Stephen Paulsen

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Y'vonna F Mei is soft-spoken. Inside a hectic bar, she can blend into the crowd.

The makeup on her face last Monday — some eyeshadow, eyeliner, lipstick and fake eyelashes — were hints she wasn't just a bar-goer but a rising star in Austin’s vibrant drag community. Another hint was the greeting by fans and friends as she arrived at Oilcan Harry’s, a popular gay bar in downtown Austin.

It was the day before Valentine’s Day, and Oilcan was hosting the third round of the "Grackle Games," one of several local drag competitions. Emceeing was Lady Grackle, a popular local queen.

The competition is like the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” but “without RuPaul, without the budget and without the lighting,” Lady Grackle explained to the crowd. The theme for the night was “Anti-Valentine’s Day." Every drag queen had her own take on the prompt.

A performer named Poison Ivy Queen did a throwback of mid-2000s screamo music.

Eva Inez, dressed in full mariachi garb, sung “No Me Queda Más” by Selena.

LawrieBird tore a plastic heart from a backup dancer. She ate it between two pieces of bread.

Wanda D’Streets used a bat to smash a fake car.

Owie performed a rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James while blindfolded — “an extra element of danger,” as one judge approvingly put it.

When Y’vonna emerged on stage that night, her transformation was complete. A long red gown trailed behind her. She donned a wig of curly black hair.

Y’vonna typically does high-octane shows. For this event, she wanted to do something different.

She swayed gently on stage, crooning to a Kelly Clarkson version of the song “Happier Than Ever”:

When I'm away from you
I'm happier than ever
Wish I could explain it better
I wish it wasn't true

Standing in a laughing and cheering crowd of a few dozen, this local drag competition seemed an unlikely frontline in a roiling culture war.

And yet, amid a fierce nationwide debate over gender identity and LGBTQ+ issues, that’s precisely what shows like this have become.

To give a sense of the pitch of debate in Texas: A video circulated last month by the right-wing group Texas Scorecard accused drag queens of indoctrinating and abusing children through drag queen readings, all-ages drag shows and other events. The video described these entertainers as “subversive,” “evil,” “connected to sex trafficking,” “anti-God,” “a door for Satan” and “driven by child pornography.”

Participants in the video, a collection of evangelical and far-right figures, evoked images of war.

"If you’re going to attack a certain location, you would bomb this certain location to soften the target and make it easier for you to advance,” Chris Hopper, president at Texas Family Project, says in the video. Drag queens are “attacking the stronghold, which is the family, but the ultimate target are the children.”

Far from being relegated to fringe internet videos, rhetoric like this has spilled onto the streets and into statehouses. Armed men now show up at daytime and all-ages drag events. Lawmakers in at least 14 states have introduced bills to restrict drag shows.

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is currently attempting to revoke the liquor license of the Orlando Philharmonic following controversy over a “Drag Queen Christmas” event. Children were at the show, violating Florida law, a state licensing agency has alleged in court filings.

Texas conservatives don't like it, want to legislate

Meanwhile, in Texas, four proposed bills would crack down on drag shows, including by redefining any place that hosts a drag show as a “sexually oriented business.” This designation would impose a $5-per-person fee on every audience member and enforce the same zoning rules used for strip clubs and sex shops.

The Texas bills would "force drag performance into the fringe, into these highly regulated places that literally exist on the outskirts of communities because of zoning rules,” Johnathan Gooch, a spokesperson for the group Equality Texas, said in an interview.

Lady Grackle, a popular Austin drag queen, hosts the "Grackle Games" at Oilcan Harry's in downtown Austin. The weekslong drag competition is like the reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race" but “without RuPaul, without the budget and without the lighting," she told the audience on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)
Lady Grackle, a popular Austin drag queen, hosts the "Grackle Games" at Oilcan Harry's in downtown Austin. The weekslong drag competition is like the reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race" but “without RuPaul, without the budget and without the lighting," she told the audience on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)

The $5-per-person tax, he stressed, was not the same as a show cover charge: “We’re talking about money that goes straight to the government.”

“The people who were introducing these kinds of bills, they don’t really know what they’re talking about,” Brigitte Bandit, an Austin drag queen who often performs as Dolly Parton, said in an interview. She gets rude comments on social media describing her as a “man in a dress.” In fact, she was born female and now identifies as nonbinary.

In her shows, Bandit often makes reference to the current attacks on drag queens. At one recent performance, she held up a sign with the words: “WHATS ACTUALLY HARMING TX KIDS.”

“GUN VIOLENCE” / “TX’S UNDERFUNDED SCHOOLS” / “1/5 OF TX KIDS ARE LIVING IN POVERTY,” subsequent signs read. She lip-synced to “Harper Valley PTA,” a song about a mother who is scolded by a parent-teacher association for her lifestyle choices.

Drag supporters and critics agree on one thing: The debate around these shows is about much more than drag.

One article in City Journal, a publication run by the conservative Manhattan Institute, described drag as an “ideology” started in “sex dungeons of San Francisco.” Its goal, the article argued, is to undermine “middle-class family life.”

Drag prompts outrage from some conservatives because it “challenges our socialized conceptions of what gender is in this really playful and fun way that’s so disarming,” said Gooch, the Equality Texas spokesperson.

