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Letitia James: N.Y. Attorney General Weighs in on Drag Queens and Donald Trump

Letitia James: N.Y. Attorney General Weighs in on Drag Queens and Donald Trump

Letitia James

Not your traditional attorney general, James considers fighting for us and other marginalized communities more important than taking on Donald Trump.

Last month, New York State Attorney General Letitia James hosted a drag story event in New York City. And it was a big deal. It was the first-of-its-kind Drag Story Hour Read-a-Thon for families across the city, with over 200 guests experiencing four back-to-back story hours hosted by the drag kings, queens, and royalty of Drag Story Hour NYC.

If James had hosted this same event or just a drag reading hour two years ago or even a year one, it wouldn’t have required a press release, media coverage, and a flurry of endorsements she secured from city and state leaders in support of drag reading hours.

If you live in New York City, drag shows, drag reading hours, and drag brunches have been commonplace for years, but there’s a big distinction between shows, brunches, and reading hours, with the last one being for kids and the first two for adults. However, the extreme right has gone bonkers about queens, using them wrongly as a political wedge issue, with bills to restrict drag performances introduced in at least 17 states. Tennessee was the first to pass one.

James also made news this month by co-leading a coalition of 18 attorneys general to support a student challenging a West Virginia law that bars transgender students from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. The student, B.P.J., was prohibited from joining her school’s girls’ cross-country and track teams and filed a lawsuit against the board of education. The attorneys general argue that the sole purpose of the West Virginia law is to exclude and stigmatize transgender students like B.P.J. and therefore it clearly violates her right to equal protection under the law.

James is no stranger to the LGBTQ+ community. She has long fought for the rights of transgender students and people and has been a leader in supporting queer causes. Last month, she called out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for violating public university students’ right to privacy over his request for information on those receiving gender-affirming care.

Last December, James led a multistate coalition of attorneys general to support equal access to gender-affirming care in West Virginia. In November, she led another coalition of attorneys general to support transgender students seeking to participate in sex-segregated school sports consistent with their gender identity in Indiana.

James has led or co-led coalitions of attorneys general to challenge policies prohibiting transgender students from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity in Indiana, Florida, and Virginia.

And nationally, James is probably best known for her civil suit against Donald Trump over years of financial fraud, accusing him of falsely inflating his worth by billions of dollars to further enrich himself and cheat the system.

In a wide-ranging interview, James discussed the reasons and repercussions of her drag story hour, her fight specifically for trans rights, and her civil case against Trump.

From a legal perspective, aren’t these anti-drag laws illegal? They’re not addressing any crime, and at the very least, aren’t they nearly impossible to enforce?
They have nothing to do with the law. This is all about creating a culture war. It’s just party grievances by the extreme right, and these bills do nothing in the way of addressing the needs of the American people.

How has the reaction been to the event you sponsored several weeks ago?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive. No question about it. The reason I did it was because two city New York City councilmen, Erik Bottcher in Manhattan and Shekar Krishnan of Queens, were threatened for supporting drag reading hours. Their homes and offices were vandalized, and they received antigay slurs and threats, so it was time to come to their support and stand up to these protesters and do the right thing.

Did you encounter any protests personally?
Yes. One incident stands out. After I held the drag-a-thon, I was returning from a conference in Colorado and walking through LaGuardia Airport when two men approached me and started questioning me about why I would sponsor a drag reading. Their primary questions were around the fact that they thought drag queens were trying to sexualize young kids and why public funds should be spent on them. I asked them, “Have you ever attended a drag reading hour?’ And they sort of stuttered and changed the subject. Then I asked them, "What do you have against literacy?’" Again, they had no answer and just went back on talking points about public funding. I just thought that conversation encapsulated what’s wrong.

So many people are just ignorant of the facts, and instead of trying to understand the truth, they seek to spread hate and division. All we were trying to do with the drag-a-thon was promote literacy, joy, and laughter, and we succeeded.

Can you describe a bit about your work on transgender rights, particularly the coalition of state attorneys general you’re helping to lead in support of a trans athlete in West Virginia?
Earlier today, I was reading about the Republican governors of Indiana and Idaho signing bills into law banning gender-affirming care for minors, and how states are racing to restrict transgender health care and threaten LGBTQ+ rights. Just like the drag queen bills, these are purely political and only seek to spread hate and misinformation, which is extremely dangerous. These youth need equal access to health and gender-affirming care. All you're doing is putting more pressure on trans kids, who already have enough to deal with. It just puts these kids in more danger of committing suicide, doing harm to themselves, and severely affecting their mental health. These kids deserve so much better. I want them to be happy and live their best lives, and that’s why I’ve been working to try and help fight these hateful laws.

Why do you think it is so important to be so public about standing up for trans rights, and others like Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary of Health Admiral Rachel Levine being so visible?
Trans youth need to see her and hear from me and others in a position of influence. I always say you cannot be what you cannot see. And that goes for the trans community. And other marginalized communities like Latinos and African Americans. When they see people like themselves in positions of power, people like me, that gives them hope.

Turning to your civil case against Trump, many experts this week said that your case might be paused due to the criminal case in Manhattan. Do you think that your case might be delayed?
I heard about that too. We have a firm date, and the judge strongly reaffirmed that date of October 2. It should not interfere with the criminal case, which isn’t expected to start until December.

There’s also been talk that a December start date for the Manhattan criminal case might be pushed back.
I was once a criminal defense attorney, and my guess is that with all the motions being filed in the meantime and all that’s going on, it’s very likely that that trial won’t start until next spring. The bottom line is that the criminal case in Manhattan should not interfere with the state’s civil case.

After his arraignment on Tuesday, Trump gave a rambling speech at Mar-a-Lago, and he spent some time coming after you and your family. Isn’t this an overt threat that needs to be stopped?
It’s not the first time he has come after me and my family, and it most certainly won’t be the last. He’s just … you know, what can I say? He’s protected by the First Amendment, and I don’t know whether the judge will end up issuing a gag order.

Should there be a gag order?
That’s entirely up to the judge. I’m just focused on doing my work, putting my head down, and serving the people of New York.

Trump also said something to the effect that you’re suing him over banks and that what you’re doing is persecution and not an investigation. Can you explain that?
I can’t interpret his words. He is being sued because of 10 years of financial fraud to obtain several economic advantages, including loans, mortgages, and insurance. He inflated his net worth by billions to induce banks to give him favorable terms on loans, to induce insurance companies to provide insurance coverage for higher limits and at lower premiums, and to gain tax benefits, ultimately to get taxed at a lower rate. I’m not going to litigate this case in the media. We will do all our talking in a court of law.

There’s more important work to do?
Yes, there is. It is my job to use the law each day as a sword and a shield, and to stand up and defend the laws of the state of New York. I’m also all about social justice and have maintained that throughout my career.

People have an idea of what an attorney general is, and I like to think that I’m not your traditional or typical AG. I try to engage in social good each day and stand up for marginalized communities and the vulnerable.

That’s why I hosted the drag-a-thon to help shine a light on something that adds value, that spreads joy and love, and also promotes the importance of reading for kids.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.