Why Democracy Donors Should Fund Drag Performers
There shouldn’t be anything controversial about drag, a multidisciplinary artform that weaves together fashion, acting, song, and dance. From the time of Shakespeare, when female roles were performed by men, to the vaudeville circuit and the Harlem Renaissance, drag has been a means of expression that cuts across history, cultures, and continents.
Drag allows performers to learn more about themselves while educating, healing, inspiring, and promoting acceptance and diversity. It’s also a paycheck.
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There shouldn’t be anything controversial about drag, a multidisciplinary art form that weaves together fashion, acting, song, and dance. From the time of Shakespeare, when female roles were performed by men, to the vaudeville circuit and the Harlem Renaissance, drag has been a means of expression that cuts across history, cultures, and continents.
But not only is it a mode of performance and a way to promote tolerance — it’s also a paycheck. As queer artists and leaders of programs that promote creative expression, we consider drag essential to who we are and central to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and gender justice.
We envision a world where kids love themselves, support their peers, and stand up for what they believe in. That’s why drag performance should be shared with young people. Yet in August and September alone, protests erupted over drag story hours in communities from California — the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego — to Edinburgh, Scotland and Winnipeg, Canada.
Caught in a political battle, this art form is in crisis. Despite this, drag receives almost no explicit philanthropic funding. Donors need to come out of the shadows and pledge immediate and robust support for drag story hours and performances.
Protests and violence against drag performers, audiences, and the venues that host them are on the rise. Just last week, a federal judge ruled that a Texas university president’s cancellation of a drag show didn’t infringe on the right to free speech, saying that drag performance was “sexualized content.” In 2022, there were more than 160 protests and significant threats to drag events, according to the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD. Performers, venue operators, and crews, especially trans and gender nonconforming workers, fear for their livelihoods and lives.
Fueling this terror, a number of states have passed or are considering laws that would criminalize or limit drag performance. While many of these bills have been blocked following lawsuits from performers and civil rights groups, such efforts threaten the democratic pillars of bodily autonomy and free speech. What’s more, 58 percent of Americans oppose them, according to one poll. They’re also out of sync with drag’s growing visibility, popularity, and economic influence in popular culture, hastened by the award-winning reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race.
As has happened with other movements, for every step toward progress, there’s a reactive backlash.
That’s not coincidental — it’s strategic. The retaliation against drag artists is part of a broader, well-coordinated movement against LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and people of color to regulate the conduct of everyone deemed abnormal. Drag is a lightning rod because it defies traditional norms.
Any philanthropic strategy to protect democracy should include funding for drag. Criminalizing one form of creative expression sets a harmful precedent that makes all art forms potentially vulnerable.
That’s why we’re not advocating for separate philanthropic programming to address drag. Since drag touches multiple issues, it should be included in existing programs in areas such as arts, culture, education, civic engagement, workers’ rights, and economic justice.
An intersectional and inclusive movement for gender justice requires intentional support of drag performers and the organizations that employ them, alongside support for women, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and two-spirit performers and communities.
Here are concrete ways philanthropy can help:
Invest in drag organizations’ long-term health. Provide flexible, multi-year, general support to groups led by or serving drag performers, such as Drag Story Hour, where one of us (Beatrice) is a board member and performer, Oasis Arts, and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They are under-resourced, largely volunteer-led, and need funds to strengthen their staffing and operations and plan for their futures.
Communicate drag’s value through storytelling. The public should know the truth about drag as both an art form and an economic, social, and political movement. Philanthropy can fund efforts to expose how legislative attacks on drag performances are anti-democratic and spotlight the social and economic impact of discriminatory laws, including lost income and tax revenue.
This could include supporting organizations such as the Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists to improve coverage of drag issues, or projects such as Lady Like, a film about drag as a tool for hope, purpose, and healing.
Build connections across related movements. PEN America and the Association of Performing Arts Professionals are among the creative groups speaking out against anti-drag sentiment and laws, and calling on all of their members and networks to help generate solutions. Philanthropy can help connect groups across various movements and fields, so they can work together to support drag alongside their other priorities.
Directly support drag workers and employers. Deliver relief dollars, social benefits such as mental health funds, and work opportunities for drag performers harmed by bans, protests, or canceled shows. Prioritize those with limited access to resources, especially trans and gender nonconforming performers and performers of color.
Help theater or dance companies such as the Landa Lakes indigenous drag performance troupe Brush Arbor Gurlz, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and Friends of George’s withstand lost revenue and increased costs. The latter recently won a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee, which had banned drag shows, but the state appealed the verdict. Waymakers Collective is establishing a fund for affected drag and LGBTQ+ artists and Pride organizations in Central Appalachia.
Strengthen security efforts. Invest in cybersecurity and physical safety measures — including training, equipment, technology, and staffing — to protect workers, audiences, and venues from escalating violence. The model of the Digital Defense Fund, which provides digital security for the abortion access movement, could be adapted to serve the drag community.
Fund legal defense. Support the American Civil Liberty Union’s Drag Defense Fund, which protects the rights of drag performers and LGBTQ+ Americans with landmark cases, such as recent lawsuits in Texas and Utah.
Part of drag’s magic is that it has endured and thrived despite the hate, violence, and exclusion performers often experience. Their labor is under-funded and under-recognized. Philanthropy can help right this wrong, protect and fund drag, and include the community in its planning, operations, and grant making toward gender justice.