It’s my first time working at a drag brunch. I’m a tip kitten: someone who walks around the venue soliciting people for tips and picking up any dollars the performers may drop while doing their duck walks and death drops. As a “baby queen” (a performer with only a few months of experience), this is the type of work I must do to eventually get my own spot in a brunch show.
Twirling around the narrow dining area — in 10-inch heels, mind you — I notice one little girl walking toward me. The girl, who looks to be about 5 years old, waves around a dollar bill while beaming at Ivy, the queen performing. It reminds me of the first time I met Ariel at Disney World when I was her age. I was so shy yet comforted by the mermaid’s gentle presence.
The little girl’s parents warmly encourage me to guide their daughter as she shyly hands Ivy the dollar. It’s a bittersweet snapshot of current American life: a friendly heterosexual family supporting local drag while chaos ensues for drag performers and queer people nationwide.
I performed my drag debut only one week after the Club Q shooting. Despite living in Boston, one of the “world’s most accepting cities for LGBTQ+ people,” according to Gay Times, I felt far from safe. Last summer, neo-Nazis protested a Drag Story Hour at my local library. Several of them held a banner that said “Pedo scum off our streets.” Shortly after that, I was personally attacked in broad daylight by three teenage boys who screamed the f-slur while pushing me. They took one look at my eyeshadow and blush and thought I was a pervert in need of a beating. I started doing drag a month later. It helped me come to terms with my gender identity and my creative voice in a desperate time of need. In other words, drag saved my life.
Four years ago, I came out as nonbinary. I abruptly stopped acting like the cis gay man I was pretending to be. When I first started presenting more femininely, people assumed I was a drag queen. A “man” in a dress? Wearing makeup? She must be performing at the brunch! Often, I’d go along with it because it felt easier to identify as a drag queen than a genderqueer person. Now I’m not so sure. Drag performers and queer people alike are now lumped into the same two categories: “groomers” or “terrorists.” Seems I forgot to add those pronouns to my Twitter bio.
As a queer scholar writing about queer media, I’m constantly reminded of the daily trauma my community faces. Tennessee’s “drag ban” bill was recently halted only a few hours before it was set to take effect. At the time of writing this, at least 14 other states have introduced similar bills to their state legislatures. This year alone, the ACLU is tracking over 435 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S. Recent coverage on the fatal tragedy of the Covenant School shooting and shooter Audrey Hale’s reported transness further fans these flames of hate. Conservative commentators and politicians would rather declare war on trans people than talk about gun control and background checks. Children apparently need protection from Drag Story Hour, not from active shooters. To quote our queen Beyoncé, America has a problem. The problem is our cultural obsession with sexualization.
Tennessee’s bill seeks to include drag under the category of “adult cabaret performances,” which are prohibited from being performed on public property, where they can be viewed by a minor. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who drafted the Tennessee bill, defines drag as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest... regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.” Translation: Anyone who doesn’t dress or act like their assigned sex in public is “prurient” (hypersexual) and must be kept away from children. Johnson conflates drag with hypersexual adult entertainment. But the art of drag can be anything from a burlesque show to a family-friendly story hour at a public library. So what’s the problem here? Apparently it’s queer people.
Drag only seems culturally acceptable when goofy straight men do it for yucks. Tom Hanks crossdressing in a 1980s sitcom is silly and spontaneous. It’s hilarious, not sexual! But a drag story hour? Cue the neo-Nazis to protect kids from the harmless queer artist in the gorgeous sequin gown. Innocent dance and entertainment are labeled sexual simply because the performers are queer. Consider the little girl tipping a drag queen at a family-friendly drag brunch: What makes this “adult entertainment”? Is the mere act of giving a performer money sexual? Is it sexual to tip queer, trans and/or feminine performers for performing nonsexual entertainment?
I would like to define the word “sexualization” because the word is causing a lot of problems in this country. But I can’t define it alone. So I’ve rallied a few queer friends for guidance. I asked fellow drag performers on Instagram and TikTok to define the word “sexualization” or what it means to be “sexualized.” Our answers contribute to a broader conversation we need to have about our cultural obsession with sex and its harmful consequences.
On Instagram, drag king Slim Jym Shorts comments: “[s]exualized... means it has been co-opted by some larger cultural conscious to signify that something is sexual. There is less agency... some larger entity is the one defining it against its will.” For Shorts, sexualization is when someone or something is interpreted as sexual by an external source. There is an authority figure here (politician, lawmaker, mainstream media, etc.) who has the power to determine what qualifies as sexual and what doesn’t. Matisse DuPont, a fellow drag performer and educator, responds on TikTok: “Sexualized is when something that isn’t directly sex becom[es] socially associated with sex… drag is sexualized because it doesn’t involve sex 99% of the time but has become associated socially with sexuality.” Both performers describe the ways sexualization is socially and culturally thrust upon us without our given consent.
When I present as feminine in public, I am sexualized without my consent. At local bars, men leer at me and often grope me. Strangers on social media see my selfies and comment with a barrage of false groomer accusations and puke emojis. America sees women and queer people as sexual objects to control and dispose of. Feminists have written about this for decades now, from writer/activist Andrea Dworkin to legal scholar/activist Catharine A. MacKinnon. More recently, transfeminist writer Julia Serrano defines sexualization as “when we nonconsensually reduce a person to their real or imagined sexual attributes (their body, behaviors, or desires) rather than view them as a whole person.” We are conditioned to sexually desire people and to be sexually desired. Everyone is sexualized, but not everyone is sexualized in the same way. Constant targets of public scorn, queer people are unique victims of sexualization.
My drag journey is not my own. It expands beyond myself from a history of queer trailblazers to contemporaries who continue to inspire me. So many of my queer friends found themselves through drag. They’ve risked their safety just by being themselves in public. They continue to face employment discrimination, sexual violence and homelessness because, as queer people, they are seen as hypersexual deviants.
Clearly the battle for our survival isn’t ending any time soon. If the Tennessee drag ban does get enacted, innocent queer and trans people could be imprisoned. As drag queen BenDeLaCreme recently stated: “If I view [a trans person] as a male or female impersonator and they’re within the eyesight of a child… well, then, they’re breaking the law by walking into the grocery store. That’s terrifying.” Transphobic laws like these demonstrate the ways politicians rely on sexualization as a tool for policing queer people. That is terrifying, to say the least.
Arguably, the real “groomers” here are the politicians supporting these bills. Some of them literally are! Children are taught to find something sexual in objectively nonsexual content, especially in queer media. Watching cishet Cinderella kiss her cishet prince is culturally acceptable and therefore nonsexual. But any casual reference to gender expression and queerness ― like a nonbinary anthropomorphic bison in an animated kid’s series ― is considered sexual indoctrination and harmful to children. Our cultural obsession with sexualizing everything incites violence and discrimination, as we are witnessing in real time. My community continues to suffer because of this. It’s time for straight people to hear our stories and help us survive.
So, what can we do about it? Support Friends of George, the queer theater company that filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee drag ban. Support local drag! Teach friends and family that not all drag is sexual and not all drag performers are sexual. Asexual performer Slim Jym Shorts, for example, developed a keen awareness of when things are sexualized “as a survival skill... to avoid them.” As we say in the drag business: Consent isn’t sexy, it’s mandatory!
We won’t see any tangible social change for queer people until we target the main source of our oppression. Sexualization is the problem here, not drag shows.
Kyle Wholey (aka Mx Underworld) is a Boston-based drag performer, writer and doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. They write personal essays and queer critiques of pop culture on their Substack, mxunderworld.substack.com. Find them on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter @mxunderworld.