Anti-drag laws in historical context (part one)

If We Knew Trans History is back – and earlier than I expected. Because of the wave of organized hate against trans and queer people, I’ve returned with a temporary new focus. For the next couple of months, I will be discussing new and proposed laws against drag performances in their historical context. I think you’ll see that there is absolutely nothing new about them.

Why is the historical context of recent anti-drag laws important?

When we examine the historical context of anti-drag laws, we can make predictions about how they are likely to impact the trans and queer community. Because these laws mirror previous anti-crossdressing laws, our history can teach us which members of our communities will be most vulnerable to their enforcement. Knowing that information can help us better direct our resources.

Trans and queer history can also show us how our communities have successfully survived, resisted, and overturned anti-drag laws in the past. That information can make our movements more successful and help us maintain hope during this incredibly difficult time.

Lastly, understanding the historical context of anti-drag laws can help us to argue against them more effectively, and in a way that reflects the feminist and anti-racist values that animate our radical movements. My goal is to communicate the history that I am lucky to have access to in a way that is useful in our current struggle.

What are we fighting? An overview of anti-drag laws

This legislative session, lawmakers in state houses across the country introduced 344 anti-LGBTQ+ bills. So far, 25 of them have passed. Anti-drag laws are only one type of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. I’m focusing on them because they are the laws to which my own research can best speak.

Proposed anti-drag laws take different forms across the country, but many are broad, highly punitive, and ripe for legal challenge. Tennessee’s new law was just temporarily blocked by a federal judge for violating the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker wrote that it was too vague and that the state failed to make a compelling argument for the law’s necessity.

Tennessee’s new law makes several changes that target both drag performers and trans and gender nonconforming people in their daily life:

· Tennessee’s new law doesn’t include the word drag. Instead, it uses the terms “male or female impersonators,” old language that has a long history of being used to target both drag performers on stage and trans and gender non-conforming people off stage.

· Next, the new law defines male and female impersonators as a form of “adult cabaret,” the same category as strippers and other exotic dancers. It also changes the definition of adult cabaret to “adult-oriented performances that a harmful to minors,” a broad, subjective definition that clearly echoes right-wing “groomer” rhetoric, which I will explain in a moment.

· Then, the new law restricts adult cabaret performances from public property or anywhere a minor might be present. This means that it could be used to target pride parades and people going about their daily life.

· Finally, anyone breaking the law could be charged with a misdemeanor or felony for a repeat offense.

While lawmakers propose anti-drag laws, organized fascist white supremacist groups are targeting trans and queer events in person. Pride events and Drag Queen Story Hours at local libraries have been harassed and threatened with violence. Violence also continues to rise against trans people, particularly Black trans women.

What are they saying about us? An overview of right-wing anti-drag rhetoric (Content warning for hate speech and mentions of childhood sexual assault)

Right-wing politicians and hate groups are drawing on old beliefs that all trans and queer people are sexual predators, claims that have long been completely debunked. Anti-drag crusaders are arguing that drag sexualizes children and constitutes child abuse. Specifically, they say that drag is a form of “grooming,” a manipulative pattern of behavior that abusers use to gain access to potential targets.

Grooming is a very real form of abuse and information about its warning signs are available from anti-violence organizations. Drag, however, has absolutely nothing in common with grooming and there is no correlation between trans and queer identity and pedophilia.

Nonetheless, following the passage of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ Law, the grooming conspiracy theory exploded on social media. The average number of tweets per day using the slur “groomer” and anti-queer/trans uses of the work “pedophile” increased 406% percent.

“Groomer” rhetoric is being spread in an organized fashion by politicians, right-wing influencers, and hate groups, all of whom stand to gain from the growth of these lies. Researchers identified the 500 most viewed “grooming” tweets – tweets that were viewed an estimated 72 million times – and found that 66% of them came from ten people.

1. Marjorie Taylor Greene – Representative for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District

2. James Lindsay – “Anti-woke” author and conspiracy theorist

3. Lauren Boebert – Representative for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District

4. Christina Pushaw – Press secretary to Governor of Florida

5. Frank Drew Hernandez – Contributor to Turning Point USA, a far-right group that provides political training to high school students

Other key spreaders of “groomer” hate rhetoric include Ron DeSantis, the Proud Boys, and long-time hate group Focus on the Family. All of these political actors are stoking anti-LGBTQ+ hate to gain power.

So, what do we do? Lessons from history

In my next two posts, I’ll talk about two histories that can teach us how to respond to “groomer” rhetoric. First, I’ll cover the most immediate parallel to this kind of hate: the use of accusations of pedophilia and “gay recruitment” to target queer and trans parents. I’ll discuss the long history of removing children from queer parents and how queer parents fought back, eventually defeating a string of anti-queer laws in the late 1990s. Next, I’ll discuss the history of anti-crossdressing laws, showing how American society has tolerated drag performances on stage, but targeted trans people of color living their daily lives. These stories will help us understand how new laws are likely to impact our communities and how we can fight them.

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