What is Drag, Exactly?
Drag is the practice of wearing/affecting the clothing, hairstyles, facial hair (or lack thereof), makeup and stereotypical mannerisms of the opposite biological sex as traditionally understood by practitioners. The practice is at least as old as human society and, through history, has been the subject of aesthetic interest, religious fetishization/ritual as well as taboo and banning depending on location, era and prevailing religious sensibilities.
What is the Point or Meaning of Drag in the Modern Era?
Drag dress-up means different things to different practitioners in the modern era, according to published research. Some general themes emerge, however. Individuals develop an enthusiasm for drag for one or more of the following reasons:
- To indulge a fascination with or affinity for clothing, hair and make-up as traditionally practiced by (usually) attractive and glamorous examples of the opposite sex—These are persona-creators, impersonators and hobbyists; these people do not usually have any deep identity or sexuality-related connection to the practices of drag and are even in some rare instances heterosexual. Drag queens/kings are usually gay or lesbian but drag is not a gay or lesbian behavior, necessarily. (Notes: Joe Jeffreys, an historian who has studied drag, says that this type of drag is defined by “ironic distance,” meaning that the dress up is as much an ANALYSIS or STUDY of feminine/masculine dress, movement, speech patterns as they are the adoption or impersonation of them. Some gender-critical feminists—Kathleen Lowrey and Meghan Murphy of Canada, for instance—feel that in the case of males who dress in drag as females, this distance is a social dominance-based one, akin to the analytical distance a bug collector keeps from his/her specimens and drag is thus more like blackface or mockery than homage.)
- To more fully express a personal identity they feel has elements that better align with something other than the individual’s “assigned” gender without the deeper commitment of full-time identity—These are partial or “part-time” gender questioners and/or gay men with an affinity for “traditional femininity” or lesbians with an affinity for “traditional masculinity”;
- As part of the fetishizing of heterosexual desire; these are gay/lesbian men or women who try to be as “convincing” and alluring in their “opposite sex” dress, make-up and, mannerisms as possible so as to create some attraction in men/women who otherwise have no conscious or open homosexual tendencies.
- “Trying it on” publicly as a sort of intermediate or transitional step involved in gender reassignment; to deepen/ensure the individual’s extent of personal connection to and comfort with a “reassigned” gender identity before moving forward with more substantial medical or surgical measures.
Drag vs. Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dress Behavior
The point of “drag” is external consumption, which is a key difference between both transgender people and “cross dressers” versus “drag queens.” A man who dons very convincing, traditionally feminine accoutrements and thereby attains a high degree of “womanly” physical beauty and art but does not purposely make himself visible to a viewer or viewers could not rightly be called a “drag queen.” Drag involves visibility for the purposes of entertaining or engaging with an audience in a spirit of fun, sometimes erotically charged, sometimes not. Cross dressers or transgender people, on the other hand, wear clothing traditionally associated with the opposite sex for reasons of personal psychosexual satisfaction/realized personal identity and not entertainment. Both cross-dressing and the wearing of opposite-sex clothing by a transgender person are usually private, non-public behaviors (or, at least, not meant primarily for public consumption) as opposed to the more purely performative and theatrical nature of drag.
Drag and Child Audiences: Dearth of Research and Unconvincing Arguments
As far as I can find as of this writing, no studies on the effects that viewing “drag performers” or “drag shows” might have on the psychological development of children have been done by ideologically disengaged and objective researchers. Conservative and religious groups insist it is harmful while gay or gay-friendly groups insist it is not. Conservatives point to cases where drag performers who were sex offenders dodged detection and ended up in rooms full of children, while some in the pro-drag crowd insist that allowing children to see drag shows may prevent them from committing suicide! I find neither side’s arguments very convincing or serious, peppered as they are with “best case” and “worst case” scenarios made by people with obvious agendas. Tough cases make bad law, and all that.
