Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words μ or III. or □ / Distributing Gender / Mary Zaborskis

Megan Wennberg’s documentary Drag Kids (2019) follows four children ages 9-11 from the US, Canada, and Great Britain pursuing the art of drag. The children’s parents connect online and arrange for the kids to perform together at Montreal Pride. At first glance, the documentary looks like a celebration of new forms of gender expression as well as an exploration of the harsh treatment that children remain subject to when they fail to conform to expected gender presentations, even in the growing world of children’s drag, nonbinary, and transgender performances and identities. Drag Kids distributes gender in two ways: by depicting the circulation of evolving concepts of gender to wider (and younger) demographics, and by participating in this distribution via streaming, festival screenings, and television broadcast.

However, the documentary’s portrayal of the children’s entry into drag culture paradoxically asserts rigidity and bounds around gender—not its free, mobile expression, but its fixed, determined relationship to sexuality. The documentary shows that the conditions in which children can express gender fluidity are prescribed: these conditions require participants in the documentary and viewers to keep gender expression separate from possibilities for children’s sexuality, and even from drag’s historic embeddedness in LGBTQ sexual subcultures and political liberation movements. The documentary’s seemingly progressive presentation of a controversial phenomenon—children in the drag scene—is at the expense of extricating sexuality from both drag and childhood. Ultimately, sanitized and homophobic ideals for childhood, age, and sexuality are the vehicles through which Drag Kids distributes gender.

While the children frequently speak on their own behalf in the documentary, sexuality emerges primarily in interviews with children’s parents. Early in the documentary, the mother of drag performer Laddy Gaga, says that her son experiences “abuse at adults’ hands” when they ask him, “Are you gay?” His mom angrily expresses her desired reply: “How the hell does he know whether he’s gay straight or anywhere in between, he’s eight, you idiot!”

A short time later, the scene cuts between Laddy Gaga practicing a rendition of “Born This Way” at home in a silver leotard and red high heels and his mother, who expounds, “You say ‘drag,’ [people] attach sexuality to that. That’s the problem. People need to separate that. There’s nothing sexual, it’s about expression.” The conflation of drag with hypersexuality is a persistent misconception, one that RuPaul laments in the Foreward to his 1995 autobiography Lettin It All Hang Out, where she writes that “people [have] always attached ‘Sex Fetish’ to my career choice”.1 Drag performance may not be specifically and only sexual, but desexualizing drag entirely erases its historical and contemporary significance as a queer art form and asserts illusory, firm demarcations between identity and desire.

Nonetheless, in the documentary, sexuality appears almost entirely as evidence of homophobic “abuse” of children by adults. The specter of childhood homosexuality is met by the documentary’s aggressive denial: children can perform at gay bars and attend Pride events, but only as discursively-rendered non-sexual children, not as present or future queers. The distribution of gender requires, in Drag Kids, the expulsion of childhood sexuality.

The documentary presents one of its few adult drag queens in hostile opposition to the drag kids, suggesting adult drag queens operate as a danger to the safety and well-being of youth. One drag kid, Bracken (who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a girl), attends Untoxicated, an event she describes as having “no alcohol and no drugs and child friendly.” Well-known drag queen Trixie Mattel performs, asking the audience, “You guys want to know why I started doing drag? Not to fucking fraternize with children! Family events are fun for two groups of people, families and kid-fuckers.”

While Trixie talks, the audience cheers and the camera cuts to Bracken, expressionless and motionless as she looks up at Trixie on the jumbotron-esque screen.

Fig. 1: Bracken looks up as Trixie does “the Trixie thing.”

The camera then cuts to Bracken and her mother leaving the venue. The shot follows them from behind as Bracken’s mother says to Bracken, “You know Trixie—she did the Trixie thing.” Bracken asks what the “Trixie thing” is, and her mother replies, “You know . . . being mean about kids.”

“Trixie’s thing” is her frustration with censorship and pressures increasingly being imposed on drag queens at events deemed “child friendly” and “family events”—conservative descriptors that automatically opposes drag and LGBTQ adults with family and evacuates family of expansive and alternative notions of community, connection, and kinship. Bracken’s mother transposes the danger that Trixie invoked by bringing up the specter of the pedophile onto Trixie herself. The camera cut to Bracken looking up during Trixie’s performance suggests that Bracken’s role model is crushing her dreams, contributing to ostensibly oppressive conditions that make it hard for kids to do drag. The documentary constructs a sentimental narrative where sympathy and support should be extended to these kids because their desires and intentions are not at all related to present or future sexuality—thus, they are decoded as pure, innocent, and worthy of protection.

The documentary makes a bid for kids to be welcome into the art of drag by desexualizing both children and drag. Kids should be welcome, the documentary states, because they are simply desiring to express themselves, and this expression is adamantly non-sexual. Trixie states that “family events” are fun for “families and kid-fuckers.” Who is Drag Kids fun for? The 16+ rating the documentary has on platforms like Amazon Prime Video suggests Drag Kids is for some adults – not for other children who might be exploring gender and/or drag and certainly not for the many queer adults who were queer kids. Viewers imagine they are supporting children’s gender expression while condemning any possibility of sexuality as present or proximate to this art form, a position that ultimately distributes already-existing rampant homophobic tropes against adult drag queens, narrow possibilities for childhood sexuality, and limited understandings of why children might be drawn to drag in the first place.

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  1. RuPaul. Lettin It All Hang Out. (New York: Hyperion, 1995), viii.