'It makes me sick': Drag queens become target of increased political attacks in Michigan

Portrait of Raven Divine Cassadine at the Mount Clemens library on June 23, 2022.
Portrait of Raven Divine Cassadine at the Mount Clemens library on June 23, 2022.

Among the many books displayed atop shelves in the children's section of the Mount Clemens Public Library are some with titles like "I'm Not a Girl," "Love is Love" and "Middle School's a Drag."

Joyce Krom, the librarian who designed the section, stands nearby, chatting with her friend and longtime drag performer Raven Divine Cassadine. The pair smile and laugh as they catch up, connecting again after collaborating for years on Drag Queen Storytime events at the Huntington Woods Library in Oakland County.

"I wanted to do it because I wanted to help children know they're not alone. Growing up, I didn't have anyone like me to look at," said Divine Cassadine, a Black trans woman in her 40s, as she reflected on reading to children at these events.

"So now I want to take my talent, my platform to be a good role model for younger people to let them know, 'It's OK. And it gets better on the other side.'"

Despite some resistance, the sessions brought in more than any other at the library, Krom said, with parents clamoring to get on the waiting list. Featuring books like "Be Who You Are" by Todd Parr, Divine Cassadine and Krom focused on the fundamentals of reading, but more broadly on acceptance in a big, diverse world.

Librarian Joyce Krom, 48, of Huntington Woods, left, and Raven Divine Cassadine at the Mount Clemens library on Thursday, June 23, 2022.
Librarian Joyce Krom, 48, of Huntington Woods, left, and Raven Divine Cassadine at the Mount Clemens library on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Krom wants to restart those events in her new Macomb County library home. But events like Drag Queen Storytime could result in arrests under plans from at least two prominent Republican gubernatorial candidates.

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"It makes me sick. It’s unconscionable that somebody running for governor could be so ignorant and so hateful and blatantly announcing and celebrating the fact that they’re going to criminalize a huge portion of our population just because she doesn't understand who they are and what they do," Krom told the Free Press.

West Michigan businesswoman and gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon and Kalamazoo chiropractor Garrett Soldano have pledged to criminalize adults involving children in a drag show. It's part of a growing number of political attacks in Michigan and across the country focused specifically on drag performers.

Fueled locally in part by a joke from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel about putting drag queens in every school, Michigan Republicans running for governor and attorney general have joined a national conservative push to paint opponents as extreme and dangerous for children.

Frequently, drag queens are the vessel for this message. But performers, advocates and experts say this is nothing new: the political broadsides evoke the country's long history of criminal and cultural pressure placed on the LGBTQ community by largely straight and white leaders who enforce heteronormative standards.

"As long as there’s been this history of drag, since the late 19th century — and not just drag but queer people’s existence more broadly — there have been forces that seek to surveil, regulate, punish and criminalize the existence of queer people and the organization of queer community," said Nino Testa, associate director of Women and Gender Studies at Texas Christian University.

"Drag queens are easy targets, because they’re very visible."

'Broadway on steroids'

The idea of a drag show evokes different images for everyone. That's because shows and performances vary widely by region and artist, said Testa, whose class catalog includes one course called, "The Queer Art of Drag."

Jezebel, a 30-year-old Michigan drag performer, says attempts by politicians to attack drag queens is "just another form of policing queerness, people’s bodies."
Jezebel, a 30-year-old Michigan drag performer, says attempts by politicians to attack drag queens is "just another form of policing queerness, people’s bodies."

Divine Cassadine called her events "Broadway on steroids." A separate performer, a 30-year-old Michigander who asked to be referred to by Jezebel, their performing name, said the art is about creating community through a joined experience.

Frequently, a show features an artist who lip-syncs and dances. The songs and routines vary greatly, depending on the audience and venue, Jezebel said.

"What I do at a brunch spot on a Sunday morning is nowhere near what I do Saturday night at a bar that's 21-plus," Jezebel said.

"At brunches, it's largely suburban white women, middle-aged. ... What I'm finding overwhelmingly is usually these people who attend the shows, they're going to these shows for escapism, you know? They have a really fun time."

