Not Just Entertainment: Drag as Community Activism

Drag performers have always been mixing art with the cause of creating a better world.

Atlanta is, of course, the drag capital of the southeastern United States, with a drag scene that is rivaled only by cities like New York and San Francisco. The city is home to innumerable drag queens and kings from diverse backgrounds, as well as the longest running drag queen troupe in the country, the Armorettes.

The Armorettes were founded 41 years ago in 1979, taking their name from the gay club the Armory, in order to raise money for HIV/AIDS care. At the time, AIDS had only just arrived in the United States and was referred to as “Gay Related Immune Deficiency,” or “GRID,” and the institutions tasked with public health largely dismissed concerns about the then-mysterious virus as it became an epidemic. The LGBTQ community had to pool its resources to confront the killer plague on its own, while activists like Larry Kramer dedicated themselves to demanding the federal government act. Community fundraising, through groups like the Armorettes, was crucial to community survival.

The Armory club no longer stands, having been replaced by an apartment building, but the Armorettes are still thriving and posting live shows on their Facebook page during this pandemic.

Though the HIV/AIDS pandemic is no longer at its height, Georgia has the highest rate of people living with HIV of any state in the country, according to the CDC.

Other Atlanta drag performers have their causes that they perform in support of.

Atlanta drag queen, SHI, has been named a drag ambassador for Drag Out the Vote, a national, nonpartisan, voter registration organization that seeks to use drag performances to encourage voter turnout.

On its website, Drag Out the Vote cites a 2019 study showing that one-fifth of the LGBTQ community eligible to vote is not registered to do so. According the study, there are currently 9 million registered LGBTQ voters. While that number is relatively small in terms of the scale of the U.S. electorate, in a close election LGBTQ turnout rates could be decisive.

Drag’s involvement in social causes has its roots in a long history of drag performers engaging in activism to demand that LGBTQ equality be recognized and respected.

The first modern drag queen, William Dorsey Swann, was a Black gay man and former slave.

Swann, who was known as “the Queen,” hosted drag balls in Washington, D.C. beginning in the 1880s, where other Black gay men would come in drag to have a party, risking arrest and police raids.

Swann’s drag balls would become the locus of the first LGBTQ political organizing in opposition to police repression in the aftermath of a police raid that sent Swann to prison on the false charge of maintaining a brothel.

Swann’s drag balls would become a template for the subsequent development of the cultural form of the drag performance, while the organized response against the oppression Swann and others who attended the balls faced would become some of the first instances of LGBTQ action for equality.

In the 20th century, drag performers would remain at the forefront of the LGBTQ political action in the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and the Stonewall rebellion. In the wake of the latter, Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman and drag performer, would co-found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries — or STAR for short — alongside fellow trans woman and drag queen Sylvia Rivera.

Today, drag remains transgressive for its blurring of gender boundaries, even though it is no longer criminalized in the United States. Programs like Drag Queen Story Hour––which is aimed at providing positive LGBTQ role models for children as well as promoting tolerance — are still targeted by homophobic groups, and in some nations, like Russia, drag remains illegal.

Last year, drag queen Miss Terra Cotta Sugarbaker was invited to do a drag queen story hour in the Alpharetta branch of the Fulton County library system, but faced a homophobic backlash and the library system canceled the event. In response, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms invited Miss Sugarbaker to do Drag Queen Story Hour at Atlanta city hall.

In October, Georgia Voice published an article about Drag Queen Story Hour at Posman Books, including an interview with drag queen and comedian Brent Star. Star spoke about the event as an ideal setting for introducing kids to drag queens. As Conswella Bennet wrote: “Brent said young children are going to find out about drag queens, so ‘what better way to introduce them to drag queens than with the story hour with their parents.’”

While the pandemic has disrupted drag shows everywhere, we can reliably expect that so long as there are drag queens and kings, drag activism will continue.