A man dancing flamboyantly, caked in makeup, and wearing gaudy jewelry and a brightly-colored dress is called a drag queen. She tends to have an overwrought stage name like Pandora Danger and an individualized persona. And she, like all drag queens, holds a beloved place in LGBTQ culture in this nation because of her joyous vibe and the playful challenge she poses to Western culture’s oppressive gender binary.

As anyone familiar with LGBTQ culture understands, drag queens seek to be goofy and outrageous, not offensive. Andrew Sullivan rightly described them as clowns. In their over-the-top silliness, drag queens poke fun at the gender binary in the gentlest, most playful way. While sometimes sexy and always provocative, drag queens also clearly and unambiguously pose no threat to anyone’s safety–only the sanctity of gender norms that constrain everyone’s humanity.

But most Republican voters know none of this. Insular and provincial, social conservatives have for the most part no connection to LGBTQ culture, and surveys find that evangelicals fear the visibility of LGBT people like almost none of their many cultural bete noirs. Republican politicians know their own voters’ prejudices and anxieties all to well. And with a forceful cynicism, GOP elected officials across the country are singling out drag queens as the gateway victims in a campaign to invalidate trans people’s hard-won right to visibility and respect.

Drag queens simultaneously express LGBTQ joy and represent the best-known iteration of gender bending in our country. For this reason, Republicans in states such as Nebraska and Tennessee have passed legislation to prohibit drag shows within their borders. The Nebraska bill went so far as to ban anyone from presenting themselves as a member of a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. By targeting drag queens, Republicans are attempting to “build a wall” around the gender binary and expel trans people from public life.

Republicans clearly regard transgender repression as a golden base mobilization tactic. The evangelicals who compose a large plurality of the Republican base cherish the inherited norms and binaries that most of us grew up with. But the arrow of history points in the opposite direction, and joyous demonstrations of dissent such as drag shows are merely one example of the opening we’re experiencing towards alternative identities and personal freedom. This is a social advance that Republicans want their base to believe they’ll stop at nothing to reverse.

Drag queens are the first targets in a growing effort to eradicate public–and even medical–expressions of transgender identity. The attack on drag queens comes in tandem with bans on gender-affirming care that extend, in the instance of the endlessly reactionary Mississippi, into the adult years of transgender Americans. Conservatives are not only trying to criminalize as much of transgender identity as they can. Starting with drag queens, they’re trying to destroy the right that trans people have fought to attain as human beings allowed to be human.


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