Miss Toto remembers her first time watching a drag performance. The Chicago-based drag queen and marine biologist said she was 5 years old when a drag queen who was friends with her mom dressed up as Ursula, the iconic character from “The Little Mermaid,” and performed in her living room. Miss Toto thought it was a “mystical and whimsical” performance that she still thinks about fondly to this day. But now, childhood memories like hers are being threatened as legislators across the country consider criminalizing youth-friendly drag shows.
“I would like legislators to just leave drag performers alone,” Miss Toto said. “I think it’s super important that drag artists are just out in the forefront showing these kids that it’s OK to be different.”
Conservative legislators in states like Texas, Florida, and Arizona are considering policies that would ban minors from attending drag shows; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is even considering urging the state’s child protective services to investigate parents who take their children. Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini tweeted last month that he will propose legislation to charge parents with a felony and have their parental rights terminated for taking their children to drag shows—even youth-friendly ones. Sabatini has called for an emergency legislative session to propose the law, but DeSantis has not said whether he would hold a special session yet.
The public lambasting of drag shows coincides with an increase in youth-friendly drag programming that happened this year during Pride month. As the state’s Don’t Say Gay law officially takes effect, prohibiting teaching or discussions around sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, families have requested more youth-friendly drag events to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ families and children to be themselves. Now, the proposed legislation has mobilized conservative vitriol, leading extremists to harass and threaten drag queens across the country, from California to North Carolina, to the point where many say they are scared for their lives.
Jonathan Hamilt, the executive director of Drag Queen Story Hour, a children’s literacy nonprofit promoting reading, literacy, and acceptance hosted by drag queens, said they have always been under attack.
“Unfortunately, part of the queer experience is experiencing hate or being subjected to these attacks,” Hamilt said. “Drag queens and Drag Queen Story Hour are the last things they need to worry about. The queer community and drag queens aren’t shooting up schools, we aren’t doing mass shootings. There’s bigger things like the environment and gun reform that are actually really serious.”
One drag queen, who requested to remain anonymous, first started receiving hate mail the moment the child-friendly show she was hosting at a bar in Dallas on June 4 was advertised online. While her usual brunch show is for adults only, patrons kept requesting a child-friendly show they could take their family to. The drag queen was careful and meticulous in organizing a family-safe event with censored song lyrics, costumes, and dance moves, but anti-drag protesters, self-described “Christian fascists,” were still gathered at the bar before and during the event and screaming at the performers and families attending the event. Videos show the protesters trying to enter the bar and screaming, “groomers.”
“We didn’t think that these extremists would take it this far,” she said. “Protestors were yelling all these hateful things and screaming in my face, but what really bothered me was seeing how they were yelling at these kids and their parents. It was awful.”
The drag queen was concerned for the children’s and other performers’ safety, but the show continued. They had snacks, played musical chairs, and had a runway show for the families who attended.
“They came to have a good time,” she said. “They came here to see a show, and we made sure we put on a great show for them. We wanted them to have fun. We wanted to see them smile.”
According to the drag queen, one parent who attended with her daughter said she couldn’t remember the last time she saw her daughter smile because she was the target of bullying and harassment at school for “being different.”
“I remember being that kid and going to school and being picked on every day for being different and not having an example of what being different was and thinking that I was alone,” the drag queen said.
Though the harassment has continued, the drag queen said it’s important for her to be a “positive light for children” and let them know that they are not alone. According to the drag queen, one of the protesters at the Dallas Pride event has been attending the drag queens adult-only shows, taking videos, and posting them, misinforming people that it was a youth-friendly performance. Another drag queen in the community has likewise seen the same protester at her shows. She immediately recognized him, and managers asked him to leave during the show. But the fear and paranoia has gotten to the drag queen, causing her to delete her social media accounts.
“They’re attacking me every day,” she said. “I deleted my Facebook and Instagram because I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I have to work. This is my livelihood, but I couldn’t advertise where I was going because I was afraid that he’s going to show up and try to do something to me. I don’t want to live like that. I can’t live like that.”
The drag queen said legislation should be made to protect performers like herself instead of criminalizing them. There is currently no such law.
“They’re yelling at kids and threatening them, that’s abuse to me,” she said. “We made them smile and have fun. They made them cry and scared. We should not feel unsafe in our own community.”
In West Palm Beach, Florida, a 17-year-old Canadian teen threatened a mass shooting at a local youth-friendly Pride event last month, coincidentally after state Rep. Anthony Sabatini’s tweet directly targeted the “Pride on the Block: Drag Show for Kids!” event. Donna Weinberger, the CEO of Inspire Recovery, an LGBTQ+ addiction rehabilitation service in West Palm Beach, helped launch Pride on the Block three years ago and said this was the first year a shooting threat has been made.
“The targeted attacks on our LGBTQIA+ community have been especially scary,” Weinberger said. “We have entered scary times. In a world where visibility, safety, and affirmation for our community needs to be celebrated as it has been in previous years, the attempts to erase a loving, kind LGBTQIA+ community are devastating. For decades we have been an underserved community. We have had much love and support through the years as our elders fought for the freedom we have today. I can’t imagine why a person would want to put the light out in such a beautiful, loving, and kind community.”
The event in question was a drag queen story hour, but due to the mass shooting threat, they had to cancel that part of the larger event. In a statement signed by the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, Compass LGBTQ+ Community Center, the Pride Business Alliance, Transpire Help, and Pride on the Block, they said they “will continue to host [their] events and will provide a safe space for all open-minded, accepting individuals to enjoy the diversity of these freedom-loving communities everywhere.”
“It’s very terrifying because now we live in a really crazy time right now where you never know when somebody online really means what they’re saying and what they’re going to do,” Hamilt said. “Unfortunately, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be safe if it has to be postponed to a later time.”
Going forward, Hamilt said Drag Queen Story Hour will add “more glitter” to its child-friendly programs. Hamilt said they are working on developing more protocols and safety training for storytellers and organizers who they work with. He hopes to continue expanding programming in Texas and Florida as well. Drag Queen Story Hour offers diverse programming, including bilingual and multilingual readings, as well as story hours for children with autism and other special needs.
“Drag is a traditional form of art, I don’t know how you can pinpoint what drag is,” Hamilt said. “Drag is putting on an external persona for you to express yourself and understand your own creativity in a different way. So where does drag stop and other things begin? Where does theater start and drag begin? Are you going to ban theater? These people are just trying to legislate us out of existence, and we won’t tolerate or stand for our community to be erased like this.”