Discover more from Society & Standpoint
Drag Queen Boring Hour
Drag used to be a real counterculture. Not anymore.
Author’s note: This essay is only about Drag Queen Story Hour, and only applies to scenarios where someone reads to children in a non-explicit way. I am not discussing parents who bring their kids to more-risqué drag shows.
Michelle Tea felt different from the other kids. She had a rough childhood. At home, her stepfather spied on her through a peephole in her bedroom. At school, she felt a growing sense of alienation from her peers.
Tea latched on to the goth subculture that was developing at the time, developing a taste for the countercultural music of artists like Siouxie and the Banshees. To her, goth culture provided an escape from the feeling that she didn’t belong and offered her a community of like-minded individuals. Goth culture, with its imported British allure and its breaking of gender norms, drew in many kids that felt like they didn’t belong to the culture at large.
Tea later came out as a lesbian and became involved in queer activism. Like the goth culture she once was part of, she found queer culture welcoming to her. In 2015, she founded an event called Drag Queen Story Hour. As the name would imply, this involved drag queens1 reading stories to children.
DQSHs have now become a proxy in which America’s culture war is being fought. As anti-drag activists try to ban the events, drag activists have responded by promoting the events even harder, leading to a massive spread in these events across America, along with increasing protests.
For affluent liberal urbanites, Drag Queen Story Hour isn’t even about the stories or the kids anymore. Humans are tribal creatures. If one side opposes it, then the other side has to show up and support it.
Anyone remember these signs?
During the Trump administration, any affluent liberal worth their fair-trade salt had one of these on their lawn. It was a marker to show “I’m on this political team”, no different than a Yankees fan rocking a Yankees cap and booing someone with a Red Sox cap.
The words were mostly empty, especially Science is Real, as “progressives” have proven time and time again that they will ignore science that doesn’t match up with their beliefs. From Jesse Singal publishing a cover story in The Atlantic about detransitioning, to Abigail Shrier publishing Irreversible Damage, a book about the effects of social contagion in inducing rapid-onset gender dysphoria in kids, trans activists did everything in their power to ban people from seeing the work. And considering the vicious reactions to anyone who even express a modicum of skepticism, it seemed that kindness… wasn’t everything.
In the mind of the affluent liberal urbanite, a drag queen is a moving, talking, breathing version of the In This House We Believe sign. Look at the picture of that sign again and imagine if the stakes used to hold up the sign were actually a pair of legs, and the sign was a body. That’s how woke folks view drag queens. Drag queens are portable virtue signals.
And that’s what drag has become. It wasn’t always that way though. Drag was once transgressive. Drag was counterculture. Drag was underground. Drag meant throwing bricks at cops at Stonewall. Drag meant that the performer had been kicked out of his home for being gay and created his own culture with fellow outcasts.
The art of drag seems to have originated from a freed slave named William Dorsey Swann. Swann and other gay men would gather to perform in balls at underground spaces in Washington D.C. in the late 1800s. Drag was meant to be a liberation from societal norms at a time when being a "cross-dresser" was illegal, just like being gay was illegal.
The documentary Paris is Burning gives viewers a glimpse at what drag used to be. Filmed over 7 years in New York City, Paris is Burning tells the story of black and Latino men that were kicked out of their parents’ houses for being gay and forced to choose a new family, or “house”, to survive. Drag shows existed as a form of community for them. They didn’t perform for outsiders, they performed for themselves. Via drag shows in ballrooms, they had fun dressing up and competing against each other to see who could be the best drag queen.
Paris is Burning even shows a diversity of opinion within the community. There is a scene where one drag queen speaks against sex-change surgeries, saying that
I've been a man and l've been a man who emulated a woman. I've never been a woman. I never had that service once a month. I've never been pregnant. You know, I could never say how a woman feels. I can only say how a man who acts like a woman or dresses like a woman feels.
I never wanted to have a sex change. That's just taking it a little too far, you know. Because if you decide later on in life to change your mind, you can't.
Once it's gone, it's gone. A lot of kids that I know, they got the sex change because they felt, ''Oh, l've been treated so bad as a drag queen. If I get a pussy,” excuse the expression, “I'll be treated fabulous."
But women get treated bad. You know, they get beat, they get robbed, they get dogged. So, having the vagina, that doesn't mean that you're gonna have a fabulous life. It might, in fact, be worse, you know. So l've never recommended it and l, myself, would have never, ever got it. And I'm so thankful that I was that smart.
In this day and age, his words would be called problematic, to say the least.
I watched Paris is Burning and I noted its transgressive nature. It was raw and gritty and underground and edgy and I can easily see how an alienated kid might find it really cool, the way kids might have found goth culture cool 40 years ago.
But look at what drag once was, and look at drag now.
Kids know that once parents like something, it no longer becomes cool. Would kids still want to be goth if their parents started wearing all-black clothing and black eyeliner and listened to The Cure? Would a kid still find drag cool if their parents took them to see a drag queen read books to them at the local library? Would a socially awkward and isolated kid still turn to a niche subculture if their parents promoted that subculture?
Today’s culture war has turned drag from a countercultural movement into something affluent liberal parents do to signal how progressive they are. Drag used to be about breaking norms and giving the middle finger to mainstream society. Now drag is what entertainers do to make a few bucks at brunch. Drag has essentially become the new version of clowns: people who put on colorful costumes to make people laugh.
Elder goths often complain about how the term goth has been bastardized over the years. Being goth once meant that you were a fan of gothic rock and wore black clothing inspired by Victorian and Edwardian-era fashion. Now goth is a catch-all for any identity that involves wearing black and being depressed. Goth is now something a social misfit kid buys at Hot Topic to join some semblance of a community. It’s no surprise that Hot Topic also sells drag-related merch too. The kids who buy RuPaul merch will only ever know the sanitized, corporatized, and bastardized version of drag.
For the sake of drag as an art form, it would be wise for the organizers of DQSH to end the readings. Drag’s transition as adult entertainment for social outcasts to mainstream culture war proxy has eroded its credibility as an art form. Drag queens went from “reading” people to reading books. What once was a burgeoning underground counterculture has evaporated into cheap entertainment for the masses. Soon enough, people will look at drag queens and roll their eyes at just how boring and sanitized they’ve become. That watching these shows will have become… a drag.