Just when we thought conservatives’ cruel and backward campaign to demonize queer people couldn’t get any dumber, it definitely did. This year, drag shows became the latest target of the GOP’s efforts to turn back the clock on LGBTQ+ rights. Yes, in the midst of school shootings, a warming climate, and the rent being perpetually too damn high, Republicans felt the need to address the clear and present danger of bedazzled queens in six-inch heels and blonde wigs, lip-syncing Beyoncé and spreading a little joy in these doom and gloom times.

It all started in March when Tennessee restricted drag performances—the first state to do so. The legislation, signed by Republican Governor Bill Lee, rebranded drag as “adult cabaret performances” and banned them in the presence of children and in public spaces, including schools, public parks, and places of worship. Although a federal judge temporarily blocked the Tennessee law on free speech grounds, at least 16 other states, from Texas to Arkansas, soon followed suit and introduced similar bills.

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Anti-drag legislation in Florida, which would revoke the liquor licenses of businesses that allow children to attend “adult live performances,” is currently headed to Governor Ron DeSantis’s desk. Organizers of a Port St. Lucie pride parade in South Florida have canceled their event for fear of being in violation of the forthcoming law.

Republican legislators say they’re introducing these bills “for the children”—to save them from “indoctrination” and “grooming”—but that’s BS, of course. This effort is part of a long history of homophobic assaults that aim to link queerness with sexual perversion. Criminalizing a community that’s already facing unprecedented hostility, including bans on gender-affirming health care and threats to trans people’s existential rights, is purely about hate. These laws protect no one.

Drag is self-expression, a celebration for queer people to be unapologetically free.

While conservatives continue to peddle false narratives, let’s call drag what it is: an art form where queer people have historically felt safe, heard, and seen. Drag is self-expression, a celebration for queer people to be unapologetically free, without shame, fear, or disgust.

So in this ludicrous moment of right-wing animosity, Cosmopolitan decided to pass the mic to red-state queens to talk about what drag means to them, how they feel about being the latest scapegoat in the GOP’s culture wars, and why they won’t go down without a fight.

Ginger Minj, Florida

“I grew up in the theater, and I kind of stumbled into drag because of that. From the time I was 6 months old, I’ve been onstage. Drag is truly an extension of me and who I am, and it gave me my voice. I suddenly found a way to voice my opinions, do the things that I wanted to do, and be the person that I wanted to be.”

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“It makes me uncomfortable when people look at the drag community as a group and boil us solely down to our sexuality because we’re so much more than that and our art is a lot more than that. Our art has nothing to do with our sexuality. Some straight men do drag. You look at Barry Humphries who has played Dame Edna for years. He is a straight-identifying cisgender man with a wife and children. Some of the contestants in RuPaul’s Drag Race have identified as straight men throughout the franchises. You have straight women who are drag queens. You have people from all walks of life. It’s like any other job.

“There was a point in time, like, a month ago where I was like, you know what? I’ve been here 20 years. Maybe this is the time that I pack it up and move someplace else and stop fighting. And then I went, no. Look at what I have fought for the last 20 years. Look at these amazing people that are around me. Look at the people whose lives are positively affected on a daily basis by what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. I just had to keep reminding myself that.”

Ducky Sheaboi, New York/South Carolina

“Drag is a power that can heal your own feelings of self and identity. You can just learn so much about yourself by expressing yourself through another gender or all genders all at once. The other part of drag is that we’re able to give people a break from the normal. We’re able to have this living, breathing art piece that channels personality. It’s a healing power for everyone.

“Say there’s a straight child that’s watching drag, that child is (1) going to have a moment where they can have fun, (2) they’re going to see the broader picture, which is the audience focusing on someone who is being celebrated for their uniqueness. Americans are so individualistic, and we love uniqueness, so why don’t we love that drag performer who is spreading joy through their performance? If we’re gonna lean into ‘Everyone can do something for themselves in America,’ give people the opportunity to see that there are other forms of self-expression. Have an open-minded approach to entertainment and living life.”

Vidalia Anne Gentry, Tennessee

“Politicians are trying to push this narrative that drag is inherently sexual, and I think what is the most troubling is that, beyond the safety implications for my community, nothing is inherently sexual. The sexualness is the burden of the observer. However you decide to perceive something and how you decide to act on that perception, that’s your burden. Not the person just existing. Bodies are not inherently sexual.

“We have to look at drag as performance art. And performance art in all media is not really defined. It’s always on a spectrum. An example I’ve been using a lot is Bob Saget. You would not, under any circumstances, have taken your child to his stand-up show, but I bet you have no issue letting them watch Full House. Why are we not looking at people who are also performance artists and can also tailor their craft to their audience? It seems like the only kind of performances that politicians are allowing people to see is the kind that they want us to be allowed to have. What they’re really trying to do is make queerness disappear.

“The reason drag, queerness, and trans people are at the top of the list of marginalized people they’re attacking is because of fascism. People whose existence is fundamentally about self-expression, individuality, and being yourself are a threat to fascism, which is about shutting up and being like everybody else.”

Elena Hart, Florida

“Drag was started in the theater, and it was because women weren’t allowed to act. Roles that were written as love interests were played by two men, even though the character was female. That’s where drag started. For me, it’s evolved over the years. It is someone who really likes performing and likes the acting side of the role. The second persona, the second life. I know a lot of drag queens, and I have a lot of drag children who perform to escape reality. They either have severe depression or mental issues or are struggling with their own gender or sexuality.”

“It’s an escape because this is a character that they have made up. This is a person that doesn’t exist, but it exists to them, and it very much becomes a second person. It's a part of your life. I even refer to El as another person. I have an entire bedroom sectioned off just for her. That’s where my costumes and makeup go.”

Vivica Steele, Tennessee

“I think these bans are absolute bullshit. Seven thousand youth just marched to our state capital in the wake of the mass shooting here in Nashville, and the only thing Republicans have done is expel two Black House representatives. This idea that they care about the children is simply false.”

“As a queen of color, these laws represent the continuous issues our state has with marginalized communities. To keep them quiet, you take away their voices. The Tennessee GOP continues to attack the voices of its people by weaponizing the criminal justice system. Currently, there are an estimated 470,000 individuals in the state of Tennessee that have been convicted of felony offenses, all of whom have lost their rights to vote indefinitely. This continued effort to attack and destroy marginalized groups is of no surprise to me.”

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Melanie Curry

Mel Curry (she/her) is the current assistant editor at Cosmopolitan, where she covers everything from lifestyle to politics. You can often find her watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta or discovering local coffee roasters. Before joining Cosmo, she was an editorial assistant at Hearst Magazines, writing for Women’s Health, Elle, and more. Follow her on Instagram and the bird app aka Twitter.