“Drag performances aren’t just happening at gay bars. They’re happening at coffee shops. They’re happening at theaters,” he said. Hosting a drag show is “a very public way for community members and businesses to signal, ‘This is a safe place.’”

Growing up, Y’vonna was "a super shy kid." That started to change in middle school, when she got involved with a youth performing arts group.

She discovered she loved being on-stage. When she first saw a drag queen, she thought: “Woah, I could look like that.”

“One Halloween night I dressed up,” she said. “I got a wig from my mother. I did my make-up and performed. I just fell in love with it. That was the day Y’vonna was born.”

Y’vonna, who is nonbinary, still uses her birth name, Laurence Thigpen. That’s what co-workers call her at Dairy Queen, where she works a day job to pay the bills and save up for costumes.

Laurence is Y’vonna without the makeup. Y’vonna is Laurence when the sun goes down. She isn’t too attached to the idea of gender. Her pronouns are he, she, they, whatever.

For as long as concepts of gender have existed, there have been people who didn’t fit neatly into a male-female binary, or who at least had some fun with it. There are the hijras of South Asia, the mahu of Hawaii, the “two-spirit” people of the American Southwest.

Many drag queens trace the start of modern drag to counterculture and LGBTQ+ movements of the mid-20th century — though similar practices have existed for much longer. Ancient Romans and Greeks cross-dressed and bent gender. In the 1800s, after the U.S. Civil War, a former slave hosted drag balls in Washington, D.C.

Modern drag is hard to pigeonhole. It can have aspects of burlesque, gymnastics, comedy and performance art.

One judge at Oilcan Harry's on Monday, the drag queen Ritzy Bitz, offered a simple definition.

“Drag is therapy,” she told the audience again and again.

A rich cultural history

Long after the birth of modern drag around the 1960s and ‘70s, gay sex was still illegal in much of the country. Texas’ anti-sodomy law persisted until 2003, when Supreme Court overturned it with its decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

Drag Queen Story Hour, in which drag queens read books about love and acceptance to children, is even more recent. Started by activists in San Francisco in 2015, its goal is to give children “glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models,” according to the group’s website.

Drag queens started appearing not just in night clubs but in libraries and community centers. Now, amid wild accusations of child abuse, moral conservatives want to push the subculture back out of public life.

Performer Franky L'Amour performs as a jester during the "Grackle Games" drag competition. Franky's pronouns out-of-costume are he and they. In drag, he joked in an interview, "I always prefer 'it.'" (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)
Performer Franky L'Amour performs as a jester during the "Grackle Games" drag competition. Franky's pronouns out-of-costume are he and they. In drag, he joked in an interview, "I always prefer 'it.'" (Kirk McDaniel/Courthouse News)

“The sexualization of kids is an incredible threat,” Jared Patterson, the author of one proposed anti-drag bill in Texas, said on social media last year. “We [will] put into place protections for Texas children against sick adults.”

Patterson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Maxine LaQueene, a prominent local drag queen who bills herself as “the suspiciously large trans woman of Austin, Texas,” has a nuanced take on when drag is appropriate for children.

“Drag shows are mostly for adults,” she said. A couple weeks ago, she had to kick a couple with a child out of an 18+ event. She occasionally finds herself chiding other queens: “This is a kids’ event, let’s not wear a slutty dress.”

Still, LaQueene doesn’t think most critics are acting in good faith. In an era of smartphones and social media, young people have easy access to what she calls “heterosexual grooming content.”

Fears about drag shows, LaQueene said, are part of a “witch hunt” in which trans and gender nonconforming people are “immediately sexualized” by self-appointed “morality police.”

“These extremist groups are clearly not happy with the lives they are living,” she said. “They’ve grown up in spaces that don’t allow them to express themselves.”

The judges at Oilcan Harry’s on Monday were impressed with Y’vonna’s performance. “I wasn’t sure what to expect tonight,” one said. It took confidence, she added, to do such a subdued performance. “You’re wonderful and amazing.”

Y’vonna teared up as the judges gave feedback. Lady Grackle asked her why she picked "Happier Than Ever."

“My last relationship was toxic and physical,” Y’vonna said. “I was finally strong enough to end it.” The audience cheered.

At 21, Y’vonna doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the people who accuse drag queens of grooming children.

“I’m not a political person,” she said in an interview. “I don’t always watch the news.” Instead, she thinks about her next act, her next costume, how she’ll afford her supplies. She hopes that by the end of the year, she’ll be able to quit her day job and live off of drag full time.

Recently, Y’vonna has started attending some Pride and Black Lives Matter events.

“I’m in drag, and I’m a person of color,” she said. “There’s so many people saying, ‘You need to speak up, you need to spread the word and show that drag is nothing but fun.’” When people tell her this, she bristles a little: “I’m 21 years old. Let me live my life before I do all that.”

Still, when she thinks about the rhetoric around drag, she can’t help but get upset. “For people to push drag down and to try to get rid of it — it’s so insane to me.”

“We’re just trying to live our lives the same as you are: happy and healthy,” she added. “The way I see it, the fight’s never going to stop." She’ll keep dancing in the meantime.