Why the Far Right Is Fixated on Drag Queens

The ACLU’s Chase Strangio draws the connection between the global antidemocratic movement and rising anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence in the U.S.

The drag queen Yuhua Hamasaki holds up "The Family Book" on an outdoor stage holding a microphone.
Yuhua Hamasaki performs in "Drag Queen Story Hour" during Youth Pride on June 25, 2022, in New York City. (Roy Rochlin / Getty)

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On Tuesday, a suspect accused of fatally shooting five people at a Colorado Springs queer nightclub in November was charged with hate crimes, assault, and murder. Elsewhere, armed protesters have been intimidating drag performers. And meanwhile, some states have banned gender-affirming health care and LGBTQ-inclusive instruction in public schools. Chase Strangio, an ACLU lawyer who has written for The Atlantic, argues that the LGBTQ community is under threat in part because of broader antidemocratic currents.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Stoking Fear

Kelli María Korducki: There’s been a recent spate of high-profile attacks on queer community spaces in this country, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment is on the rise in the media and online, including from politicians on the right. What’s going on?

Chase Strangio: There has been deeply embedded structural discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people for centuries in the United States and around the world. So while it’s not new, I think that what we’re seeing right now is a sort of escalation in the types of rhetoric targeting LGBTQ people coming from both public and private actors, which of course results in the escalation of extralegal discrimination and violence.

Korducki: What’s driving this escalation? Why now?

Strangio: I think it’s a combination of things. Part of it is a backlash to the increased visibility of LGBTQ people, as well as increased informal legal protection gained through Supreme Court wins in marriage and the Title VII cases. When you have a dynamic of people gaining more access to supportive public discourse, more legal protections, and increased visibility in popular culture and media, there’s a dynamic of more people feeling like they can live as themselves.

In addition to the backlash against those successes in visibility, we’re seeing a resurgence of far-right politics around the world and in the United States—a rise in far-right governments and far-right nongovernmental actors. And a feature of far-right government is a sort of fixation on the control of family and sexuality. If you look globally, you can see that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric rises with the rise in fascism. You see increased sites of control over the body and the family as part of far-right government projects. That’s why we’re seeing this historical moment of anti-LGBTQ backlash in the same places where we’re seeing those types of governments rising around the world.

Korducki: Where does anti-LGBTQ messaging fall into the broader landscape of the American culture wars?

Strangio: It’s all so inextricably connected, all part of a desire to control and restrict people’s sense of possibility and freedom. You can look at something like [the conservative activist] Christopher Rufo’s campaign against what he calls “critical race theory” and related efforts to restrict historically accurate teaching in public schools, and see how that quickly morphed into the same individuals targeting drag performance, trans health care, and the mention of LGBTQ people in schools.

All of this can be understood in two fundamental ways. One is the simple political opportunism of trying to [mobilize] voters in the lead-up to the next presidential election by stoking a sense of fear, of unfamiliar change. The second is exactly what I mentioned: The more you can control people’s sense of possibility, of expansiveness and freedom, the more that governments can expand their authority over people’s lives in general. I think we’re seeing those things in dynamic interaction at this moment.

Korducki: There seems to be a fixation on drag storytelling hours as a potential threat—really, on drag performance in general. What do you make of that?

Strangio: The history of policing gender and criminalizing cross-dressing was always targeted at trans people, but it was also targeted at drag performance. We have a long history of criminal cross-dressing laws, and drag performers [have been arrested in the past]. If what you really want is to target queerness and transness, then drag is a huge part of that. It's a visible celebration of culture.

That has been combined with the fear and outrage being pushed from far-right media outlets, which have capitalized on the historical tradition of calling LGBTQ people “groomers” and saying that we pose a threat to children to create this moment where we’re seeing threats on children’s hospitals, attacks on drag performance, and so on. This is unfortunately part of a long tradition of positioning queerness and transness as “criminal.”

Korducki: We’ve been discussing queerness and transness sort of interchangeably, but I want to zoom in on the distinct experience of trans people. At what stage is the trans movement right now, in terms of obtaining mainstream acceptance, rights, and legal protections?

Strangio: On the one hand, we’ve made incredible forward progress. Even in the 15 years that I’ve been out as a trans person, the difference is unbelievable. At the same time, targeted rhetorical and governmental attacks are increasing dramatically. And so we have a sense of progress, but it’s difficult to sit in it, because there’s such precarity in all that’s happening right now. The way in which anti-trans antagonism has become so commonplace that people feel comfortable with it, I think that is a really scary proposition as we move into the presidential-election lead-up—especially when you consider the rise of far-right governments in the U.S. and around the world.

At the same time, trans people have always been around, have always built community, have always built sites of care and resistance and celebration. And so I feel that, with more visibility in the ability to find our people, there will continue to be beautiful and flourishing community spaces. Unfortunately, I think we are also going to keep seeing really troubling and expansive assaults on those spaces, and on our communities.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Brittney Griner was released from Russian detention as part of a prisoner swap.
  2. The House passed legislation to protect marriage equality under federal law.
  3. The FTC is suing Microsoft in an attempt to block its plan to buy Activision Blizzard.

Dispatches

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Evening Read
Illustration of a person holding a pile of red shards from which a plant is sprouting
(Jan Buchczik)

Breakups Always Hurt, but You Can Shorten the Suffering

By Arthur C. Brooks

Literature is full of brutally jilted lovers and cruelly broken hearts, whether Anna Karenina’s or Heathcliff’s in Wuthering Heights. But for my money, the most extreme case is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In the classic novel, she never gets over the pain of being abandoned at the altar on her wedding day, decades before. Shut away in her dark house, Miss Havisham is described as a cross between a skeleton and a wax statue, frozen in a state of traumatic rejection.

As cartoonish as these characters are, they can seem achingly realistic to readers in the midst of the terrible heartbreak that can come when a romance ends. Miss Havisham’s fate seems plausible: You will never again see love as anything more than an exercise in futility. Little by little, of course, most people do get over a breakup, move on, and, eventually, love someone else. In those early days and months, however, the pain can feel like it will never end.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
A shack with mountains in the background
A home in Colorado's San Luis Valley (Courtesy of Ted Conover)

Read. Ted Conover’s new book, Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, traces his move to a remote valley to experience 21st-century life off the grid.

Watch. Ten of the best films of 2022—an unforgettable year of cinema.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

On the subject of trans visibility, Chase recommends that people check out the 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure. It draws on interviews with a range of trans performers, activists, and thinkers to unpack Hollywood’s evolving relationship with the trans community. “We have all internalized so much anti-trans content without realizing it,” Chase told me, “and making that exposure visible is so critical in working to undo its impact.”

— Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.