Tennessee recently passed legislation that bans drag from being performed in public spaces, as well as in the view of children. Although Tennessee is the first state to enact such a ban, it is unlikely to be the last, as others with conservative legislatures are currently considering similar action. Some states proposing bans have explicitly targeted Drag Story Hour, which involves drag performers reading books to children in public spaces such as libraries.
So why does the American public suddenly need to be protected from drag?
The answer to this question has deep roots in modern U.S. history.
Tennessee’s ban on drag is not an isolated event. Rather, it is only the latest volley in the broader culture war between American conservatives and progressives to define the values of the country.
A centurylong war
In 1991, sociologist James Davison Hunter alerted Americans that the nation was in the midst of a perpetual culture war that would “continue to have reverberations not only within public policy but within the lives of ordinary Americans everywhere.”
Examples of early culture war battles include the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a Tennessee high school science teacher was prosecuted for violating anti-evolution laws, and the 1962 Supreme Court ruling that deemed school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional.
Social scientists largely thought the culture wars had receded at the turn of the 21st century. Then former President Donald Trump’s battle cry to “Make America Great Again” rallied troops back into action.
As Hunter noted in his monumental tome, culture war disputes usually intensify during times of upheaval, such as changes in the country’s demographics and shifts in the distribution of political power. These shifts lead people to wonder exactly whose values, languages, religions and opportunities are respected or promoted by the government, law and popular culture.
Not surprisingly, cultural conflict tends to emerge within institutions that have practical implications for Americans’ lives: family, public schools, popular media, public art and law.
Ripe conditions for a new battle
The first Drag Story Hour took place in 2015. It was organized by author and queer activist Michelle Tea and the San Francisco-based literacy nonprofit RADAR Productions. The official mission of Drag Story Hour is to celebrate “reading through the glamorous art of drag” and create “diverse, accessible, and culturally-inclusive family programming where kids can express their authentic selves.”
Because these performances take place in public spaces and in front of children, they hit upon a couple of important culture war triggers.
First, public performances can spark cultural conflict because they can signify exactly whose values are prioritized over others. Second, art and performances that reach audiences of children are often perceived as a threat to the family as an institution.
For example, in the 1980s, some activists and politicians viewed profane music as a threat to the family. This led to the introduction of parental advisory labels
‘When librarians were nice Christian ladies’
As social scientists who study gender and culture, we recently analyzed reactions to Drag Story Hour that were posted on social media forums.
In our analysis, we found that many grievances centered on institutions and values crucial to the culture wars.
We found that conservatives reminisced about a time when their values were dominant in American society and rehashed old culture war narratives about “threatened children.”
They specifically expressed nostalgia for a time when American culture was anchored by conservative values, and progressive views existed on the periphery of public life. As one forum member lamented, “When I was a kid, the librarians were nice Christian ladies and there was an American flag outside. My current public library [has] scary levels of liberal posters and talks.”
Some conservatives also used rhetoric reminiscent of the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and 1990s by claiming that drag performers were satanic pedophiles who sought to recruit, groom and sexually abuse children. Others argued that parents who take their children to Drag Story Hour should be jailed or lose their parental rights.
The safety of children as political fodder
In our view, it’s no accident that Tennessee’s ban on drag specifically targets drag performed in front of children.
Emphasizing threats to children is a well-established strategy for conveying the decline of American culture and values. As sociologists Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle have noted, adults often project their anxieties and fears concerning a perceived disintegration of traditional norms onto younger generations, whom they believe need to be shielded.
In the 1970s, anti-gay activist Anita Bryant launched her “Save our Children” campaign. Claiming that gays and lesbians were “recruiting children” to their cause, she successfully pressed voters to oppose anti-discrimination statutes.
And in the 1980s, fears over changing family structures, such as rising divorce rates and an influx of working mothers, fueled a moral panic that day care staffers were ritualistically abusing children.
Almost half a century later, fears regarding advancements in LGBTQ+ rights have produced legislation restricting discussions of gender identity in schools and stoked claims that drag performers are satanists who terrorize children.
The deployment of these well-worn narratives is unlikely to end with legislation such as Tennessee’s drag ban. Rather, it will continue as long as conservatives and progressives battle to define American values.