While many states, like Illinois, have yet to introduce anti-drag bills, the emotional effects of targeted legislature spread throughout the queer community of America.
Drag bans that vary in severity are currently working their way through court systems all over the country. Anti-drag legislation has been frequently proposed by right-wing politicians over the past few years but garnered national attention when Tennessee passed a strict ban on “adult cabaret performance” in early March. The wording of the bill implies that drag is inherently sexual and comparable to explicit adult entertainment such as stripping. Since the bill passed, many other states have introduced similar measures.
“What’s happening in the current climate with drag, it’s not only affecting drag queens. It’s affecting everyone; drag queens, trans, lesbian, gay, bi … all of it. Because you start knocking down one and then more come along after that.”Aurora Divine, Chicago drag queen
What drag bans mean for queer people
Opposition to drag performers and transgender people has historically been closely intertwined. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies have taken to the streets and social media to express concern and compassion for those targeted by these bills. Gender-affirming care and freedom of expression are vital to the health and safety of transgender people, and many fear that these measures against drag won’t stop there. Numerous bills restricting gender-affirming care for children, and some for adults, are being introduced in tandem with drag bans.
Many queer people see drag bans and their focus on sexuality as thinly veiled attempts to politically target marginalized identities.
What is drag?
“Drag is just… art,” Aurora Divine says, somewhat wearily. She sits in My Buddy’s, a restaurant and bar in Chicago where she performs, as she comments on the discourse. It’s empty except for the handful of employees preparing for the night. “It’s not something that’s here to offend or here to attack your personal beliefs. It’s just an art form, like when you go to the theater.” When asked to define drag, she states that it’s “taking what you have on the inside and putting it on the outside.”
Branding drag as adult entertainment separate from other family friendly art forms is a common tactic of proponents of drag bans. In reality, drag comes in many forms; some shows are kid-friendly and some are for adult audiences. Divine says it’s important to know your audience and creating family-friendly performances is as simple as that.
Divine hosts Monday night drag bingo at Charlie’s, another popular gay bar in Chicago, with a fellow performer, Windy Breeze. When you enter, the event is notably tame, and a stark difference from the viral clips of more risqué drag performances frequently shared online as supposed evidence of the art’s inherent sexuality. The two sit at an elevated table in front of a projected image of a bingo card. As a diverse crowd sits and plays, occasionally chatting with their friends, the hosts crack jokes, call out numbers, and hand out gift bags.
What does this mean for performers in Chicago?
“We haven’t really felt the pushbacks and attacks like some of the other states have… but I do possibly see it coming,” Divine echoes a common sentiment among drag performers in Chicago.
Shantell D’Marco, a Chicago drag queen and transgender woman, gave a moving statement on her experience of the ‘culture wars‘:
“Drag for me is art. I wanted to be an actor growing up and life and god took my talents to a different stage [and] different audience. Still keeping my essence and my acting skills because, after all, when we lip sync a song, we become that character, the lyrics, the emotion all help for the end product which is the performance. Drag allows me to escape reality. Politically, things are taking such a wrong turn that I’m scared for the future we may have in this country. Instead of moving forward and allowing us to be who we are and how we identify, we keep taking back steps and forcing us back in the closet. That won’t happen! This is the time to uplift each other as a community and come together to fight for our rights.”Shantell D’Marco
Illinois may not be the next in line for a drag ban, but watching large portions of the country pass legislature targeting the art form and the community it stems from affects the lived experience of all queer people.
NPR: Anti-drag legislature across the U.S. has historical comparisons
Time: Status of anti-drag bills across the country
NPR: Critics say Tennessee drag ban hurts entire LGBTQ+ community
NBC: Montana drag ban sent to governor
CBS: How drag queens got dragged into politics