As right-wing backlash against drag shows levels up, it’s worth remembering the Greatest Generation, who fought Nazis and wore dresses.
Drag shows have become a flashpoint in the culture wars this year. Just since the Club Q shooting on November 19th which took the lives of five people in (or allied with) the LGBTQ+ community on the night of a drag event, emboldened members of far-right ideological groups have disrupted multiple similar events around the country.
Christian and militia groups, Proud Boys, white supremacists, and, well, all the usual suspects, targeted drag events in Lakeland and Fort Lauderdale (FL), Manhattan and Staten Island (NY), Chicago (IL), Taylor (TX), Columbus (OH), and Southern Pines (NC).
In Southern Pines, not only did anti-gay protesters obtain a permit to demonstrate outside the Sunrise Theater, where a drag show was scheduled for the evening of December 3rd, a person (or persons) as yet unnamed went to the trouble of shooting up two Duke Energy substations, causing some 40,000 people to lose power (possibly killing one). Police are still searching for an official perp and a motive, but Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields ruled out any connection to Emily Grace Rainey, a former U.S. Army psy-ops officer and J6’er who claimed to know who did it and that it was related to the drag show, after going to her house to ask some questions and pray with her.
Whether or not Sheriff Fields is convinced that the power grid was brought down to disrupt the evening’s entertainment, neo-Nazis are enthusiastically taking moral credit for the attack and promising more of the same unless drag shows are canceled for good. Telegram posts and other “far-right chatter” obtained by Newsweek saluted the terror action as a “magnificent act of sabotage” and a “beautiful escalation” in the culture war. Other posts shared additional targets and tactical suggestions to escalate the chaos; after all, “make the country ungovernable” is a time-honored rule for insurgents.
This is where a decent study of modern history (the kind the right wing seems to want to ban) could positively inform our national conversation.
Since WWII there have been multiple studies of the rise of fascism in order to make sure it never happens again. Such societies often have common characteristics. One such list, by Dr. Lawrence Britt, calls out rampant sexism as a hallmark of fascist societies. “Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.” Recent repression and violence against the LGBT+ community would certainly tick this box, but there’s another characteristic that alludes to the importance of masculinity. “Supremacy of the Military: Soldiers and military service are glamorized” under fascist regimes. You wouldn’t see any drag shows in a properly masculine, strong military, right?
During WWII, while our grandfathers in the Greatest Generation were risking their lives to rescue Europe from fascism, they were also putting on drag shows. These drag shows weren’t just dudes blowing off steam, they were considered so vital to the war effort and good morale that Army Headquarters published official manuals with scripts and stage directions for drag shows, including patterns for dresses and costumes that the men could make for themselves.
Lest you think that this was due to a lack of women in the military, it’s worth noting that by 1942-43, women were present in auxiliary roles as part of two organizations, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and the Women’s Army Corps (WACS). Women in WAVES were allowed to perform in shows to entertain the troops, but having active-duty women from WAC perform onstage was not only considered demeaning (yes, the Army was considerably ‘woke’ in the 1940s), but also viewed as too sexually risqué. As in, all-male Army drag shows were the non-sexually titillating alternative, and it would be great if the current crop of right-wingers would understand this.
It wasn’t just the Americans, either. In fact, British soldiers in the Royal Artillery Coastal Defence Battery were rehearsing in full drag for an upcoming performance when they came under attack. Some of the men were able to throw on a helmet before running to the artillery, but photographs show them taking off at full speed to defend their country, in petticoats and bonnets.
It wasn’t just the boys in WWII. As recently as last year, Nellis Air Force Base hosted a drag performance to “reinforce the Air Force’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion.” Drag in the military is nothing new, and neither is fighting Nazis.
If the Allied Forces and the modern Air Force have lost their “man cards” by hosting and enjoying drag shows, and what we need is a real Alpha Male to Make America Great Again, how about the former President, Donald J. Trump? In 2000, when Rudy Giuliani was the mayor of New York, Giuliani dressed in his drag persona, Rudia, for a skit with the future President. The video is something to behold, with Mr. Trump flirting with Rudia and motorboating Giuliani’s large, fake breasts. (Do be careful if clicking on the link; what is seen cannot be unseen.)
Drag shows have a long history in our country, having been performed and appreciated by some of our manliest and most patriotic men. The uptick in backlash and violence against drag, specifically, and the LGBTQ+ community generally, is a sign of deepening problems that our society is going to need to defeat, or else face worse problems than garish cosmetics. We’ve seen where this path leads. And that’s why our grandpas, who occasionally wore dresses, gave their lives and limbs to end it.