'Drag queens and the kid':

A fairytale of violence

During their recent acceptance speech at the Oscars for winning the Best Director category, the cinematic duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, also known as 'the Daniels', lent quite a visibility to a political issue that only recently has caught mainstream media’s attention. More specifically, taking the stage, Daniel Scheinert dedicated the golden statue that he won with Daniel Kwan for their critically acclaimed movie Everything Everywhere All At Once to his mum and dad and continued by saying: ‘Thank you for not squashing my creativity when I was making really disturbing horror films, or really perverted comedy films, or dressing in drag as a kid, which is a threat to nobody.’ In addition to their statements, their work speaks for itself.

This absurdist comedy-drama movie starring Michele Yeoh is the story of a middle-aged Chinese immigrant being swept up into an insane adventure in which she alone can save existence by exploring other universes and connecting with the lives she could have led. What makes the movie unique among other things is the fact that it is the first movie with a queer woman main character that has even won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Stephanie Hsu’s Joy Yang is the gay daughter of the lead character and her unapologetic queerness plays a key role in the filmic narrative. As Evelyn, the homophobic mother, puts it in the film, it is because ‘she thinks she’s gay’ that her daughter, Joy, acquires the ability to control and distort the physics of the universe. The trauma of queerphobia and the recognition that Joy -despite her name- never receives from her mother mirrors the circular way this multiverse works.

A few days before the Oscars, in a viral Instagram video, RuPaul, perhaps the most famous drag queen in the whole world and host of the hugely popular and impactful reality competition series RuPaul's Drag Race, made the following statement: ‘Hey, look over there! A classic distraction technique, distracting us away from the real issues that they were voted into office to focus on…But we know that bullies are incompetent at solving real issues. They look for easy targets so they can give the impression of being effective. They think our love, our light, our laughter, and our joy are signs of weakness. But they’re wrong because that is our strength. Drag queens are the Marines of the queer movement…Register to vote so we can get these stunt queens out of office…’ Both of these statements have the same target: the recent anti-drag and anti-trans laws that have been legislated across the USA by neoconservative politicians. The sad occasion for such powerful public statements was a series of bills signed into law by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee which criminalize drag and undermine the wellbeing of transgender youths.

More specifically, these bills restrict ‘adult cabaret performances’ in public places where minors might be present and these performances include ‘male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest’, that is drag shows. This wide definition makes it difficult for trans people to even walk the street as they might be prosecuted as criminals for 'being in drag', let alone strangles the freedom of expression in terms of both gender expression and identity and artistic expression alike. On top of that, another bill was introduced on the same day that bans gender-affirming health care for transgender youths followed a few days later by another one requiring ‘adult cabaret performers’ to get a permit in order to perform. According to Los Angeles Times, as of March 8, lawmakers in 14 states, most of them Republican-led, — including Arizona, North Dakota, Kentucky, and Texas — have also proposed anti-drag and anti-trans laws with similar language. But what is the key rhetorical trope all of these arguments share, and which makes them effective in mobilizing the constituents and lawmakers in this new era of cultural wars?

In a recent article by The New York Times, Michelangelo Signorile, a radio host, LGBTIQA+ activist, and author was asked to give his opinion on the matter. According to Signorile, ‘these conservative politicians are seeing this as the issue they need to completely outdo each other in the culture war fight’ because they think that’s what their base wants. The anti-drag bills further weave together existing political threads on the right, lumping together child indoctrination and abuse with anything to do with being L.G.B.T.Q. to sow distrust and bigotry. These efforts play into the “groomer” scare, which dovetailed with the passage of Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law.’ Signorile’s analysis here is quite pertinent to the argument I am going to put forward with the help of the queer theorist Lee Edelman and his by now canonical book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). To these queerphobic legislators, Lee Edelman suggests we respond as follows:

‘Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order's prerogatives, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order's coherence and integrity, but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand here anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital Ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.’ (2004: 29)

Edelman criticizes -with a heavy dose of camp extravaganza- the figure of the child and how this powerful representation or symbol is being mobilized by reproductive futurism, a political rationality that seeks to legitimize a repressive present in favor of a future to come. In this political imagery, such as the one used by the abovementioned legislators, the idea of an innocent child in need of protection is fundamentally pitted against queerness in a way that renders the latter negatively understood as anti-futural, as non-productive in terms of both biological and social reproduction. Reproductive futurists believe that through conservative politics we can build a better future for our children, and it is exactly this future that is symbolized by children, a future in which queers have no place. The emphasis on reproductivity is obviously hetero- and homo-normative, and Edelman’s critique is a warrant against the naivety of a part of the LGBTIQA+ movement whose political claims are exhausted and reduced to claims of marriage equality and adoption rights without problematizing the implicit political assumptions of these claims which at a closer look run against queerness itself.

On the other side of the globe, in Ecce Homo’s home country, Greece, where the adoption by same-sex couples is not legal and a heated debate is raging on the matter, there have been recently similar queerphobic reactions to a series of events organized by LGBTIQA+ organizations in both Thessaloniki and Athens in which drag queens read fairytales to pre-school-age children. The similarity of the rhetoric is striking given the cultural differences between Greece and USA, but the close ideological proximity among the far-right, the nationalists, and the neoconservatives is undeniable in both cases. One such reaction comes from politician Katerina Laspa that maintains that ‘everyone can do as they please with themselves. But no one has the right to impose such role models to little kids in an indirect way.’ In addition, Aphrodite Latinopoulou, the vice president of the extra-parliamentary nationalist party Patrida (Motherland) cries ‘hands off our children’ adding this way another queerphobic crescendo to her political legacy.