Banning drag performances won’t help youth mental health crisis
Experts fear a rollback in protections for trans youth and adults
- ‘Suicide and homicide are leading causes of death for teenagers, and we should put our energy into these very real and solvable problems’
- ‘We, in Illinois, have seen groups like the Proud Boys threaten drag performances in nearby suburbs’
- ‘To presuppose that all public drag performances are rooted in sex and therefore must be banned shows that lawmakers don’t fully understand that which they are trying to legislate’
CHICAGO --- As South Carolina, Texas and Arizona have already introduced or moved forward on passing anti-drag legislation, in part due to Tennessee’s new bills, experts at Northwestern University worry this marks the beginning of rolling back growing protections for trans people in the U.S.
To schedule interviews with the following experts, reporters can reach out to Win Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the experts
Brian Mustanski is a clinical psychologist, director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and a professor of medical social sciences, infectious diseases and psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and director of the NIH-funded Third Coast Center for AIDS Research (CFAR). He can speak to topics affecting queer young adults, including drag bans and restrictions to gender-affirming care.
TJ Billard is the founding executive director of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies in Chicago and editor of the center’s flagship journal, the Bulletin of Applied Transgender Studies. They are an assistant professor in the School of Communication and (by courtesy) the department of sociology at Northwestern, where they are affiliated with the Center for Communication & Public Policy and ISGMH. Billard’s expertise spans transgender studies, and they have experience discussing anti-drag movements in the U.S.
Ricky Hill is a research assistant professor at ISGMH at Feinberg, where they are affiliated with the Center for Health Equity Transformation in the Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM) and the Osher Center for Integrative Health. They are an expert in transgender mental health with a focus on youth and young adults.
alithia zamantakis is a postdoctoral fellow at ISGMH, and part of the HIV Implementation Science Coordination Initiative (ISCI). Her research focuses on trans youth and resilience.
Mustanski: “The laws passed in Tennessee, similar to those in some other states, are designed to restrict the rights to free speech and personal healthcare liberty for LGBTQ people. The problems that these laws allegedly seek to solve have not been demonstrated or explained. There is no evidence of children getting hurt at drag shows, but suicide and homicide are leading causes of death for teenagers, and we should put our energy into these very real and solvable problems.”
Laws never intended to ‘protect the children’
zamantakis: “These bills set a precedent for continual attacks on not only trans children but trans adults. Anti-drag legislation in Tennessee and other bills were never intended to ‘protect the children.’ They were intended to set a foundation for the continual rolling back of growing protections for transgender people in this country.
Hill: “The current wave of so-called public drag bans in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona fail to understand drag at its core. Drag isn’t new. It is a performance of exaggerated femininity, masculinity or androgyny most often for entertainment purposes. While some performances might be sexual (and are already legislated to happen out of the view of children in adult-only bars and clubs), drag as a public art form is not inherently sexual. These bills claim to protect children but all they seem to be doing is distracting from the actual issues influencing people’s everyday lives.”
Foundations built in recent history
Hill: “Drag occurs in plays from Shakespeare to Broadway, in various forms of literature throughout cultures, and continues to rise in current mainstream popularity on television shows such as ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ Drag has maintained its vitality because it is such a widely accessible and varied art form, so to presuppose that all public drag performances are rooted in sex and, therefore, must be banned, shows that lawmakers don’t fully understand that which they are trying to legislate.”
zamantakis: “This legislation harkens back to the early 1900s, when police across the U.S. enforced clothing laws requiring an individual to wear at least two pieces of clothing that ‘match’ their assigned sex. Cisgender queers and transgender people were regularly arrested, loaded into paddy wagons, beaten, raped and subsequently fired from their jobs once the police reports were published in the newspapers.
“Transgender women and drag queens have always been at the forefront of our movements and have always faced the greatest harm and violence due in part to this. We can expect that these laws will not only disproportionately affect trans women of color legally, but will also allow some to feel entitled to inflict ever greater physical and verbal violence as well. Fake videos using well-developed video editing software are already surfacing on social media to incite violence, and we, in Illinois, have seen groups like the Proud Boys threaten drag performances in nearby suburbs.”
Criminalizing people ‘regardless of drag’
zamantakis: “These bills lay the precedent for criminalizing transgender people regardless of drag. They criminalize individuals performing in clothing that does not ‘align’ with the sex they were assigned at birth. What does this mean for actresses like Michaela Jae Rodriguez of ‘Pose,’ singers and rappers like Mykki Blanco, and trans and queer people simply existing and navigating the world around them? It means greater precarity and violence.”
‘Remind lawmakers that drag is not a criminal offense’
Hill: “I encourage constituents in these jurisdictions to call their lawmakers, leave voicemails, write letters and op-eds, try to make meetings with these elected officials. Have conversations with them and remind them that drag is not a criminal offense. Ask them how they view drag as a performance as opposed to how they view beauty pageants or body building contests as performance. Ask them how putting restrictions on drag in public places is going to reduce crime or stop mass shootings or impact our cost of living.”