Drag queens are entitled to live their lives as they please and to perform for any adult (emphasis on adult) who wants to watch them

Brian GiesbrechtHarris Glenn Milstead (1945-1988), known by his stage name, Divine, was a famous American drag queen. Milstead particularly loved to dress up as actress Elizabeth Taylor. He achieved cult-like status after he teamed up with legendary filmmaker John Waters, with iconic movies like Pink Flamingos and Hairspray cementing his reputation.

Those movies were unusual, but memorable. Milstead died in his sleep at age 42. The movies he appeared in are still being watched today.

But here’s the thing: Those movies, and all of Divine’s performances, were meant for adult audiences. It was understood that watching a man dressed up in a sexualized woman’s costume was inappropriate for children. That was not a sign of disrespect to men who chose the drag queen lifestyle. It was simply a commonsense recognition that drag shows were for adults.

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But not so today. For reasons that are not clear, what was understood by everybody to be something for adults only is now being heavily promoted as family entertainment. City councils, governments, libraries, and even hockey leagues are promoting drag events while censuring those who disagree with them.

An Ontario NDP lawmaker, for example, has proposed legislation to make it illegal for anyone to effectively protest “drag queen story hours,” similar to the Calgary bylaw that has already been passed. Meanwhile, the governments promote drag events.

How did such a thing happen?

How can our world suddenly change from one where drag shows were fringe adult entertainment to one when they are promoted by politicians as family entertainment?

I first encountered this odd development at a rural music festival my wife and I attend every summer. The audience and performers are mainly farmers and town dwellers, with a smattering of city visitors. The entertainment is the usual festival music mix.

And that’s exactly what we were enjoying last summer. But, to our astonishment, a half dozen drag queens took to the stage. They were an assortment of body styles and weights, but all were dressed in hyper-sexualized women’s costumes, some sporting enormous fake breasts. They danced provocatively and strutted on the stage for a very long hour.

Some in the audience knew what to expect and cheered them on. But many were like us – silent and bewildered by what we were seeing. There were lots of children in the crowd. I’m not sure exactly what they thought when they saw these men in outrageous women’s costumes, but we were certainly uncomfortable for the children.

And sad for them. This was not something that children should be exposed to. Childhood should be free of sexual things. All of that will happen soon enough. My wife and I found the experience unsettling.

It also occurred to me that the rural folks seeing this happen would not have remained silent if sexy women in sexy costumes had taken the stage and insisted on dancing provocatively in front of their children. Why is it any more acceptable if the people doing the provocative dancing are men dressed in sexy women’s clothing?

By coincidence, shortly after that weekend festival, I had my second exposure to drag queens. I was at a local pub enjoying a beer when a drag queen began performing. He was a muscular giant dressed in fishnet stockings, garter belt and gigantic fake breasts. But, this time, I had no problem with it. Children aren’t allowed in pubs. I chose to move to the outdoor patio to enjoy my beer rather than watch him perform. Others chose to watch.

No problem.

And that should be the difference. Drag queens are entitled to live their lives as they please and to perform for any adult who wants to watch them. But it is adult entertainment.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting any form of restrictions on drag shows. Adults have a right to watch them. And parents have the right to decide who can or cannot read stories to their children. What is wrong is for drag queen story hours, drag camps, or other drag celebrations to be promoted as family entertainment by any level of government (or quasi-government organizations like the CBC) and the silencing of parents who believe this is wrong. This includes holding drag events in public places, like libraries, and/or subsidizing or promoting these events.

No parent should feel pressure from any level of government to have their children attend or participate in drag events. Parents should decide what is best for their children.

And if it is really “inclusivity” that politicians are after, then they can’t achieve that goal by passing legislation that excludes and even criminalizes those who have legitimate parental concerns. Similarly, if librarians believe that their mandate requires them to make their spaces available for drag queen story hours, they must also make them available to parents who believe such events confuse and sexualize children.

Harry Milstead entertained many thousands of adults during his storied career. But he never performed for children.

He understood that his act was for adults.

Brian Giesbrecht, a retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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