The Pentagon May Have Banned Drag In the Military, but It Failed to Recognize One Thing

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The first time Paul saw a drag show, he was standing on a U.S. Navy ship, sailing from Japan to Australia. It was 1999, and as a fresh-faced “pollywog”—a term of endearment used to describe sailors who had yet to cross the equator for the first time in their service—Paul knew his turn would come soon.

It didn’t matter whether you were newly enlisted or an officer like Paul (who asked to use a pseudonym because he’s still actively serving in the Navy)—everyone had to pay tribute when “crossing the line,” notably with rituals designed to win the favor of King Neptune, God of the Sea. Sometimes, these rituals involved physical play like getting slapped with hoses. Other times, sailors had to kiss the grease-covered belly of a sailor deemed the “Royal Baby.”

But most common was men dressing up in costumes and women’s clothing for beauty contests and talent shows. Apparently, Neptune loves a dude in drag.

Paul grew up hearing stories of such celebrations from his grandfather, a World War II veteran who also served in the Navy and went through his own line-crossing ceremony. The elder man fondly remembered dressing up as the Statue of Liberty, crafting a costume from a cut-up tablecloth, lashings of pale-green ship paint, and a modified broom for a torch.

Elsewhere, he had memories of fellow sailors dressed in coconut bras, mop-hair wigs, and two-piece outfits designed to evoke Judy Garland. No matter the theme, the intention was twofold: This was a flirty-femme party not just for Neptune, but the trusty “shellbacks” who had already crossed the line.

Knowing his own talent show was on the horizon, Paul did the sensible thing: Call his grandfather for advice. “I could hear him brighten up,” he told me. “He was so excited, saying I was going to have so much fun in the show. I asked him, ‘Should I bring the Statue of Liberty back?’ And he loved it—even gave me a bunch of pointers on how to dress up.”

That’s how Paul ended up strutting onto the helicopter deck of a U.S. destroyer crooning “God Bless America” while draped in a makeshift dress of blue-green cloth. Other pollywogs reportedly went with more risqué acts, including lip-syncing to Vengaboys in a bikini top and gallivanting as Britney Spears, coy and cute in improvised schoolgirl costumes. According to Paul, some even asked the captain if he’d like a lap dance.

But on June 1, 2023—the first day of Pride—the Pentagon announced a sweeping policy change: Drag shows were officially banned from military grounds. A spokesperson noted that the events were deemed “inconsistent with regulations regarding the use of Department of Defense resources,” with particular concern about the use of “taxpayer funds.” (So far, the DoD has not identified where, when, or how these funds were used for drag.) And while it’s unclear exactly how many events were affected, the Pentagon’s decree reached every finger of America’s imperialist force, requiring the cancellation of drag shows from Nevada to Germany to Japan.

It’s hard to ignore the context of all this, which happened around the same time that congressional Republicans—particularly extremist voices like Matt Gaetz and Tommy Tuberville—pushed negative rhetoric about drag and pro-LGBTQ+ events being “divisive” and harmful to the military. “We should be focused on deterring China and other adversaries, not drag shows, which do nothing to enhance our deterrence and warfighting capabilities,” a group of lawmakers wrote in a memo to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in May.

Since then, disappointed veterans, service members, and advocacy groups have called on the Pentagon to reverse the decision and embrace drag in the armed forces. Meanwhile, a spokesperson from queer advocacy group GLAAD stated that the sudden decision raised questions about the Pentagon’s previously stated support of LGBTQ+ service members. Sarah Streyder, the executive director of Secure Families Initiative (a nonpartisan group that advocates for military partners and spouses), went further in her criticism. “This decision … sends a hurtful and exclusionary message,” she told NBC News. “It also ignores the reality that drag has been an art form used in military events for over 100 years.”

She’s right: Queerness has long been a facet of military history, stretching from the first soldier-led “drag” shows in the late 1800s to the heroic advocacy of service members like Leonard Matlovich in the 20th century. All along, queer people have been embedded in the armed forces, undercounted and insulted despite their contributions to the mission. Prejudiced critics have always worked to stymie this diversity, especially by pushing policies to discharge gay people from service and prosecute them for being out. But through it all, gender-bending entertainment and subversive eroticism have remained armed forces mainstays, even after the inclusion of women in the ranks.

