Photo: World War II soldiers perform in drag shows for God and country.
Little did I realize that I was being groomed.
And of all places, it occurred in small town Collierville in the 1960s.
As a student at Collierville school, I attended “fashion shows” that were eagerly awaited each year.
They were drag shows.
They were held to raise money for a school-related cause.
The drag queens on stage were students’ fathers who wore wigs, dresses, hats, and make-up.
It was good fun. That’s the description that applies to most drag shows, contrary to right wing extremists’ opinions that they are over-sexualized exhibitions designed to warp the minds of children.
End of the Road
If it could be said that my mind was warped in those days, it wasn’t caused by drag shows, but by living in Collierville at a time when the school was totally White and Black kids and their parents were largely invisible.
It was a reality emphasized for me when I lived outside Collierville and caught the bus to school.
Often, I joined the African American student about my age at the end of the drive. I took a bus 15 minutes and six miles away to a two-story brick school that housed every grade from the first to the twelfth.
About the time I boarded my bus, my African American neighbor would get on his and ride about 45 minutes to his school.
Some Things Never Change
Segregation was the reality of the Shelby County Schools District in 1960. It seems a light year ago although even today, the downtown park is still laid out in the pattern of the Confederate flag and there’s still a monument erected in 1940 by Daughters of the Confederacy “in memory of our Southern heroes.”
These days, City Hall winks at this fact while there are probably thousands of transplants to the town who actually consider Confederate soldiers as traitors, not to mention the 12 percent of the town’s population that is African America.
But in the 1960s, the traitors were still portrayed in school history classes as nobly defending the Southern way of life, which just happened to include owning people as property and building wealth with whips and exploitation.
Drag Shows at School
It was in this conservative, WASPy, White-centric, God-fearing environment that drag shows were held at on the auditorium stage in our school. It was a highly popular event that packed the school auditorium as fathers of friends impersonated women with style.
Like drag shows today, it was enjoyable entertainment. No one in Collierville at the time would ever have admitted to being gay – it would have been tantamount to social death in the small town.
The men in drag on the stage were not merely passive models. They clearly enjoyed the chance to parade and strut across the stage while the audience cheered wildly.
There were church deacons, business owners, barbers, prominent citizens, and others. Each person seriously put together his dress, hat, and jewelry.
In other words, the atmosphere was no different than drag shows today or have been throughout history. It was entertainment.
Drag Shows for Patriotism
It’s well-known that women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays were played by men in drag. Less known are the so-called “girly” soldier shows during World War II when GIs impersonated women in highly choreographed shows. There were even some by Irving Berlin and others with Gypsy Rose Lee Impersonators, all done in patriotic support of the war effort. (See photo above.)
In other words, drag shows have a lengthy and illustrious history, one skewed today to fit the latest battle in the ever-escalating slash-and-burn culture wars of the extreme right. Suddenly, today, after centuries, the purpose of drag shows is not to entertain but is said to groom children to become gay, trans, or whatever other charge extremists can use to diminish people who aren’t like them.
The fact that so many Christians revel in the opportunity to attack some of God’s children is anathema to WWJD. Suddenly, bromides like “it’s part of God’s plan” or “God don’t make no mistakes” fade in the face of the mandate for individuals to prove they are true.
Meanwhile, in Collierville High School’s English classes, our award-winning teacher was introducing us to great novels of the day – Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, A Separate Peace, To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451. She also recommended books for me to read – Manchild in the Promised Land, Catcher in the Rye, and 1984.
All these are today on the banned books list that Christian nationalists seem to expand by the week. As our English teacher explained it, her job was not just to teach us how to write, but to encourage us to think for ourselves.
The Fourth R
It is this ability to reason that is most under attack today by those who use Christianity as a cudgel to beat others, justifying a superiority to judge others, and to do all they can to force students into a preconceived mold like the one advanced by Hillsdale College as it hoped to open 100 “classical” charter schools in Tennessee.
Calling it classical makes it no less mind-numbing in its whitewashed American history purporting to show that racism is largely a figment of Black activists and that White Americans were routinely benevolent.
Most of all, the culture warriors operate on the theory that children can be stamped out like widgets in the assembly line.
Today, the three traditional R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic – is joined by a fourth R – reasoning. It’s that R that has made the U.S. a leader in innovation, in technological breakthroughs, and the world’s oldest democracy.
That’s the ultimate tragedy of the culture wars. The extremists are pursuing a dumbing down of American public education. They propose a classroom where a student is never made uncomfortable or challenged. They propose a curriculum that tells students a version of the facts and shadings of the truth so parents too can avoid their own critical thinking.
In doing this, parents fail their ultimate responsibility – to prepare their children to succeed in the world outside the home. By vilifying drag shows, downplaying African American history, and dividing the country into people they like and people they don’t, these parents’ children are likely to be shocked by a country characterized by its diversity – racial, cultural, geographic, points of view.
All in all, the drag shows of my high school years did me no harm and they prepared me to keep those by professionals in perspective – as entertainment rather than as the downfall of American democracy.
In truth, the downfall of our democracy, if it comes, will come from those attacking drag shows, trans children, and American institutions and using them to fuel culture wars that divide us and distract us from things that actually matter.
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