On the one hand, I struggle to imagine how viewing a person dancing, singing, and reading aloud while wearing clothing traditionally associated with the wearer’s opposite sex would cause emotional harm to the young viewer. On the other hand, I find it equally hard to believe that programming which, whether intentionally or not, introduces or reinforces the notion to children that nothing presupposed about oneself or others—even their apparent gender– can be taken at face value or that there is no meaning at all to “face value” in the first place in terms of gender can be considered educational or enriching enough for a public library to spend public money on it. The notion that such programming might be confusing to a very young audience can only be dismissed with fingers crossed.
Even if the viewing of drag performances could be conclusively demonstrated to be psychologically and emotionally reassuring to gender-questioning or gender-confused children, it is highly debatable and certainly not yet settled whether it is a public library’s role to facilitate such therapeutic or acculturating exposure. There is no argument that can be made for library-sponsored drag events that does not appeal at least in part to the therapeutic or psychosocial benefit it might afford some subset of the audience. Drag researchers have reported that many performers do, in fact, believe that drag performance is a political tool to increase visibility and acceptance for those who do not conform to the “gender binary.”
It is up to individual libraries to decide whether these sorts of “affirmations” should be part of their mission and any argument that public libraries should or must be doing this sort of programming to fulfill their missions should be recognized as a position in an ongoing debate, not a professional decree or ethical imperative.
Parents or caregivers who think it is beneficial to show live or in-person examples of drag performance to minor children can very likely find opportunities in other venues or through other community organizations and the public library need not serve that purpose.
Juvenile-Audience Alternatives to “Drag Queen Story Time”
Public library staffs and boards who insist that libraries must or should offer programming which allows for adult-sanctioned questioning of stereotypical gender roles and/or the biological determination of gender would do well to consider “free play” approaches, such as making boxes or piles of “dress up” clothes, wigs, etc. available with no labelling or mentoring as to the gender-propriety of any attending child’s choices or experimentation. Such a non-judgmental setting is prone to lead to experimentation without problematic implication (as is the case with some male “gamers” purposely creating and using apparently female avatars and vice-versa.) If a male child were to put on an available dress and a female child were to put on a tie and jacket in such a program, library staff would simply observe the play and monitor for safety and order, while seeking to have as little INFLUENCE as possible on the proceedings except perhaps to help with snaps, buttons or zippers. Such a program is arguably more developmentally friendly and certainly relies less on passive observation.
Recommendation for the Neutral Public Library
In my view, a neutral public library should not use public money or taxpayer resources to directly fund, sponsor or promote drag performances or activities intended for juvenile audiences. However, non-profit organizations that do sponsor and/or support drag performers or drag-related programs can use the bookable gathering spaces and appurtenances of the library for their presentations or events; such organizations should not be dissuaded or deterred from considering the public library as a potential venue, provided the library’s non-sponsoring stance is clear and carefully maintained by both parties. Further, there should be no policing by staff of the ages of those who attend, provided those who need supervision are accompanied by caregivers and all attendees and performers adhere to the patron conduct policy.
A neutral public library should consider drag culture programming and events for adult audiences as generally safe ground, provided all attendees and performers adhere to all points of the patron conduct policy, including the disallowed “states of inappropriate undress” (if such a rule is in place). A disclaimer related to intended audience could be published in all PR, depending on the nature of the program’s content, but it would not fall to library staff to enforce this for minors attending with adult accompaniment, any more that staff would question an adult patron bringing a minor child to view an “R”-rated film at an adult library program.
It is conceivable that even “drag-queen-uncertain” audiences would find an exercise like learning to do makeup or facial alteration art so as to look more feminine/beautiful or masculine/handsome a fun and liberating experience not as threatening as something like fully-dressed and made-up drag queens interacting with children. Something like a “Q&A With A Drag Queen” or “Meet a Drag Queen” program might also lend the layer of disengagement needed to lessen the discomfort that may accompany drag programs for general audiences.
 https://cornerstone.lib.mnsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1728&context=etds (p.74)
 Morie, J. F. (2007). Playing Dress-Up: Costumes, Roleplay and Imagination. Philosophy of Computer Games.