Drag in the military really took off during World War I and World War II when military leaders realized that it was a liability for their fighting men to be mired in conflict without any morale-boosting entertainment—and no women in sight to socialize with. The solution was to fund and support “soldier shows,” in which men would don women’s clothing and makeup while performing a variety of acts, from “pony ballets” in tutus to stripteases based on famous female celebrities.

Drag wasn’t popularly accepted in American society during the 1930s and ’40s, but the military promoted these soldier shows as a positive force for camaraderie and strength, even offering guide books on dress-making and choreography. It was such a hit that one production, This Is the Army, made it all the way to Broadway—even President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended a showing, with one reporter writing that he appeared especially intrigued by the dancing of a Gypsy Rose Lee impersonator in drag. Over time, the shows were deemed a “necessity, not a frill,” as the National Theater Conference argued.

The official line was always that the men who performed as women were doing a duty, not expressing queerness—although, as historian Aaron Jura points out, these soldier shows became an empowering space for gay soldiers to explore their identities, too. Despite the military’s stringent rules against homosexuality, the boundaries blurred when it came to entertainment, with straight soldiers openly praising performers who looked especially beautiful or could sing with a woman’s tone, Jura said.

The government’s enthusiastic backing of soldier shows began to wane after WWII, along with the rise of fervent anti-communism and the related “lavender scare” that painted queer people as potentially “deviant” national security risks. But, as Jura explained, a culture of subversive drag entertainment persisted among the rank-and-file. Many of these accounts come from the work of historian Allan Bérubé, whose book Coming Out Under Fire details the history of gay men and women in the military.

“Bérubé’s research shows that various shows and acts with men wearing coconut bras and the like have happened in every American war,” Jura told me. “And the interesting part to me is that, whenever one of these underground acts got caught, other service members often helped provide cover. It lends credence to the idea that blowing off steam by horsing around in women’s clothing really was a subculture-like thing within the armed forces.”

Paul heard stories not just from his grandfather, but his uncle, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and recalled a gag in which enlisted men in drag danced with Bob Hope to open a USO show. But things started to shift again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after a series of violent hazing and sexual assault scandals led to a crackdown on behavioral standards, including during line-crossing ceremonies. At the same time, the growing effect of 1994’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy put service members at increased risk of being discharged if outed. Together, these impacts led to the seeming disappearance of drag, at least within line-crossing ceremonies and other traditions in the military.

These changes make it seem like the military believed there was something obscene or unprofessional about the act. But that belies the swelling popularity of family-friendly drag events in a number of military communities, including at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

Since the debut show in 2014, Kadena’s drag parties (during Pride and Halloween) have become some of the busiest events on the calendar, drawing hundreds of active service members, veterans, and their families, said Xander Ready, the president of LGBTQ+ advocacy group Out in Oki. The sudden Pentagon ban on June 1, just weeks out from the sold-out event, shattered months of planning and preparation.

“I was heartbroken, frankly,” Ready, whose spouse is on active duty, told me. “It felt like our leadership was hearing out anti-queer rhetoric and not even questioning it.”

Ready said on-base leaders had long been supportive of the Pride celebration, but they had no recourse to offer in light of the directive. To salvage the event, he and other organizers turned to the local military community, hoping word-of-mouth and volunteer help would keep attendance high despite a last-minute venue shift. Despite the anxiety, the party unfolded without further drama on June 24, when more than 350 people showed up to cheer, dance, and drink into the night.

“Last October’s show was the first drag party I ever attended, and it taught me that drag is a liberating act,” Ready said. “And this year, the audience was such a spectrum of queerness and straight allies, everyone just being themselves. Drag creates a space for people to express parts of themselves they wouldn’t elsewhere in life. It’s joyful, confident, defiant … and I think that’s why it continues to have such appeal here.”

Naturally, it stings that shows like these have been forced off-base since the ban. There are no plans to stop hosting drag events, however, and Ready noted that other military communities will simply find nonmilitary property to continue drag traditions.

