Drag has thrived for centuries and across nations and cultures, as a rebellion against status quo and a means to escape rigid gender structures in conservative societies.
Take a conservative state like Idaho, in a year like 2023, and it may come as a surprise that drag remains popular in the midst of political efforts to quash it.
As Idaho observes Pride month, the celebration of queer spaces is changing. Legislators in Idaho and other conservative states have introduced measures in recent years that seek to ban or restrict drag.
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At least 19 states have introduced legislation to ban or limit children from attending drag performances in some capacity, including Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas and Montana. In June, a federal judge in Tennessee ruled the state’s new drag ban is unconstitutional, and there are active legal challenges to bans making their way through the courts in several other states.
Idaho drag performers said in a series of interviews that they feel the political, verbal and even physical threats against them, their lifestyle and their art form.
“I would love for us to be able to exist without having to fight for it,” said Natasha Elkins, who performs drag in Boise. “Being a queer person, being a drag performer, in a conservative state means you have to fight constantly just to exist. It’s exhausting. I just want to exist.”
Some Idaho conservatives seek to regulate drag, but other legislators pushed back in 2023
The Idaho House of Representatives voted in March to pass an anti-drag bill sponsored by Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, and put forth by the Idaho Family Policy Center, a conservative Christian organization.
House Bill 265 would have placed restrictions and obligations on the performance of public live drag shows that contain “sexual conduct.” Opponents said the bill would jeopardize live performance art across the state — drag shows included.
“I want everyone to be clear on what types of performances would fall within the scope of the proposed legislation,” Idaho Family Policy Center President Blaine Conzatti told legislators at a February hearing before the Idaho House State Affairs Committee. “We are not talking about humorous, gender-bending roles in Shakespearean theater. We are not talking about cheerleading performances at high school football games. We are talking about live performances that involve sexual conduct.”
Conzatti specifically told legislators the bill is meant to apply equally to drag shows, burlesque shows, erotic dancing and strip performances, according to previous Idaho Capital Sun reporting.
“It does not matter whether we are talking about a sexually explicit striptease or a sexually explicit drag show,” Conzatti said during the hearing. “Neither belongs in a public park, a public facility or other places where children are present.”
The bill failed to survive the Senate and did not become law.
Rep. Dan Garner, R-Clifton, was one of 11 Republicans who voted against the bill in the House. He said the bill was “painting everything with such a broad brush” that it could stifle cheer and dance routines, the Idaho Capital Sun reported.
Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, was among the 48 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill.
“Really, this is simply a ‘protect the children from perverts’ bill,” Skaug said in floor debate, the Sun reported.
Despite recent resistance to it, drag has persevered in Idaho. Drag shows, talks and brunches are planned for this month in cities across the state. Drag flourished even in a southern Idaho community whose conservative politics are firmly established — the Magic Valley — with drag shows in Twin Falls and an HBO documentary episode that featured the local drag community.
Modern drag was created by, and for, marginalized communities
Drag can be traced back to ancient Greece, but the 19th and 20th centuries were a new era for drag performance in America.
In the late 1800s, formerly enslaved African-American performer William Dorsey Swann, also known as “The Queen Swan,” was the first person in the U.S. to lead a queer resistance group by using the legal and political system to fight for LGBTQ+ rights. They also coined the term “queen of drag.” Swann created a counterculture out of the House of Swan, where people who were enslaved and victims of white supremacy became self-endorsed queens.
Later into the 1920s, the subculture of the underground ball began to emerge. For years, the history of ball culture, also called house culture, served as a space for queer folks and more specifically Black and Latino individuals and drag queens to perform and compete individually and within their groups (houses) in a culture that held space to represent themselves freely. Though much more present in the mainstream eye, ball culture is still very present in modern society.
More than a century later, research shows queer individuals are still disproportionately challenged when it comes to finding safety. For example, LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely than straight and cisgender youth to experience homelessness, according to a study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Some Idaho performers said the simple act of being in public in drag feels like a safety risk. They said they continue to perform in spite of that — and as a way to fight back against it, to show younger LGBTQ+ Idahoans that they aren’t alone.
