In late March, the Judicial Committee for the Nebraska Legislature heard public testimony over LB 371, a bill that would criminalize drag shows where minors are present. Opponents vastly outnumbered supporters, with a line extending beyond the committee room and snaking along the hall. The group of supporters was smaller, but their claims were bold. “Queer theory is a nationwide playbook trying to indoctrinate our children!” one supporter exclaimed. Another called Drag Story Hour “sexually manipulative sleaze.” “Stop twerking our kids!” one testifier defiantly yelled to end her speech.
Nebraska’s bill is but one example of the dozens of others that are currently circulating across the country, including in Tennessee, where a “drag ban” was scheduled to go into effect on April 1 until a judge tapped the brakes over First Amendment concerns. While on the surface these laws may deal with cabaret licensing and zoning issues, their driving impulse is clear: They represent yet another legal attack on transgender people (whom many of the bills sweep up with drag performers through intentionally vague language about gendered clothing) in a year of record-setting legislation restricting their rights and autonomy. But even with that in mind, compared to the myriad social problems facing America, focusing so much energy on drag seems absurd, at least if you’re on the left. Irreparable harm results when preschoolers see … drag queens wearing princess dresses and reading Hop on Pop at the local library? Really? It all feels like a stretch, even for religious conservatives.
So why do these bills garner such emphatic support among those on the Christian right? As sociologists who study conservative Protestants’ discussions of faith, gender, and sexuality, we believe the answer lies not so much in claims about drag performers and trans people (distinct but sometimes overlapping groups) as it does in conservative Protestants’ own sense of themselves.
In a 10-year ethnographic study of the religious experiences of LGBTQ and allied conservative Protestants conducted with Theresa Tobin, Dawne Moon has noticed a number of seeming paradoxes: The all-powerful, all-loving creator of the universe is threatened by trans and intersex people’s existence, even though Jesus had no problem with eunuchs. Pastors at a megachurch turned a blind eye to a married straight man hitting on women at church, but confronted a gay man, whom they required to be celibate, because someone had reported seeing him “on a date” (meaning eating at a restaurant with a friend who was a man). And “Lisa,” a 29-year-old lesbian from Texas, told us that growing up, she learned that being gay “was the one thing that you never, ever wanted to be as a Christian. To me, I felt like the church thought it was the worst sin ever. Higher than murder or something.” Lisa and many others we spoke with learned from church that murderers can be forgiven, but being LGBTQ is uniquely unforgivable.
All of these paradoxes make more sense when you realize that for a lot of conservative Protestants, rigid gender roles are not just the traditional default, but a commandment upon which all of creation rests—more important, in practice if not on paper, than the Ten Commandments, including loving God and neighbor. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor James M. Hamilton Jr. has said that complementarity—the belief that God assigns different, “complementary” roles to men and women through biology—is like gravity in a story about a plane crash: the force that makes everything possible and gives life meaning. In the same book, STBS President Albert Mohler calls gender complementarity “the Bible’s most fundamental revelation about what it means to be human.”
In a 2022 national survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 75 percent of white evangelicals reported that they felt strongly that there are only two genders, man or woman, compared to only 44 percent of adult Americans overall. Only 4 percent of white evangelicals felt strongly that there is a range of many possible gender identities. This helps explain why this group, compared to all other religious and nonreligious Americans, are the most supportive of laws restricting transgender equality.
But what about drag? The conservative Protestant worldview insists that differences between men and women are dictated by God and embedded in biology, and generally speaking, drag challenges this assumption, highlighting how “masculine” and “feminine” qualities can overlap, being more like a spectrum than a stark opposition. Drag reveals, in the words of social theorist Judith Butler (whom conservatives namecheck disparagingly more often than you might think), that gender is a “copy of a copy, for which there is no original.” For centuries in Western culture, drag has played with gendered ideals, showing that some men can do the same things women do to look feminine—put on makeup, wigs, high heels, and push-up bras and shapewear, and walk and talk in “feminine” ways—and often approximate the feminine ideal more closely than many women. Drag plays with gender, revealing the invisible work that makes masculine and feminine seem like natural opposites. For conservative Protestants especially, this kind of fun, performative play highlights contradictions in their beliefs about gender. Take, for instance, this troublesome puzzle: Men are supposed to be the rational ones, but they are also supposedly “naturally” sexually aggressive—so much so that they can’t be expected to control their sexual urges.
Women are supposed to be passive and submissive, and yet they must curb men’s sexual aggression—and look pretty while doing it.
Evangelicals may respond to these seeming contradictions by acknowledging that of course gender roles can bend, even as they hold firmly to their belief in the immutability of gender identity. Kelsy Burke has written about the thousands of evangelical users of Christian sex advice websites who troubleshoot their sexual problems with online communities of fellow believers. One of the most surprising findings from this research is that some evangelical men use these sites to ask questions about—and gain validation for—their interest in gender-subversive sex acts, including pegging and wearing women’s underwear.
The logic these website users presented was that if a man’s wife knew about and supported his interest (thus affirming his identity as a heterosexual man, not some secret closet-case) and if that man had prayerfully contemplated his sexual desires, then other evangelicals using these websites would not condemn such an interest. As one website user who was interested in pegging described on a message board forum, “I was talking to God about it AGAIN, and I really felt the Lord say to me ‘I love what you and [your] wife have together.’ ”
A Bible verse that the people in Burke’s study constantly referenced was Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled.” In the words of Kevin Leman, author of a popular Christian sex advice book, “The Bible is amazingly free in what it allows and even encourages a married couple to do in bed.” In other words, for some evangelicals at least, gender “play” is possible—in private—so long as the wife affirms that the husband is a “real man,” and man and woman unite in monogamous, heterosexual matrimony. What a married Christian couple does in their bedroom is nobody else’s business, because God says so.
Given these findings, it makes sense that conservative lawmakers see drag as inevitably “sexualizing,” even when their performances involve merely reading Green Eggs and Ham to a room full of children. The problem with drag shows for conservative evangelicals is that they are public displays of gender—“sexual” ones, even—that challenge immutable gender difference rather than affirming it. For people who think gender is something that God sends people to hell over, it’s not something to play with at all—at least, not outside of the marital bedroom. And that’s a big part of the supposed “threat” of Drag Story Hour events, that kids will learn that gender isn’t inherently sexual, that they can play with it too. Of course, anti-drag bills aren’t “protecting” kids from anything other than the freedom to be themselves without having to constantly try to perform gendered ideals. And whatever God ultimately thinks about playing dress-up, here on earth, trying to control who does it where says a lot more about the people seeking the control than the ones having all the fun.