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Editor’s note: The following essay is an abridged version of an article that was first published in City Journal magazine.
Drag Queen Story Hour—in which performers in drag read books to kids in libraries, schools, and bookstores—has become a cultural flashpoint. It pitches itself as a family-friendly event to promote reading, tolerance, and inclusion. But while the drag queen might appear as a comic figure, he carries an utterly serious message: the deconstruction of sex, the reconstruction of child sexuality, and the subversion of middle-class family life.
This ideology’s foundations start with queer theory, the academic discipline born in 1984 with the publication of Gayle S. Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Rubin sought to expose the power dynamics that shaped and repressed human sexual experience.” Modern Western societies appraise sex acts according to a hierarchical system of sexual value,” she wrote. “Marital, reproductive heterosexuals are alone at the top erotic pyramid,” whose bottom tier includes the “lowliest of all, those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries,” she wrote.
Rubin’s project was to subvert this sexual hierarchy and usher in a world beyond limits. Where does this process end? With the abolition of restrictions on the behavior at the bottom end of the moral spectrum—pedophilia.
Rubin denounces fears of child sex abuse as “erotic hysteria.”
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The art of drag began with a freed slave named William Dorsey Swann, who dressed in elaborate women’s costumes, called himself the “queen of drag,” and organized sexually charged soirées. The story has all the elements of the perfect left-wing archetype: Swann was a man who liberated himself from chattel slavery and then from a repressive sexual culture.
Drag became explicitly political seven decades later, during the Stonewall riots of 1969. Suddenly, drag was a statement of public rebellion. The queens began using costume and performance to mock the fashion, manners, and mores of Middle America, and the need to shock required performers to push the limits. “The less drag is meant to allure, the bawdier it becomes,” writer Daniel Harris explained.
The next critical turn occurred in 1990, with the publication of “Gender Trouble,” by queer theorist Judith Butler. Butler saturated queer theory with postmodernism and provided a theory of social change based on the concept of “performativity.” Once the premise is established that gender is malleable and used as an instrument of power, currently in favor of “heterosexual normativity,” then social reconstruction can begin, she wrote. And the drag queen embodies Butler’s theory of gender deconstruction.
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By the 2000s, the performance of drag had absorbed all these elements—the social-justice origin story of Swann, the carnal shock-and-awe of Rubin, the ethereal postmodernism of Butler—and brought them together onto the stage. The goal of drag, following the themes of Butler and Rubin, is to obliterate stable conceptions of gender through performativity and to rehabilitate the bottom of the sexual hierarchy through the elevation of the marginal.
As the dark side of drag pushed transgression to the limits, however, some drag queens toned down the routines, pushed the ideology deep into the background, and presented drag as good old-fashioned, glamorous American fun.
Enterprising queer theorists used the commercialization of drag and the goodwill associated with the gay and lesbian rights movement as a means of transforming drag performances into “family-friendly” events that could transmit a simplified version of queer theory to children.
The key figure in this transition was a “genderqueer” college professor and drag queen named Harris Kornstein—stage name Lil Miss Hot Mess—who hosted some of the original readings in public libraries and sits on the board of Drag Queen Story Hour, the nonprofit organization founded by Michelle Tea in 2015 to promote children’s drag performances.
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Kornstein also co-wrote the manifesto for the movement, “Drag Pedagogy: The Playful Practice of Queer Imagination in Early Childhood,” with Harper Keenan. They propose “drag pedagogy,” as a new teaching method designed to stimulate the “queer imagination,” teaching kids “how to live queerly.”
Though Drag Queen Story Hour events are often billed as “family-friendly,” Kornstein and Keenan explain that this is a form of code: “Here, DQSH is ‘family friendly’ in the sense of ‘family’ as an old-school queer code to identify and connect with other queers on the street.” That is, the goal is not to reinforce the biological family but to facilitate the child’s transition into the ideological family.
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The organizers of Drag Queen Story Hour understand that they must manage their public image to continue enjoying access to public libraries and public schools. They have learned how to speak in code to NGOs and to appease the anxieties of parents, while subtly promoting the ideology of queer theory to children.
Having begun with voluntary programs at public libraries, Drag Queen Story Hour has been remarkably successful, sparking a trend of state-subsidized drag readings, dances, and performances across the country.
As the movement has gained notoriety and expanded its reach, some drag performers have let the mask slip: in Minneapolis, a drag queen in heels and a pink miniskirt spread his legs open in front of children, and in Portland, a large male transvestite allowed toddlers to climb on top of him, grab at his fake breasts, and press themselves against his body.
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Advocates of Drag Queen Story Hour might reply that these are outlier cases and that many of the child-oriented events feature drag queens reading books and talking about gender, not engaging in sexualized performances. But the spirit of drag is predicated on the transgressive sexual element, the ideology of queer theory, and the goal of elevating those at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy—including pedophiles—which cannot be erased by switching the context and softening the language.
When parents, voters, and political leaders understand the true nature of Drag Queen Story Hour and the ideology that drives it, they will work quickly to restore the limits that have been temporarily—and recklessly—abandoned. They will draw a bright line between adult sexuality and childhood innocence and send the perversions of queer theory back to the margins, where they belong.
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