Last month, Montana became the first state to explicitly ban the act of people reading books to children dressed in drag at public schools and libraries. This oppressive law comes on the heels of other legislation and proposed bills in states like Florida, Tennessee and nearly a dozen others all seeking to ban drag performance in various ways.
And yet, drag queens carry on, continuing to fill their calendars with performances during Pride Month and throughout the rest of this summer. In fact, at Motor City Pride this year, which is being held June 10 and 11 in Hart Plaza in Detroit, not only are queens booked as entertainment, they are being rightfully honored as the grand marshals of the Pride parade, beginning that Sunday at noon.
“In recognition of the challenges they are facing,” says Motor City Pride Chairperson Dave Wait, “we’re asking individuals to represent the community and to be on floats to really show that we’re in support of the entire drag and trans community despite the backlash and rhetoric going on across the country. We want to show that Michigan is a welcoming state.”
This year, headlining the Pride Stage at Motor City Pride during “Sabin’s Drag Revue” will be, naturally, Detroit’s own Sabin, along with two “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alumni: Robin Fierce and Jasmine Kennedie. Unsurprisingly, Kennedie feels the national anti-drag sentiment has only intensified since she began performing almost 10 years ago. She said it was especially palpable on tour at the end of 2022, during the tour for “A Drag Queen Christmas.”
“As a trans queen, my whole personal being is being attacked right now — especially in person,” Kennedie tells Pride Source. “Every tour stop from Amarillo, Texas, and on had protesters; we had bomb threats, and we had to have police with dogs sniff our facilities before performing.”
Sabin says that after performing in one of the Florida venues Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had attempted to sanction after the Christmas tour had passed through in December 2022, her love for Detroit and Michigan as a whole was reaffirmed.
“You could feel hesitancy from everyone and the looming of ‘What comes next?’ There was kind of an outside force working against us even before we got there,” Sabin says. “While I’ve never felt it before, because of the art that I do, this is probably the safest state for me to be in right now because of the elected officials that we have in place.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have all voiced their support for the LGBTQ+ community and actively worked to codify protections for the community within Michigan. Still, Michigan hasn’t been free from its own slew of anti-drag protests and debates in recent months, including a small group of conservative protesters who were rattled by a Drag Queen Story Hour event being held at Sidetrack Bookshop in Royal Oak. They were ultimately outnumbered by hundreds of pro-queer community members and allies. Sabin shared that during brunch shows she has hosted, there have been times when people have been confrontational.
“I have had people that have walked in wearing Trump hats. And you’re welcome to that opinion, but I also slip little jokes in that make them uncomfortable,” Sabin says, “because you came in wearing your hat to prove a point, but I can also make you uncomfortable.”
Sabin added that during these kinds of situations, she leans into humor and makes a point of using the discomfort that exists to amplify her voice, denounce hate and make clear that wherever she is, “that is a safe space.”
Robin Fierce says that at many shows, she too will make a point of encouraging everyone in attendance to vote and be aware of legislation that is targeting queens across the nation. She points out that anti-drag legislation is a thinly veiled attempt at passing anti-transgender laws, since the drag and trans communities are often incorrectly conflated.
“I feel like it’s harder to come for trans people as people as opposed to drag as an art that they see as the same thing — which it’s not,” Fierce tells Pride Source. “They’re acting like it’s a new thing, and it’s not. It’s been around in this country forever — not hurting people, genuinely not doing things to children or anything like that. Drag Queen Story Hours have been around for forever and even some of peoples’ favorite movies involve a drag queen — they were fine going out to watch ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ but now want to actually take that away from drag queens across America.”
Kennedie agrees, adding that drag bans are simply a tool conservative Republican politicians can use to gain support for their party, distracting from more pressing issues like gun violence and sexual abuse by religious leaders. She said drag is an art form with many forms and applications, and that any sexual elements that might be present in some performances certainly do not reflect the only way of doing drag, despite politicians portraying them as sexually-oriented adult entertainers in blanket drag bans.
“For me, I like to show [my] body to give an essence of a woman, and for kids that’s not necessarily age-appropriate. I also agree that it’s up to the parents’ discretion to make that choice for the child. I am not going to be hired for a kid’s show and do that type of performance. I know my audience and my demographic,” Kennedie says. “I think what the Republicans are losing sight of here is that drag itself is an art form and it can be expressed in any way, just like acting, just like writing a script, just like writing books.”
Fierce added that despite the backlash drag queens are facing now, she would never consider changing any element of her performance to appeal to those who protest drag despite knowing nothing about it.
“I haven’t changed what I’m doing nor do I suggest anyone change what they’re doing, because we’re not doing anything wrong; we’re just trying to do our art,” she says. “Live your life, and stand up for the things you believe in, but don’t change just because people are all of a sudden trying to come for drag queens that have been around before America.”
Ahead of Motor City Pride, Robin emphasized that this year it’s important to celebrate, but remember that Pride shouldn’t be just a party, but an opportunity to reflect on the “hard work that went into getting here” and “we have a lot of work to do.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” alumnus Orion Story, who is based in Grand Rapids, is set to perform at Lansing Pride on June 17. Orion anticipates the event will be one of the biggest Pride celebrations in recent memory because of ongoing anti-drag sentiment, emphasizing that the biggest voice the LGBTQ+ community has for change is on voting day.
“The biggest voice is action,” Orion says. “It’s scary that people are coming to Drag Queen Story Hours with guns and sitting outside and sending death threats and harassing, and a lot of the time the law is protecting those people. It’s one of those times where, even if you’re not political, you have to be. You have to be sure to be registered to vote.”