When Danny La Rue glided onto the stage at the annual Royal Variety Performance in front of Queen Elizabeth II and a nationwide family TV audience, he was one of Britain’s most popular entertainers. Fabulous in full makeup, form-fitting gown and sky-high wig, he launched into a series of affectionate homages to show biz legends, each with a more lavish and glittering outfit.
Her Majesty reportedly complimented him: “My gosh, your costume changes were fantastic. I only wish I could dress as quickly as you.”
The year was 1969.
Cross-dressing was nothing new to the British, whose history of female impersonation stretches centuries, usually for comic effect — think Monty Python. Behind the comedy lurked a mocking misogyny that I always found off-putting.
Danny La Rue brought the true drag shows of London’s gay clubs from the shadows to the mainstream. By the late 1960s, he was filling theaters and starring on TV, eventually being named Entertainer of the Decade in 1979. Though never overtly sexual, his repartee was certainly laced with innuendo: “I’m the girl with a little bit extra!”
Later in life, he claimed the gay identity that we all tacitly acknowledged. Unable to marry, he was in a relationship for 37 years, until his partner’s passing. In 2002, not long before he died, Queen Elizabeth awarded him the Order of the British Empire for services to entertainment.
Since La Rue, drag artists have been beloved figures in British entertainment, and it seemed the same was quietly happening this side of the pond, with the rise of RuPaul and other mainstream artists.
And yet here we are — watching the stunning demonization of drag by opportunistic politicians and hard-right activists. Republican legislators seem to be competing to file the most draconian bills, ostensibly aimed at activities like drag queen story hours, but extending to any public performances where minors might be present. Tennessee’s governor signed the first law, banning cross-gender impersonators who appeal to a “prurient interest.” It’s unclear how it will be applied, but lawbreakers face criminal penalties.
In Kansas, a Senate bill expands the “crime of promoting obscenity” to include drag performances in front of minors. A drag performer is anyone who “sings, lip-syncs, dances or otherwise performs” while portraying a gender different from that assigned at birth. Rep. Nate Schatzline’s Texas bill uses a similar definition, although Schatzline tied himself in knots to explain that only “sexualized” drag is prohibited. Definitely not the kind of thing he did as a teenager, when he dressed in a sequined dress and pranced to “Sexy Lady.” That of course was a “joke,” in the same vein as Monty Python I suppose. It leaves unclear how drag queen storytellers are “sexualized.”
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And on it goes: Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Montana, South Carolina — all offering varying levels of criminalization. Here in Florida, we have yet to see a definitively anti-drag bill, although the DeSantis administration has filed complaints against venues hosting Christmas drag shows and other variants.
The outrage is all about “preserving the innocence of the next generation,” as Schatzline put it, claiming drag performers are predators out to “groom” and molest children. Perplexing — over all those years, did we Brits fail to notice a deluge of child attacks by sex-crazed female impersonators? We thought the real danger came from straight pedophiles, or maybe priests? As Memphis drag queen Bella DuBalle points out, there is no record of any child being sexually assaulted or harmed at a drag show. “If there had been, it would be a poster image for their campaign; we would see it everywhere.”
I’m sure we all agree that minors must be shielded from genuinely pornographic performances, as current law provides. This moral panic isn’t about that — or even about the undeniable plethora of suggestive imagery across popular culture. If it were, they would be banning almost every half-time Super Bowl show. No — the rash of proposed criminalization singles out gay and transgender performers, as Marjorie Taylor Greene made clear in her rant about “gyrating drag queens.” No wonder the LGBTQ community is bracing for what could happen at any public gay Pride events — like this month’s Pride Parade in Tampa.
As I watch it unfold, my thoughts return to Danny La Rue, as he blazed a path not only for public acceptance, but for the genuine embrace of a unique performance style. More than half a century after his Royal Command show, how have we come to this?
Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Elizabeth Bird is professor emerita of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, where she taught for more than 25 years. She is the author of seven books and dozens of articles, reviews and essays.