Conservatives everywhere are very upset with the idea of people dressing up and entertaining children.
No, they’re not talking about clowns or Santa Clauses in malls or mascots or characters in theme parks. We’re talking about drag performers who read, sing and do handicrafts with children.
Family-friendly drag events in North Carolina and beyond have become targets of right-wing harassment and irritation, part of a larger wave of anti-LGBTQ backlash across the country.
A drag queen story hour at a Charlotte park drew protesters last weekend after Tyler Lee, a Republican congressional candidate, unsuccessfully tried to cancel the event. Lee derisively referred to the event as “pedos in the park” and urged people to “stand with us or lose your kids to evil indoctrination straight out of Hitler’s playbook!”
Lee then wrote to the North Carolina General Assembly, urging lawmakers to protect children from “very real predators who are looking for ways to traumatize them.”
Protesters also rallied at Union County’s first-ever Pride festival, which held its own Drag Queen Story Hour. After learning that it could not legally restrict the event, the Monroe City Council passed an official resolution raising concerns about the alleged impact on children. US Rep. Dan Bishop, whose district includes Union County, took to Twitter to denounce the “perverse activity.”
Their argument seems to be that drag performers – many of whom are gay men – prey on innocent children and are therefore inherently dangerous. Tucker Carlson recently suggested on Fox News that taking children to drag shows is a form of child abuse because it turns children into “props in adult sexual fantasies.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis even threatened to use child protection services to crack down on parents who take their children to these events.
None of this foul rhetoric is remotely true. Kids who attend the Drag Queen Story Hour hear stories like “I Am Enough,” which teaches confidence, or “Harriet Gets Carried Away,” a story about a girl who loves penguins (and happens to have two dads). They sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”.
“We help promote the fact that not everyone looks the same,” Joshua Jernigan, co-founder of the Charlotte chapter of Drag Queen Story Hour, told me. “And that’s just as well. Children should be able to see that people come in all shapes and forms.”
However, as with most culture wars today, the right’s supposed concern for children is only a flimsy disguise for bigotry. Associating the LGBTQ community with pedophilia and sexual deviance is an ugly term that has been used to stigmatize and oppress gay and transgender people for decades, and Republicans just keep recycling it.
In some cases it is also about exploiting bigotry for political ends. It’s interesting that Lee is now tapping into his public outrage at drag queens as a long-running US House candidate running against incumbent Democrat Alma Adams. (He didn’t mention the issue once in our interview with the editorial board earlier this year.) He would be far from the only Republican to use others — be they drag queens, babies or migrants — as props to score political points .
We saw the same bigotry with North Carolina’s now infamous House Bill 2, which was rooted in the unfounded myth that using the bathroom that conformed to their gender identity would expose everyone else to voyeurism and sexual assault. We’re seeing it now as Republicans seek to silence discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom and accuse teachers of “grooming” children. It’s just not true and it’s harmful.
Conservatives often claim they have no problem with drag shows if they’re adult or if they’re kept out of the public eye. But putting self-expression in the same category as strip clubs and R-rated movies implies that some people really can only exist in the shadows.
If there’s one thing we need to protect children from, it’s the idea that it’s only okay to be yourself in private. This is exactly the kind of twisted narrative that makes LGBTQ youth more likely to be victims of bullying and why they are much more likely to experience depression and suicide. Few children are traumatized by a drag queen singing to them or reading them a story — but LGBTQ people are traumatized every day by rhetoric that makes them feel like they need to hide.
“We celebrate our differences, and many people who protest celebrate the conformity of their respective ideologies,” Jernigan said. “I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Paige Masten is an Opinion Writer for the Charlotte Observer and McClatchy’s North Carolina Opinion Team. This column was provided by the Tribune News Service.