Statistics from the The Trevor Project show that fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary youth find their home to be gender-affirming.
Natasha Elkins is a Boise drag performer who goes by the stage name Buck D’Licious — a bricolage of Elton John, David Bowie and Barbie Fairytopia.
Elkins has been performing as a “drag king/thing” for two years in the Boise area. For Elkins, drag is a way to feel seen.
“I’m not a person (whom) people usually would look twice at, but when I’m on stage as Buck, people see me the way I always see myself,” Elkins said. “I’ve lived my whole life as an invisible person trying to be seen — and through being on stage, through drag, people see me for me. I’m not invisible anymore.”
Drag is important because everyone deserves to feel … seen and celebrated for who they are.
– Boise drag performer Natasha Elkins, a.k.a Buck D’Licious
As a performer and security professional at The Balcony Club, a Boise gay bar, Elkins said people attempt to enter the bar with concealed guns and knives on a weekly basis. Elkins has been threatened by a man with a machete and a sword, been called slurs and intimidated, they said.
“I have an escape plan for every show I’m in, especially big ones like Pride and Treefort (Music Fest),” Elkins said. “I know where the emergency exits are, and I know my points of contact and safe locations I can run to in case of an emergency. My wife and I have been threatened multiple times.”
Taking the stage in drag, when drag performance is in political crosshairs
The first time Elkins was threatened over their drag attire is seared into their memory.
“I’ll never forget the first time it happened,” Elkins said. “My wife and I were both in drag, sitting on a bench on Idaho Street waiting for an Uber after Pride was over. People on top of the parking garages threw things at us, and a truck drove by us and four men in the truck shouted slurs at us. They even stopped next to us, and one of them got out of the truck and started approaching us. He looked like he was going to beat the hell out of us.”
Despite the dangers, Elkins said the drag community will continue to perform — and Idaho is unique in its ability to motivate and inspire them.
“This is my home,” Elkins said. “I would challenge anyone to spend a day in our breathtaking home and not be inspired. Idaho is a paradise for artists. My journey with drag not only changed my life, but it saved it. For so many artists, their work is a way for them to process their feelings and create beauty from life’s joy and pain. … Through drag, I have been able to enjoy both life’s sweetest and most bitter moments, and see the beauty in both.”
Many drag performances and shows have a secondary purpose: to raise money for charities and community needs, or to serve a liaison or ally function for individuals in need of housing and health care resources.
Frida Sanchez, who goes by the stage name Frida Nightz as a Boise drag queen, has performed drag professionally for four years.
Like Elkins, Frida Sanchez has had fears about being literally under the spotlight — as an LGBTQ+ person and as a Mexican American in mostly white Idaho.
“Lately, I have been very afraid,” Sanchez said in March. “I have pepper spray on my keychain and ensure my costumes are off before and after shows. I am also considering taking self-defense classes.”
Sanchez was raised in Idaho and recalls sitting at their high school lunch table and being told by other students that they didn’t believe in gay marriage.
Criminalizing us will not make us go away. Please, leave our trans community alone. They’ve done nothing to take away your freedom of speech and health care.
– Frida Sanchez, a drag performer from Boise who uses the stage name Frida Nightz
Sanchez went on to Boise State University as a student athlete. They struggled with major depressive disorder and were caught up in a spiral of alcohol and drugs. After taking time off to see a therapist, they celebrated their first year of sobriety. That’s when Sanchez discovered that performing was the path that brought the most joy and positivity to their life.
In 2018, Sanchez did their first drag performance as Frida Nightz inspired by female superheroes real and imagined, like Lady Gaga and Frida Kahlo, as well as Catwoman and Storm from X-Men.
“Drag for me inspires confidence, joy, love and empowerment, like I can do anything I set my mind to,” Sanchez said.
Young members of the community “that are still being ostracized by their families and kicked out of their homes (need to) know there is joy and happiness in being who they are and that they do have a family,” Sanchez said. “It’s also important for all younger viewers to see how magical and healing it is to cosplay, paint, sew, and create art with fabric and make up.”
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