I find this whole Drag Queen Story Hour debacle to be such a drag…to say the least. The very idea of a drag queen reading books to children in public libraries goes against the whole logic of the art of drag.
Drag originated in turn-of-the-century Europe when men impersonated women by dressing in female clothes and performing exaggerated feminine gestures. Part of the exaggerated feminine gestures performed by these queens often took on a sexual and exhibitionist flavor…hamming up sexualized images of women.
Drag is commonly associated with the broader artistic “sensibility” known as camp. Camp, as Susan Sontag describes it, is a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Drag is a deviant art form, whose taste for exaggeration transgresses the ideals of normalcy by crossing over boundaries of “the natural.”
Drag is meant to unsettle you. Is it really a man? Why does he look so much like a woman? But do real women actually look like that? It’s grotesque. It upsets the comfortable complacency of a polite bourgeois society.
This is why I can’t seem to put together why so many drag queens are interested in reading stories to little kids in public libraries. Have they forgotten their true calling? Sontag comments that camp “is esoteric–something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” This is why most drag shows take place in underground bars. In the pre-Stonewall era, the underground nature of drag shows and balls also served to protect queens from police raids. But even post-Stonewall, the underground, hidden ethos fit the spirit of drag performances–creating an alternate reality that deviates from conventional norms.
Public libraries are hardly conducive to the mission of drag. Often drably decorated, and funded by “the system,” public libraries are horrendously unfabulous. Not to mention the lack of dramatic lighting and blaring sound system, both of which are essential to a quality drag show.
The idea of a drag queen reading a story to children (besides being utterly creepy and scandalous) contradicts the vocation of drag. Children are utterly symbolic of the natural (in the sense of Natural Law)–you need a straight man and woman to make one (at least, before ART came into existence). Also, the innocence and vulnerability of children feed off of the “normalcy” of social conventions like marriage, commitment, and stability.
Drag performances are about perverting the order of nature. They, along with other sexual and social deviants, play a critical social function. The deviant represents the “World”…the flesh…and the unavoidable reality of sin. He reminds us that everyone, even the most prim and proper housewife and breadwinning dad of the perfect family, has a deep-seated desire for more than complacency and comfort. He reminds us of the ugly truth…that however much society attempts to fit us into an orderly mold, humanity still contains this dark, Dionysian force.
That force, when released from repression, puts us in tension with the sinful, the socially unacceptable, the unnatural, the diabolical–lashing out in acts of destruction, violence, and sexual licentiousness…but simultaneously puts us in tension with the transcendent, the sacred, the holy.
The counterpart to the unholy sexual deviant is that of the holy eunuch…or as Marc Andre Raffalovich put it, the “superior invert.” The holy eunuch participates in the larger Christian tradition of celibacy for the Kingdom…which itself deviates from social norms–both those of pagan Rome and those of bourgeois polite society. The celibate God-man overturned previous notions of divinity, humanity, and sexuality. The virgin embodies its own deviant narrative of sexuality (deviating from the ways of the World…that is) which plays a crucial role in giving flesh to the mystery of the Incarnation.
Those whose sexual proclivities don’t align with the order of nature (whether because of “nature” or nurture) have a choice: use their deviation from the norm to give glory to God or to the Enemy (but in glorifying the Enemy, giving witness to the fact that there is a God). Whether “superior” or “inferior,” the invert tears us out of the cozy illusion of neutrality and self-sufficiency. He reminds us that the norms of society, comfort, complacency, and ultimately this earth are not what we are destined for. Whether he chooses to affirm the order of Nature or to walk against it, his mere existence is a sign of that order’s existence. (This was the point I tried to make here about the intersection between “queerness” and sanctity, which so many seem to miss.)
You can’t just be “normal.” You can’t just decide to be a “good person” by force of will. The human attempt to construct an order of benevolence, without making reference to our dependence on a higher order that precedes and possesses us, is futile. We all have to channel that unruly, restless longing in us toward something radical, something Other–which inevitably will shatter the utopian fantasy of a self-sufficient polite society.
God or the devil. The sacred or the diabolical. But for heaven’s sake, not the “normal.”
Blurring the lines between natural and unnatural, which is what Drag Queen Story Hour is ultimately doing, render’s the drag queen’s vocation impotent. Deviancy relies on the clear distinction between nature and artifice, good and evil. The attempt to normalize deviants like drag queens by packaging them as voices of “tolerance, kindness, and self-expression” turns drag into a tool of the “purified,” moralistic establishment. If deviancy is “purified” into a mere form of self-expression, and the truth of one’s identity is determined by his feelings, then the drag queen is no longer a grotesque deviant who unmasks that ineradicable Dionysian force in all of us. Instead, he’s just a nice, funny guy who happen to like wearing flashy dresses…and who has the right to “be himself.”
Drag queens…this is a call to return to the essence of your vocation…and back into the nightclub!