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Not infrequently, Jezebel said children attend some of the daytime shows. They remember one show in particular, where they had planned to perform "Love to Love you Baby" by Donna Summer. But after Jezebel saw there were children in the audience, they decided a different Summer classic, "MacArthur Park," was more appropriate.

Initially, Jezebel was frustrated that they needed to tweak the show. But the showrunner pointed out when Jezebel was a teen, watching someone perform in drag was not easily accessible.

It made Jezebel reevaluate what it means to have young people in the audience, and push back on the conservative political backlash to kids attending drag performances.

"It’s just another form of policing queerness, people’s bodies," Jezebel said.

"They're grasping at straws, reaching for anything they can. I think they maybe saw one video out of context and were like 'oh, this is atrocious, how dare they.' "

Some of that national pushback appears prompted at least in part by criticism of video clips showing children attending drag performances. In one clip that drew international attention, children are visible at a Grand Rapids daytime show where the performer is wearing large, fake breasts with pasties.

Jezebel said they had never seen anyone expose genitals at any drag performance. They stressed their shows are tailored to the audiences, including children if they are in attendance.

"They're not being exposed to anything that is beyond their guardian's consent," Jezebel said.

"Drag queens are very, very aggressively pro-consent. We want to make our tips. We're not going to do something that is going to scare people."

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'The woke groomer mafia'

In a recent television advertisement from Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate Garrett Soldano, viewers see an empty school building while someone speaking over the public address system declares, "all students are welcome to utilize gender reassignment services today in the gym."

The ad quickly shifts to a warning about drag.

"The woke groomer mafia wants to indoctrinate and subjugate our kids to their warped fantasies," Soldano says, the video shifting to a brief clip of a drag performer reading to a room of people.

In the ad, Soldano does not explain why a drag performer reading to children constitutes subjugation, or elaborate on how he would define the membership of the "woke groomer mafia." But in response to Free Press questions, he said drag queens and government officials who allow them to perform for children are among those who should be punished, "just as we would child predators and sexual abusers."

"To the parents who enjoy taking their young children to drag shows, when I'm governor, that will end. I'm going to work with the Legislature to pass a law to make drag shows and adult parties available to those only over the age of 18," Soldano said.

This echoes Dixon's promise to criminalize adults who include children in drag performances.

Dixon recently tweeted that if she's elected, she'll sign a bill that, "creates severe criminal penalties for adults who involve children in drag shows."

"This type of behavior is criminal child sexually abusive activity. We will make Michigan the toughest state in the country on child sex abusers," Dixon tweeted, in response to someone who posted about a drag show in Dallas.

Her campaign did not immediately respond to questions about the tweet.

But Soldano said her pledge does not go far enough.

"As governor, I would create a task force to investigate any schools and organizations who are brainwashing our kids for their political gain by any means and monitor schools throughout the state to ensure that our schools aren’t serving as indoctrination camps for the leftist agenda," he said.

This cultural warfare in a wide-open GOP gubernatorial primary comes after Nessel, Michigan's first openly gay statewide elected official, poked fun at the increasing national conservative backlash against drag performers.

Speaking at a Michigan Department of Civil Rights Conference on June 15, Nessel blasted conservatives who she believes are focused on "fake issues" that do not help the state.

"I am just so sick and tired of having marginalized minority members of our community and our state be used as target practice instead of us all coming together and understanding that we need to take all communities in our state and lift them up," Nessel said.

Nessel prefaced all of her comments with a joke, one that immediately garnered headlines and segments in national conservative media.

"Know what's not a problem for kids who are seeking a good education? Drag queens. Not only are they not hurting our kids, drag queens make everything better. ... I say this: a drag queen for every school," Nessel said.

Her opponent this fall, Kalamazoo attorney Matt DePerno, seized on the quote, using it frequently in fundraising solicitations and social media posts.

"This EXTREME agenda must stop! The radical left continues to oversexualize our young people while ignoring the real issues facing our state," DePerno said in one fundraising email.

His campaign has tweeted about the "drag queen in every school" comment more than 10 times since Nessel made the remark in mid-June. Michigan Republican Party leaders, including Chairman Ron Weiser and Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, have echoed his message.

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The responses come as the Michigan Legislature, particularly the state Senate, wages its own fights involving the LGBTQ community.

