When I was young, I went to what was presumably a Halloween party, where one of the boys was dressed as a girl. We (yes, me too) were ruthlessly rude to him, so much so I can still recall him crying. It was a dark day that was supposed to be bright.
As a young adult, my friends and I came across a drag queen in a downtown Washington, D.C. bar late one evening, and mercilessly taunted him. I will never forget how awful I felt -- and still feel -- and always wondered if I had been scolded for teasing the boy dressed as a girl, would I have tried to stop the harassing of the drag queen? Back when I was a kid, and even a young adult, drag queens were almost unheard of, underground, mystical figures with fictional degenerate reputations. Sadly, they were looked at as freaks.
Thankfully, times have changed, and drag queens are finally gaining acceptance; for the most part. American Idol featured drag queen Ada Vox, who finished in the top 10. RuPaul's Drag Race has gone mainstream on VH1, and there's nothing more memorable than a weekend drag bottomless brunch (at least as much as can be remembered)! Adults are appreciating the vitality of drag, and now children are getting the opportunity to enjoy it too. Kids and drag queens have been in the news lately, some of it good, some of it controversial, but all of it putting children in sort of a tug-of-war between two warring sides.
This month, The New York Times ran a story in its trendy "Style" section about the growing number of drag tweens. The story features a 12-year old drag star named Desmond Napoles, who has participated for three years in a row at RuPaul's DragCon. RuPaul calls Desmond "the future of America." However, not everyone was thrilled with the story. Conservative outlets like the Washington Times accused the gray lady of "glorifying kiddie drag." I won't link to the article here. A story like that doesn't deserve additional clicks.
And a church in California, outside of San Diego, whose pastor protested a local library's decision to offer "Drag Queen Reading Hour" was vandalized this month, upsetting the delicate balance between acceptance and rejection when it comes to kids and drag queens. The reading hour went ahead at the Chula Public Library last week, with 300 kids and parents inside enjoying the show, and scores of protesters loudly objecting outside.
In a reverse move, and one that was much more peaceful, but not without controversy, a church in Texas recently stepped in to offer "Drag Queen Story Time" when city officials in suburban Austin cancelled the event at their local library. Drag Queen reading hours are catching on, but are parents? Why are some parents still reluctant to expose their kids to drag queens? And if they're not reluctant, how do you introduce your kids to the world of drag? Is there an appropriate age? Do you prepare them for "the meeting" or do you let them go in without any preconceived notions? How do you respond to kids who might be curious about drag?
For answers to these questions, I sought out an expert. David Burtka is the producer of the HBO documentary Wig, actor, author and parent. He and his husband, Neil Patrick Harris, are not only rock-solid supporters of the drag community, but they have integrated drag into the lives of their two kids, Harper and Gideon.
For the family, the drag experience started when Neil starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. He went on to win a Tony for the role, and in the process, the kids went to see their dad perform.
"The kids were three- or four-years-old the first time they saw a man in drag, and it was definitely different for them since they were watching their papa do his job," David recalled. "We didn't make a big deal about it, so in turn it wasn't a big deal for them."
David firmly believes that there is not an appropriate age to introduce kids to drag.
"I don't see what's wrong with it, as long as the drag queen isn't rude or raunchy," David said. "We've been exposing our kids to drag since Neil's Hedwig days, and we're proud of it. Drag is a celebration of life and embracing differences. Shouldn't we teach the kids of today to be who they are, and to be proud of who they are throughout their lives? Drag is so much more than just a man in women's clothes and make-up."
To that end, David and Neil feel that if they didn't expose the kids to drag, they'd be missing something. "Drag queens aren't hurting the kids. If anything, I think it's hurting the kids if you don't expose them. One of our best friends is the incredible Willam Belli. We're also close with Lady Bunny, who was the fabulous DJ at my book launch party. And Marti Gould-Cummings was included in my book, Life is a Party. These three, and so many others, have been to our house for parties. The kids adore them, and their lives are so much fuller because of it."
A YouTube video of Marti singing Baby Shark to a toddler went viral earlier this year. An outspoken advocate for LGBTQ youth, and a candidate for New York city council, Marti particularly enjoys performing for kids since they have "...no judgement.
"It is such a gift because kids are so excited to just see a show," Marti explained. "Kids being exposed to drag opens them up to self-expression, self-esteem, confidence, and being open hearted and open minded toward others. Plus, they are having so much fun with each other."
Marti is quick to point out that children should attend a drag show only if it's age appropriate. "Sometimes, parents may feel that drag is for adults only because of the nature that is usually associated with late night venues, but more and more drag events are geared toward children. Drag brunch for kids, drag queen story hour, drag daytime events are all good for kids, and I love to watch parents sharing that joyful experience with their children."
When I asked David, as a parent, if the kids had any questions about their shared experiences with drag queens, he said that they really didn't, except "...one of them asked me how Lady Bunny carries all those heavy wigs on her head. I actually didn't have a response for that!"
Speaking of wigs, David and his husband just produced the recently released HBO documentary Wigthat spotlights the art of drag and is centered on New York's recent Wigstock concert. "I went to the original Wigstocks, and fell in love with drag and the drag personalities. That is why Neil and I brought back the Wigstock festival and produced the documentary."
David clarified that while the kids helped plan Wigstock, they did not see the film. "Because Drag queens were born out of late-night entertainment, their jokes can be raunchy and inappropriate, but that doesn't mean they don't know how to be appropriate around kids. Some of the narrative in Wig is racy and meant for adult audiences, but I'm proud of it and know that when the kids are older, and bump into it, I will be excited to hear about their enlightened perspectives."
When we discussed all the turmoil around the Times article about tween drag and the fuss around drag reading hours, David seemed disappointed that there is still some trepidation and misplaced fear about the drag community. "I think the biggest reason for most people's anxiety about drag queens is that they have not spent much time with a drag queen. If you got to know them you would see how great they truly are. Drag is a part of our LGBTQ culture, and it's a part that I love and identify with. It would be wrong to exclude my kids from knowing and embracing it."
He's right. They are incredibly talented, and they are trying to live their lives, and in the process, brighten the lives of those around them. That's the message parents should be communicating to their kids, at any age. It's all about acceptance and being loved for who you are. Unfortunately, I can't go back and apologize to the little boy I made cry or to the first drag queen I encountered. And maybe some of us have similar stories with similar regret. But in whatever way we can, we need to let kids -- and especially parents -- know that ridicule and fright are not the way forward, and that it's ok for kids to bask in the glow of drag sunshine.
JohnCasey is a PR professional and an Adjunct Professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.