Amidst growing national bans, regulation of drag performances affects greater Sacramento region


Dressed in a pink drag costume, a performer poses for a photo during a parade. The term “drag” refers to the act of extravagantly dressing and acting as a gender different than one’s own, often in a performance-based environment. Drag may include the impersonation of a famous individual, or dancing or singing as part of an act. Although drag has been linked to Ancient Greece and William Shakepspeare’s work and has been a historic place of community for queer folks, it is currently under surveillance as state lawmakers across the nation continue to push bans and regulations. Photo by Quito Al via Unsplash.

While they enjoyed shows such as “Kickin’ It,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Teen Titans Go,” GSA President Gillain Kingery grew up with access to media that didn’t feature any representation they could relate to. The movies and television shows they were exposed to featured only straight, binary characters who did not explore gender expression in a diverse way. Although anti-queer activists often argue limiting children’s exposure to diverse characters, including through drag, will stop them from expressing an identity within the LGBTQIA+ community, Kingery said the lack of representation did not prevent them from becoming who they genuinely were. 

“I feel like almost any cartoon or TV show I watched had only straight, cis[gender] characters and I think the first time I saw representation on a show targeted for kids was when I was 12 or 13, which is a while to see representation,” Kingery said. “I didn’t even know what [drag] meant until fourth grade. I would have loved to see drag growing up and be like, ‘Oh, hold on. So I’m not the only person. This is great.’” 

Although Kingery believes seeing characters who explored gender expression would have helped them feel more comfortable with their identity, state and local lawmakers have demonstrated a new wave of regulation against this representation. Nearly all legislatures on drag have cited the safety and wellbeing of minors as the main motivation behind the decision making. While activists such as Kingery acknowledge these fears, they said they feel drag and other spaces for queer people can promote a feeling of community and positivity. 

“I think that it’s silly that their reasoning is ‘Oh, we don’t want our kids to be influenced.’ Like if your kids feel that way, they’re gonna be that way. It has nothing to do with just giving them a spot where they can be that way. It’s not influencing them to change who they are,” Kingery said. “I grew up watching TV with absolutely no representation whatsoever. And I still turned out the way I am. It’s pretty set from the get go, it’s not like they’re gonna be brainwashed or influenced. That’s not how sexuality or self-expression works whatsoever.”

Similarly, Hiroyuta Moore said he feels drag doesn’t harm or negatively influence individuals and that those in favor of the several bans throughout America lack an understanding of drag culture.

“It’s important for people to be able to express themselves in a space where there are [people the same as them]. In fact, I think it’s good for kids to be exposed to that kind of lifestyle. Just to show them that there’s more fun in life, [where] you paint yourself the way you want to be perceived. How is it negatively impacting young folks? I don’t understand, and I don’t think I ever will,” Moore said, “I only hear stories about how colorfully dressed drag queens dance and sing and bring laughter to crowds. They’re kinda like comedians, just with a deep link to queer history.”

Drag is thought to be linked to Ancient Greece and Shakespearian plays, where men would often perform as female characters. The word “drag” likely refers to the way their long dresses would drape and drag across the floor, or else stands as an acronym for “dress as a girl.” Drag became most popular in America during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City at gay clubs, including Stonewall, becoming a safe space for queer people to explore gender presentation and a departure from the gender binary. More recently, RuPaul’s Drag Race has introduced a competitive aspect to the activity and has made drag more accessible to a larger audience (CBS News).

“It’s just a space of safety and inclusiveness. And I think that’s really important to all people, not just people of the community, to express themselves, especially in states where those communities aren’t as big as they are here or in places like San Francisco. They have just those few safe spaces and they take it away,” Kingery said. 

“I saw a video of some politician saying [that in banning drag,] we’re taking away mental health. It’s like, people will hurt themselves because you’re just taking away their one safe space,” GSA Vice President Taylor Bettencourt said.

Yet despite its history as a communal activity, upwards of nine states are currently targeting drag. Tennessee is the site of some of the most prevalent legislation. When SB 3 was passed March 2, it aimed to ban “male or female impersonators” and “adult cabaret performances” in public and/or in the presence of children (NPR). Tennessee has also passed similar legislation targeting gender expression, including the banning of hormones and puberty blockers for minors seeking gender-affirming care. In addition to Tennessee, eight other states, including North Dakota, Florida and Arizona, have attempted to pass similar legislation that would effectively ban or heavily regulate drag performance (Diaz). 

“It’s just upsetting to see – I know it’s not here in California because more people are open minded, but just seeing people like influencers I look up to who are now in places where they can’t really do what they usually do is really unfair to them,” Kingery said.

Yet while overt legislation for gender expression has been occurring in states outside of California, the local community has not been completely without regulation. Early in March, a youth-led drag show fundraiser planned to take place on Roseville’s campus was canceled when a locally based religious organization, called The American Council, reported the event to Roseville administration. According to KCRA, the district then canceled the show due to concerns over the involvement of minors and inaccurate portrayals of the type of event planned. The fundraiser was organized by Reverend Casey Tinnin, the founder of The Landing Spot, which serves as a support group for Placer County LGBTQIA+ youth and their families. Casey said in an interview with KCRA the organization had sold nearly 500 seats and was hoping to “celebrate joy of the LGBT community here,” as well as use the funds to support summer camp programs for queer youth. Reverend Tinnin and American Council Representative Mr. Tanner BiDella did not respond to a request to comment.

“They’re putting so much into such harmless things because it’s not harmful at all. It’s actually actively the opposite. It is helping people, especially in such a time, such a moment, where there’s so much other stuff happening that’s more important,” Bettencourt said. “I’ve seen direct comparisons between focus on banning drag shows over focus on gun control where there’s such a misplaced focus.”

For those who oppose drag and feel it is harmful for youth, Kingery, Bettencourt and Moore all said the best choice is to choose not to engage with performances.

“If you don’t like it, just don’t go to drag shows. It’s simple enough as that. You have free agency to go or to stay and watch. You can’t always get what you want in life, but you can definitely control what you see,” Moore said.

For performers and supporters affected by regulations, Kingery said they believe continuing to inhabit safe spaces can be a form of powerful resistance. 

Kingery said, “I think just continuing to plan these types of events and just keep trying at it, even if it’s continuously banned. If there’s petitions available, sign the petitions. Spread awareness. That’s all you can really do at this point, which is kind of really upsetting. These people aren’t even part of the community and they’re tearing down our community.”