In April, state Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, accused colleague state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, of wanting to "groom and sexualize kindergartners." The comments in a fundraising email prompted a strong public rebuke from McMorrow, earning her a massive national platform.

Later that month, the congressional campaign of state Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, sent out a campaign text that stated in part, "CONFIRMED, your child's gender reassignment surgery has been booked," according to multiple media outlets.

And more recently, state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, accused Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of homophobia when the legislative leader tried to amend a ceremonial measure commemorating Pride Month with language indicating "not every citizen in Michigan agrees with the lifestyle of the LGBTQ community."

The Senate did not vote for the resolution, despite easily adopting it last year. It's more evidence to Moss that Michigan is in the midst of a time where candidates see a political upside in stoking hate against the LGBTQ community.

"The other side is seeing some liftoff politically by preying on people's fears and sowing division. They're gonna make this another campaign cycle where the LGBTQ community is going to be a political punching bad," said Moss, Michigan's first openly gay state senator.

"It has dangerous implications to the community. It creates less safe atmospheres for us to work, live and be about."

Specifically referencing the civil disobedience at the heart of Pride Month, Moss promised, "if we have to return to our roots, we will."

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'Drag queens resist the norms'

Pride Month celebrations in Michigan and the U.S. stem from decades of cultural advocacy and resistance. A defining moment in that history are the Stonewall Riots, a direct response to law enforcement hassling and beating drag performers during a raid at a prominent New York City gay bar in 1969.

Police in cities across the country in the 1950s and 1960s regularly raided bars, citing the drag show or performers as the rationale, said Testa, the TCU professor.

"The function of a drag show in those spaces was you have a world of people telling you that who you are is wrong and disgusting and trying to erase you from social life," Testa said.

"Drag queens are a symbol of resisting calls to conform to comply with the norms of heterosexuality and the norms of cisgender expectations and expectations around who we should be and how we display ourselves in the world. ... Drag queens resist the norms that are perhaps really fundamental to perhaps a lot of conservative goals."

Across the country, laws and societal norms attempted to penalize dressing in clothing perceived to belong to another gender. While not often codified, Testa said police in many communities enforced the so-called "three-article rule," requiring people to don at least three pieces of clothing deemed proper for a person's sex or gender.

Testa sees conservative political attacks in Michigan and elsewhere as similar to the cultural pressures that prompted the uprising at the Stonewall Inn and other protests around the country.

While some of the political messaging may be the result of ignorance or fear, Testa said it's naïve to assume conservative candidates fail to grasp the ramifications of their words.

"Queer people have always experienced these calls for their exclusion from social life, and they have always resisted those calls. And when I say queer people, I don't mean just adults. I mean kids too: There have always been queer kids, there always will be queer kids, no matter what these politicians say," said Testa, who watched the Soldano ad at the request of the Free Press.

"Drag has always been ... a really important community organizing space. Which is why it's no surprise that, you know, conservative forces attack drag. They don't like to see queer people experience joy, to be frank."

Conservatives are scared and frustrated by the idea that some parents may want to take their children to a drag performance in an effort to introduce them to the concept of gender diversity, Testa said.

"What's really at stake in this debate is not whether or not there's going to be a drag queen in every school — that's not on the table — but whether or not parents who do want their kids ... to be exposed to spaces and people in communities where their identities are validated and where they feel affirmed, where they learn the history of their community. Those are the things that people are fighting, those are the things that conservatives don't like," he said.

That's where people like Jezebel, Divine Cassadine and Krom come in.

Krom vowed to keep producing Drag Queen Storytime, shows that she says have helped transitioning kids see they are not alone. Divine Cassadine said not exposing children to diversity is a form of abuse, and encouraged parents to support their kids' growth.

Jezebel said they are past the point in their life where they need to seek validation from critics. But Jezebel suggested those who are fearful of exposing themselves or their children to drag should watch a show for themselves.

"It's not like drag queens are anything new, it's not like children experiencing drag is something new," Jezebel said.

"If people are choosing to actively not engage with a community and are very fearful of it, but if they're actually willing to just like, attend a show, they'll see it's pretty, pretty lax and just there for a fun time."

Contact Dave Boucher: dboucher@freepress.com or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Being a drag queen has gotten political in Michigan