By Rev. Stephen Underwood
I’ve never done drag—unless you count the floor-length robe and colorful stole I wear every Sunday when I preach. Sometimes I think it could be fun (I’ve even got my drag name picked out: “Pauline Epistle”), but I know it is far more work than I am prepared to commit to. It’s also, apparently, extremely dangerous.
In Montana, as in over a dozen states, legislation is moving forward to ban or severely restrict drag performances. These bills mischaracterize drag as inherently sexual in nature, “appealing to prurient interest.” That’s the language of Representative Mitchell’s HB359, which passed its second reading in the Montana House this week.
I recently got a chance to chat with my senator, who is one of the bill’s co-sponsors, about why he chose to attach his name to it. He gave the usual talking points, saying that the intention was to protect children from “sexualization.” It’s the same impulse that’s behind the recent surge book-banning and educator-muzzling rhetoric and policy. Save the children; protect their innocence from the perversions of our culture.
When I asked my senator if he had ever attended a drag show, he told me that he had not, which I imagine is true of most of the people backing the bill. (Although it’s always possible one of them might have had a past life as a drag performer in South America, I suppose.)
If they had, they might realize that nine times out of ten, particularly in the case of all-ages shows, drag performers have more in common with clowns and ballerinas than with actual adult entertainment performers, which HB359 tries to paint them as.
But, of course, this has never been about protecting children’s innocence. The same people concerned about the psychological damage a child might experience witnessing a man in a colorful dress read a storybook about being kind to people have no problem telling the same child that unless they pledge their eternal servitude to an invisible being who watches their every moment and knows their every thought, they will be tortured for all eternity—out of love.
The real reason they want to ban drag performances from the public sphere is because drag, emblematic of queerness itself, is a threat to entrenched systems of power.
In a recent legislative committee for Montana SB234, discussion about how we define obscenity led to the point being made that the Bible itself could easily fit the category of obscene literature.
Ezekiel contains language more explicit than even the bawdiest drag show I’ve ever seen, and it does so for the purpose of prophetic critique. The prophet uses a graphic analogy of adultery to denounce Israel and Judah for their dalliance with Assyrian and Babylonian empires, respectively. (In a similar manner, today’s prophets have rightly pointed out that much of the American church is ‘in bed’ with White Nationalism).
Likewise Isaiah walked around naked for three years, and Jeremiah paraded around with a pair of dirty underwear, disrupting norms and provoking shock and disgust.
The Hebrew prophets were the original performance artists.
The intersection of artistic expression and social critique terrifies those with vested interests in maintaining authoritarian control. As Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says in The Prophetic Imagination: “every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
Drag is dangerous for that very reason. It points out the farce of rigid black-and-white—or rather, pink-and-blue—thinking and imagines a rainbow of possibility for God’s beloveds. We really are all born naked, and the rest—as Mama Ru says—is drag.
We are not so far off from the 1960s, when trans people and drag artists could be arrested just for existing in public, experiencing grotesque violence at the hands of the state. The violence is still happening, emboldened by the increase in hateful legislation and political rhetoric.
It was drag queens and trans people leading the charge in those days, sparking a revolution that would transform the country and make it safe for people like me to be fully myself. Now it is up to the rest of us to stand with them, speak out against the fear and hate, and celebrate the joy and the beauty that queer people bring to our world.
I have little reason to believe those trying to legislate queer and trans people out of existence will have a change of heart and relent from their “slate of hate.” But that just means my calling to speak out on behalf of the marginalized, to imagine a world where everyone has what they need, is as clear as it has ever been.
And if I need a refresher course in the prophetic vocation, I’ll find a big, scary Drag Queen and let her spill the tea.
Rev. Stephen Underwood is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), serving a congregation in Great Falls, MT. The above opinions are exclusively his own.