something very dark and dangerous. And far from being lauded as tolerant and forward-looking, progressives who haul their children to DQSH events are being denounced for putting their own political preening ahead of their children.
We can’t be certain where all this will lead us. However, one thing is certain: By insisting on “normalizing” drag, DQSH has delivered a knockout punch to gay liberation. As long as we insist that we are “just the same” as everyone else, we will argue ourselves into politically self-destructive positions.
The truth is that we will never, ever be the same as you. And frankly, I’m quite proud of that.