When I was a little kid, I had no idea what drag was — but I knew I loved throwing my grandmother’s old velvet blanket around my shoulders and strutting up and down the hallway to music. This was how far removed I was from any notion of gay culture: I sashayed away to a tape of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” on A Prairie Home Companion.
All kids love playing dress-up of some kind, but kids today have greater and easier access to queer culture than any generation before them — as the profiles of baby drag queens in these pages demonstrate. Thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, there’s no question that drag is having a mainstream moment. Their recent VH1 finale had nearly a million viewers, making it their most watched episode ever. From your local library’s reading hour to DragCon to YouTube, there has been a subsequent boom in all-ages spaces where drag is welcome. But as the art form moves out of bars and into living rooms, what does that mean for kids playing dress-up? Or for parents of children entering into what is, at heart, a bar scene built around adult gay men and trans women? And finally, what does it mean for drag itself — which at its best is often subversive, raunchy, and cutting — to suddenly have to cater to families?
“My childhood was filled with wigs and gowns and secretly trying on my mother's tap heels because they were the only heels in the entire house,” said Sasha Velour, the winner of RPDR season 9, recounting his early days of drag. His point—one repeated by every queen, fan, and parent I spoke to — is that there have always been, and always will be, boys who like to dress up as girls, and girls who like to dress up as boys. They may be gay, or they may be trans, or they may simply be fabulous. But they are not the product of a TV show, or a sudden new trend. These kids are just more visible, for an array of reasons: greater public acceptance of gender variance, increased access to the means of artistic production (aka Instagram and iPhones), and our cultural obsession with putting precocious children on display — isn’t Toddlers & Tiaras just a drag pageant for cis girls and their (drag) mothers?
But you don’t have to be a queen to appreciate drag. Alicia Marie is a 9-year-old girl from a small city in Wisconsin, who’s been a RPDR fan since she was 4. Says her mother, Amanda, “She's always been interested in visual and performance-based arts.” And the outsize nature of drag isn’t that different from other things children enjoy, like fairy-tales and Disney movies. Amanda stresses that like all television, the family watches RPDR together, and makes choices to skip segments or discuss them afterwards with Alicia Marie if they feel it’s necessary. To Amanda, worries about the appropriateness of drag for children often seem freighted with homophobic and transphobic assumptions — as though our overly sexual culture is only a problem when the sexuality being expressed is something other than straight and cis. But she does have some issues with Alicia Marie watching RPDR. “I don't want my 9-year-old emulating the pettiness and the bickering,” she says. “But that’s just part of reality TV.”
She worried more about what it meant to bring Alicia Marie to an all-ages drag benefit at a local college—but not in the way you might expect. “It was important to me to convey that we weren't expecting the show be altered for our sake,” she says. As guests on the drag scene, she didn't want to change the nature of the event, disrupt the community, or “demand to be catered to.” Drag is art, and like any form of art, it has its own rules and standards. By talking to the organizers beforehand, they were able to decide what was appropriate for Alicia Marie to see, and since then, “she has really been embraced by the local performers. They’ve even brought her up on stage!”
In fact, for Amanda and her husband, Alicia Marie’s love of drag has been a delight. “She’s on the autism spectrum, and drag was one of her early deep interests,” Amanda says. “Before that it was school buses. This was a welcome shift.”
Regardless of why a child is interested in drag, supportive parenting is one of the keys to making it a good experience. “You set it up for a time and place — everything should be appropriate—but I say let it fly,” said Peppermint, the runner-up on RPDR season 9. As a trans woman, she emphasized that drag may be a stepping stone for a child trying to find a way to talk about their gender identity (although most trans people, she hastened to add, are not connected to the drag scene). Peppermint recalled that her grandmother, a seamstress, would sew her costumes when she was little. “I would try to lean them towards the feminine. Like, ‘could I be the female Hershey's Kiss?’ ” That support put her on the road to being the hugely successful queen she is today.
For many young performers, drag is a chance to express a true part of themselves — whether that’s their gender identity or their love of sequins — that they might otherwise not have a way to show. If there was a list of “Top 10 Drag Queens Ten and Under,” Desmond Is Amazing would be on it. Desmond’s looks aren’t what you’d expect from a child, as they draw from some deep sources of inspiration: club kids, Keith Haring, and the Lower East Side art scene of the 1980s. He has succinct words of wisdom for other youngsters looking to explore drag, whatever that might mean to them: “Don’t let anyone tell you that your drag is wrong, because it is not wrong — it is whatever you want it to be. #MyDragisMyTruth.”
Everyone I spoke to repeated the idea that drag, especially at such a young age, should be about exploration. Don’t worry about being on RPDR; “have fun and find yourself” was the dominant message. “It’s so true to the spirit of drag,” Sasha Velour once effused. “If you don’t necessarily have a context where you are welcome, you make one for yourself — and then you make it as fabulous as possible!”
Photography: M. Sharkey