The attacks may keep coming, though. House Republicans recently passed a bill banning not just drag shows on military grounds, but also paid abortion leave, the military’s “diversity, equity, and inclusion” offices, and DoD funding for gender transitions. The irony is palpable for service members like Paul, who sighed heavily while discussing the attack on trans people in the military. He said he’s helped several sailors navigate their gender transitions, with nary an interruption to the mission at hand. All this anti-queer campaigning simply fails to capture the nuance of actual life in the military, he told me, explaining that the drag ban was met with eye-rolls from many of his fellow sailors, who often view their world as distinct from the politico circus in D.C.

The irony was even more palpable for Joshua Kelley, a nonbinary petty officer second class who’s been performing in drag in the armed forces for years. The 29-year-old first joined the Navy in 2016 as an administrative clerk, and initially kept their sexuality under wraps due to the military’s reputation as a straight ol’ boys club. For the first year, they kept their head down, pumping through paperwork and earning commendations while sailing the Pacific Ocean aboard the USS Ronald Reagan.

But soon, the weight of hiding became unbearable. They needed an outlet, and in 2017, opportunity struck in the form of a lip-sync talent show on the ship. It seemed the universe was offering a mea culpa, and they seized the opportunity for catharsis via drag, an art form they’d loved since trying it in 2013.

Kelley performed first in a preliminary round on the ship’s mess deck, sauntering around the compact dance floor and hitting the splits to the banging synth rhythms of “Werqin’ Girl.” Though they initially feared judgment from peers, the other sailors surprised them with excited gasps, claps, and bellows of excitement. Their performance drew such a crowd that they were asked to return to consequent preliminary rounds, just to boost morale.

For the finale, Kelley chose to go all-in on makeup, a glamorous blond wig, and a sparkling dress—their first time in full drag on the ship. Stage name? Harpy Daniels.

“The moment I walked out, it was silent. You could hear a pin drop,” they remembered. “Everyone was so gripped by a drag queen. And as an entertainer, that tension feels like a drug. Fifteen seconds into the intro of the song, I started hearing it: ‘Werk, girl!’ ‘Slay!’ Then as the music picked up, all I heard was screaming and cheering. At the end, I was the only one to get a standing ovation.”

The rest is history: Kelley’s performance went viral within the Navy, leading to a feature story from NBC News in 2018. The following year, they transferred to a new post in Virginia and continued performing off-base in clubs and venues. Then in November of 2022, Harpy Daniels was selected by the Navy to be one of five “digital ambassadors” to boost recruiting efforts. For a few months, the Navy used the drag queen to attract more diverse members—and even publicly defended Harpy from trolls—a strange and stark contrast to the apparent anti-queer attitude it adopted just months later.

Like Paul, Kelley has tried to ignore the military’s renewed distaste for queer service members, largely because they know their fellow sailors don’t reflect it. “A couple of pilots later looked at me and said, ‘Guuurl, you killed it.’ And I was like, ‘Gurl? I didn’t know you speak queer lingo!’ They didn’t, but it was them being open and inclusive,” Kelley said. “The first lip-sync shows were the first time in the Navy I felt seen. I felt powerful. For finding my confidence, but also because people on the ship approached me for help and advice. Someone told me they came out to their parents over the holidays because of my performance.” Perhaps the sweetest words came from their command chief, who was nervous the other sailors would treat Kelley differently for doing drag: “I was worried, but you proved me wrong.”

That’s one reason Kelley questions the longevity of the DoD’s current anti-queer campaign. “The most beautiful thing in the military is when we make space for each other, because the mission relies on the team,” they told me. And besides, as both they and Paul affirm, you can’t really erase queerness from military life. It’s already there, it always has been, and it likely always will be, from Marines gallivanting around in sundresses to veterans joking about how queer the armed forces really are. Look no further than the adoration that Harpy Daniels received from her shipmates—such acceptance might not be universal across the armed forces, but it’s convincing enough to keep her performing off-base, drag ban be damned.

And while Paul’s had to retire his Statue of Liberty costume for line-crossing ceremonies, he’s confident he and his peers will get through the bans the same way they always have: by sticking together and focusing on the mission at hand. “We try not to get wrapped up in the culture war bullshit, because the military is supposed to be above that,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of good strides. We’ll weather this storm until it passes and the next one comes along.”