A drag queen puts on a wig.

Drag 101: What is Drag?

There are now draconian anti-drag show laws in effect in states across the country (People). Conservatives have stoked a moral panic that drag performances are part of a conspiracy to sexualize and groom children. Many people in the United States have never attended a drag show or Drag Queen Story Hour, so their perceptions of drag come entirely from partisan news outlets. Today, we’re explaining what drag is, how it evolved from its roots in slavery and Emancipation, and why defending drag is important for everyone. 


• Support Drag Story Hour, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project

Support drag performers locally and nationally and speak out in support of drag and LGBTQ+ communities. 

What is drag? 

Drag is “the art of dressing and acting exaggeratedly as another gender, usually for entertainment such as comedy, singing, dancing, lip-syncing or all of the above” (NBC). The “temporary and deliberate performance of gender” (The Conversation) creates “an undoing of gender norms” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Drag queens are often gay men creating a female persona, while drag kings are often women performing in a male persona. Creating a larger-than-life persona of a different gender is a way to break down and explore gender outside the “limitations of masculinity and femininity.” Drag performances frequently include “humor, camp, and over-the-top aesthetics” (Insider). Drag has also been a way to “showcase self-expression” and explore identity in safe queer spaces (LGBTQ and AllVogue).

Is drag cross-dressing? 

No. Unlike cross-dressing, drag is a collective, social performance. Drag is a specific tradition that comes out of gay culture that involves performance and competition (InsiderSmithsonian).

Is drag the same as being transgender? 

No. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identities are different from those assigned by the government and medical establishment at birth. Drag personas exist only during the drag performance, just like an actor portrays a character on stage while retaining their own identity when the curtain falls (The Conversation). Some drag queens and kings are trans or non-binary since there is no set sexual orientation or gender identity for drag. But being trans is not temporarily taking on a persona of a different gender like drag is. 

What’s the history of drag culture? 

Drag as a conscious performance, exploration, and celebration of gender was pioneered by William Dorsey Swann, a formerly enslaved Black man who was the first self-identified drag queen. He hosted secret, illegal, racially-integrated drag balls practically in the shadow of the White House in the 1880s (Smithsonian). Drag balls later flourished during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s (History).

Vogue, an improvised competitive dance style performed to house music, was created by Black and Brown drag queens and can be traced back to the “cakewalk” performed by enslaved people to mock plantation owners under their noses (Smithsonian). House ballroom culture received mainstream attention through the documentary Paris is Burning and TV shows like Pose and Legendary (History).

Is drag inherently sexual? Do drag performances groom children? 

No. Unlike burlesque, drag does not always include nudity or stripping. While drag performances for adult audiences might include adult language and content, drag events for kids are not sexual. Drag queens “typically wear more, not less, clothing than you’d see on a typical American woman of the 21st century, at a public beach or on network TV” (NBC). 

Exposing children to different kinds of gender expression and encouraging them to experiment with the same isn’t grooming. Drag queen story hours at public libraries exist to engage kids’ curiosity about reading and provide them with “unabashedly queer role models,” not sexualize them (The Guardian). And prohibitions on kids dressing in drag seem absurd given that we encourage kids to dress as superheroes or zombies. 

As family therapist Amber Trueblood puts it: 

“Part of keeping our children safe is allowing them to be children, to be playful, to take risks, and to be silly, without it necessarily meaning anything deeper or more permanent. Many parents are OK with children dressing as assassins, evil villains or grim reapers, yet they seldom take the costume choice to mean anything more than playful and fun” (NBC).

Why does the far-right hate drag? What is the result?

Far-right forces are pretending to protect children in order to try to erase LGBTQ+ people from public life. Since drag exists in queer spaces and is an outlet predominantly for queer folks, it’s a target for conservatives and far-right groups. Drag bans play into the long-standing, false narrative that queer people are child abusers who “recruit the youth of America” (NBC). 

Though transgender people are not performing drag, transgender speakers are already being denied the right to speak in public facilities because of anti-drag show laws (Mother Jones). One right-wing political commentator with almost a million Twitter followers took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference to declare that “transgenderism must be eradicated” in the United States (Them). Starbucks Workers United reported that the corporation recently banned Pride decorations in stores (CBS). Families are fleeing states with “genocidal” anti-trans laws (ABC). As the ACLU explains, drag show bans are part of a “malicious attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life” (People). 

What can we do? 

We need to be clear that attacks on drag shows are attacks on us all. Everyone, including people who don’t currently identify as LGBTQ+, should have the liberty to experiment and play with our gender expression and clothing, whether as part of a performance or in our day-to-day lives. Every kid should be able to see role models that represent them. We should all be able to preserve cultural traditions that sustain us, like a drag show culture that stretches back to before Emancipation. Attacks on drag shows are attacks on our freedom of speech and expression, our communities and history, and Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ culture.


• Drag is performing as someone of a different gender. 

• Drag show culture has roots going back to before Emancipation. 

• Hysteria about drag performers “grooming” children is part of a coordinated campaign to eliminate LGBTQ+ people in public life.

1280 853 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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