For UM pre-med student, non-binary person and drag queen Jaquavious Lee, drag is an expression of love.
“Drag is essentially love. It’s all about love. Outside of drag, I am easily overlooked, because I don’t have a really big personality,” Lee said. “When I’m in drag, it’s one of the few things I can control, so let me control it.”
Many are trying to wrest that control from Lee (Lady Pluto while performing) and others like them, though.
In recent years, conservatives have attempted to separate the “TQ” from LGBTQ, denying trans and non-binary people their personhood and gender identity. Now, Republican led state legislatures across the country are ramping up their anti-trans rhetoric, specifically targeting drag and gender affirming care for minors.
For many drag performers, this is not surprising: Drag challenges gender roles and the power dynamics that come with them, allowing performers to fully express themselves.
Sarah “Sy” Heying is a non-binary person and drag king who performs under the name Ponyboi and recently obtained their Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Mississippi.
With new attacks against trans and queer people, they fear that the United States is backsliding into fascism.
“I don’t think we’re the first (group to be attacked). I think we’re the most visible right now. That target changes. It does seem like we’re experiencing an, honestly, fascist attack on our civil rights,” Heying said.
Heying, however, recognized that transphobia did not emerge recently, and that trans people need allies to rally with them.
“I don’t think this is new. I think it’s been emboldened and made mainstream,” Heying said. “Trans folks are a major minority, and unless we have allies, it’s a fight we could easily lose.”
Heying expressed how drag is a freeing activity.
“Drag makes gender expression playful. I know so many artists that have said the same thing, that it was just something that felt right, and so they got into it. We don’t have to compartmentalize ourselves,” Heying said.
This type of unconstrained expression is bound to enrage those insecure about their gender, sexuality or power, though. Lee thinks the recent spike in anti-trans rhetoric is an attempt from conservatives to control people.
“Femininity is scary to hyper-masculine people,” Lee said. “The overturn of Roe v. Wade was obviously an attempt to control females. And these bills are targeting transfem people more than transmasculine people, and drag queens, who are usually feminine-presenting. If they can gain control over drag queens, and trans women and men, they can gain control over the larger picture of women.”
Lee recounted one instance of harassment they experienced after a show. Lee is AMAB, assigned male at birth, but while wrapping up, they were still in drag and feminine-presenting.
“Me and two other non-binary drag queens had just finished a gig, and we were putting our stuff in our cars. After a show, sometimes I end up looking a lot more womanly than usual. And so this random guy came up trying to get out numbers. I said, ‘Hey, like, very flattered by this, but I want to let you know I’m AMAB,’” Lee said. “And he was just like, ‘Oh, you’re just one of those freaks,’ and he started going off at the mouth. I’ve had a couple of those instances, sometimes before I even go into the venue for my show.”
Heying believes instances like these and much of the hate surrounding trans and non-binary people can be explained in part by unresolved internal attraction to them.
“This can be a dangerous thread to go down, but there is an attraction-revulsion aspect to it, being both terrified of something but also attracted to it at the same time,” Heying said. “I think that could play a role in that you can’t just let yourself admit the attraction.”
Attempts to suppress drag shows go far beyond certain individuals harassing queens after the show.
On Sept. 23, 2022, armed protesters organized outside of the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis to stop a family-friendly drag show that was occurring on the premises.
Heying was about to go on stage when they were told that the show was canceled, and they needed to be escorted to safety.
“It was literally five minutes before we were supposed to go on. You’re getting ready to walk upstairs and fully dressed up, the whole crowd waiting, and then somebody came in and said, ‘It’s canceled. You need to be escorted out right now,’” Heying said.
Heying never saw the protestors that shut down the show, but strongly feels that the event should not have been canceled.
“My feelings on it, which are of course very subjective, are that it’s backing down to bullying that should not have ever happened. That set a precedent and that made a lot of people afraid,” Heying said.
Beyond direct suppression from armed protestors, Heying believes the drag bans are unconstitutional and unenforceable.
“The point is to make people self-police, and there have been a lot of venues that have straight-up canceled shows, even though the bill is being restrained by a judge right now,” Heying said.
Even more concerning are right-wing calls for the “eradication of transgenderism,” which have directly impacted the drag community.
“There’s a lot of people who want to give up,” Lee said. “But also on the other hand, there are a lot of drag queens who are still pushing and carrying on their performances like (bans on drag shows) won’t last, because they are unconstitutional and should not last.”
What’s more, Lee said the violent culture against drag has discouraged people from participating in the art form.
“It’s been harder for newer drag queens who are just starting out. Now, when they get into drag, they’re worried more about their own safety,” Lee said. “Now, certain shows have a much weirder atmosphere behind them.”
Heying is known for being campy and playful during their performances, but expressed that they found it harder to tap into that same energy after the drag ban was signed.
“I found myself having trouble having fun. It all felt really serious all of a sudden,” Heying said. “I’m still trying to get back to the play.”
Despite attempts to suppress drag performers, Heying and Lee, like many others in the community, are not backing down or leaving the South anytime soon.
“I’m always here for the underdog. So I’m gonna stay and fight, and I feel adamant about that. But that’s not everybody’s cup of tea and I don’t blame anybody for wanting to leave,” Heying said.
Lee feels similarly, and wants to provide young queer people of color and the next generation of drag performers someone to look up to.
“I feel like I owe it to myself and the younger version of me to become one of the role models that I wish I had growing up, to help the generation of drag queens that are bound to come after me,” Lee said. “Then, I’ll feel comfortable leaving the South, and doing Ru Paul’s Drag Race.”
Heying had words of encouragement for young people who are interested in performing drag, but are scared of the social or political consequences.
“Drag is about finding your confidence and being visible with it,” Heying said. “Start out in your bedroom, do your own thing first, but once you find that bravery, go for it. There will be a lot of people that will protect you.”
Lee had words for those that would like them to conform to a gender binary and stop performing drag.
“I just want to have a conversation, to see how your mind works, to listen to hear and not to speak so you can see how my mind works. By the end of our conversation, I am 150% sure that your opinion of drag queens, non-binary and trans people will change,” Lee said.
Lee will be performing at Code Pink: Glamour! at The Lyric on Thursday, May 4, at 9:30 p.m.
Heying will perform at the Oxford Pride Drag Show, also at The Lyric, on Saturday, May 6, at 8 p.m.