There was an odd news item out of Edmonton Alberta a couple of years ago, wherein the wife of a male audience member at a drag show complained that her husband had been unwillingly and inappropriately touched by the performer when called up onstage. “He’s the chillest human on Earth and I have never seen him this furious,” the woman said of her spouse. The routine, which played on the stereotype of the uptight straight guy being desired by another man (dressed as a woman), was suddenly no longer amusing when issues of consent and unwelcome attention are very current. After all, the sensitivity and respect women rightly demand of men should also be expected in other dynamics, no? The right to express a particular identity doesn’t preclude the general responsibility to behave decently, does it?
The spectacle of men wearing women’s clothes has long been a comedic staple, as played by Milton Berle, Benny Hill, and the Monty Python troupe, but drag has lately become a vehicle for the LGBTQ lobby; pop personalities like RuPaul and Caitlyn Jenner are seen as lifestyle advocates raising pointed questions around gender, orientation, and inclusion. To be physically masculine but presenting in the cultural signals of femininity – dress, hair, makeup, mannerisms – is no longer a cheap gag but an assertion of self and an act of resistance. Laughing with drag is acceptable, but laughing at drag isn’t okay.
Yet as more and more persuasions once outlawed as deviant are granted legal and social accommodation, a quiet pushback is reminding that tolerance works both ways. In some public libraries, for example, drag artists give storybook readings for young children, to teach lessons about diversity – but some parents have complained. Drag typically involves revealing outfits and glamorous cosmetics. Would female Marilyn Monroe or Madonna lookalikes, with real curves and real cleavage, be invited to entertain little kids? How about a shirtless Chippendale dancer? Why do we disapprove of pornography and strip clubs but applaud Pride parades and burlesque theatre? Could it be because the former are primarily aimed at straight males but the latter aren’t? Why is open eroticism “empowering” when invoked by a special group but “problematic” when enjoyed by a mainstream? Isn’t lewdness always objectionable?
One unforeseen complication of the real cultural progress achieved in the last few decades is our continued inability to agree on how much progress is sufficient. Past a certain ill-defined point, irrational discrimination isn’t irrational. To gain equality is not to win a free pass. Judging not by color of skin (or other surface marker) but by content of character is judging nevertheless. Notwithstanding a level playing field, some players can inevitably lose. Thus white voters who don’t support a Black candidate may be racists, but they may just not like the candidate’s policies; westerners who raise alarms about violent jihadists may be Islamophobic, but they may just be genuinely afraid of terrorism; people who don’t appreciate drag may be bigoted prudes, but they may just find the premise of cross-dressing, and all the taboos it purports to violate, obsolete relics of bygone era. Fair treatment, as a goal, isn’t the same as uncritical treatment: you can become the civic equal of everyone else, yet still fail, still look foolish, or still offend.
The popularity of drag shows today epitomizes the politicization of sexuality and the sexualization of everything. Personal inclinations and behaviors formerly kept to oneself and one’s partners are presumed to be topics of public interest; who and how you love is an appetite to gratify, a market to cultivate, and a taste to proclaim, no matter who else may be embarrassed by it. In 1967 Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of Canada’s current Prime Minister, abolished the statutes criminalizing homosexuality, declaring, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” In 2021, rainbow flags fly over government buildings. The state’s business sure has changed. It would be nice if citizens, in or out of drag, could return to minding their own.