Photo: Servicemen in drag for troops in World War II.
The people of Tennessee need higher incomes, better health care, better funded schools, and so much more. In response, our legislature – considered one of the worst in the country – proves regularly that they deserve the designation.
The latest evidence is that in the face of serious challenges, the Legislature is grooming to pass a law attacking drag shows.
It is said that ignorance is bliss. Our legislators don’t pass for blissful, but God knows they are clearly ignorant.
That is particularly true when it comes to drag shows. They move to restrict what they have never attended to remove parents’ rights to make their own family’s decisions.
Legislators are clearly ignorant of the long, and storied theatrical tradition of men dressing in women’s clothes. This tradition is not characterized by its sexual purposes, but that does not prevent the legislators from the Christian Taliban’s tendency to see everything through a sexual lens.
Dressing in drag on stage dates back centuries – after all, men and boys dressing up in drag to perform the roles of women and girls in Shakespeare’s day.
An early American silent movie included a man in drag as a primary character.
U.S. servicemen dressed in drag to entertain the troops during the Second World War.
Presumably grooming was taking place in vaudeville and early television when comedian Milton Berle dressed in drag.
And what about Cary Grant in I Was A Male-Order Bride?
Or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot?
Or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie?
Or Nathan Lane in The Birdcage?
Or John Barry Humphries performing hilariously as Dame Edna?
Or Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire?
Or Tyler Perry’s movie series starring his character, Madea.
Or for that matter, my high school friends whose fathers dressed in drag to raise money for school projects.
If legislators take their attitude to its logical conclusion, do they plan to ban anyone younger than 18 from going to movies with men in drag? Or will they have to approve all film projects in Tennessee to make sure no children are appearing in scenes with men in drag?
Will legislators ban performances of Shakespeare plays that are historically accurately cast? Will they ban parents from taking their children to see a staging of La Cage aux Folles in public performing arts centers?
Where exactly will Big Brother stop?
Here’s an abridged post from last year:
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, the same 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 in the life of the town.
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.”
It was in this conservative, WASPy, White-centric, God-fearing environment that drag shows were held 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.
The men in drag on stage were no 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 look – his dress, hat, and jewelry.
In other words, the atmosphere was no different than drag shows today or have been throughout history. It was simply 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 drag shows. There were even some written 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 wing evangelicals who see everything through the lens of sexuality.
Suddenly, today, after centuries, legislators say the purpose of drag shows is not to entertain but they are to groom children to become gay, trans, or whoever else extremists can attack 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 away in the face of political culture war attacks by Big Brother Republicans
Meanwhile, in Collierville High School’s English classes in those days, my award-winning teacher was introducing us to great novels like 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, Black Like Me, Catcher in the Rye, and 1984.
They are the kinds of books that make their readers think, which apparently is why they are often on the banned books of Christian nationalists. As our English teacher explained it, her job was not just to teach us how to write, but to encourage us to reason.
The Fourth R
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. 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 role like the one advanced by Hillsdale College as it hopes 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 the imagination of Black activists because White Americans have been routinely benevolent. It also treats instilling tolerance and empathy, core American values, as “woke” concepts aimed at corrupting students’ minds.
Most of all, the culture warriors like those in the Tennessee Legislature operate on the theory that children can be stamped out like widgets in the assembly line. So, to succeed, they have to convince Americans to attack public education and the teachers in it.
After centuries of being America’s competitive difference, public education today is a target for the culture warriors, acting on the delusion that it is a seedbed of socialism and that teachers are the enemy.
That’s the ultimate tragedy of the culture wars. The extremists are pursuing a dumbing down of American public education inspired by a current of anti-intellectualism and their idolizing of right wing European authoritarians.
They claim they are after a classroom where a student – make that White student – is never made uncomfortable or challenged to think. They propose a curriculum that tells students a version of the facts and shadings of the truth in order to create more right wing warriors.
That said, it requires parents to fail their ultimate responsibility – to prepare their children to succeed in the world outside the home, a world of diverse people, diverse thinking, and diverse sexual identities, and in a country characterized by its diversity – racial, cultural, geographic, points of view.
In truth, the downfall of our democracy, if it comes, will come from those attacking drag shows, trans children, LGBTQ Americans, and American institutions to fuel culture wars intended to divide us and distract us from things that actually matter.
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