Look Over There! Small Boats, Drag Queen Story Time & Gary Bloody Lineker

Cancel culture is rife. The hot topics in recent weeks reek of distraction. Both the coverage of the debate about drag queen story time, and the xenophobic narrative around immigration are part of a much wider attempt by the mainstream media to gaslight the general public into a moral panic.

Since the Brexit referendum the media seems to focus obsessively on just one issue for weeks, if not months, at a time. It’s like in primary school when the teacher would plan a theme for the entire half-term, and every single lesson from maths to history would relate to this theme, however tenuously. 

First there was Brexit. Then Covid. After Covid came Party-gate and the war. We had a veil of relief from the war for a couple of months to mourn the Queen’s death. The other Liz had her five minutes. The cost of living crisis was next, and then to distract from the real-life consequences of Brexit and the Covid lockdowns the media found a fresh theme to focus on – illegal immigration. Yes, that old chestnut.

Riddle me this – if Brexit was about “taking back control” of our borders, then how come we don’t seem to have any more control now compared to when we were part of the European Union? Why then were our borders not shut when a supposedly deadly virus was making its way around the world, and the entire country was under lockdown? If dangerous Channel crossings have increased so worryingly since Brexit, why hasn’t the issue been solved with all this new sovereignty we suddenly have lying around?

The fact so many people are attempting to cross the Channel in small boats and rubber dinghies is undoubtedly a problem. It’s dangerous, it’s facilitated by an organised criminal network, and it bypasses the established legal routes encouraging others to do the same. Whilst a proportion of the people on the small boats may be regarded as economic migrants (despite there being no evidence of this), a greater proportion will still be genuine refugees fleeing conflict, persecution, and torture – surely they deserve our assistance. You also now have to actually be physically in the UK in order to claim asylum, so how else are refugees to find sanctuary in our country?

I can understand opposition to a certain extent. The people crossing the Channel are already in a safe and prosperous country, thousands of miles away from the danger they have fled, and having crossed multiple borders already. I do find it strange – considering how younger generations tend to believe this country is intrinsically racist, coupled with the general shit show from our politicians – why anyone would want to migrate to the UK, refugee or otherwise. I can’t wait to leave.

Certainly – English is a common second language. In addition, people come here to join their families, and who are we to deny a relatively better life to anyone? But is it a better life? I’ve never seen any issue with people migrating to the UK from anywhere. As far as I’m concerned, you’re more than welcome here. Please stay and help fix the mess we’ve made, but I beg you to not put yourself in danger to get here because it really isn’t worth it.

Personally, I think we should be sending free ferries to France for anyone who wants to come. If we treat refugees with dignity and respect it’s highly likely they will thrive here and become contributing members to our society. It’s important people who migrate to this country respect the values of British culture – freedom of choice, expression, thought, and speech; democracy and the democratic process; tolerance; a fair trial; freedom from physical harm; the rights of women; the rights of children; etc.. What would also be lovely is if the British could find a way to respect these values too.

Moving on – conservative pundits have had a series of field days full of angry titillation in relation to the exposure of children to drag queens and gender non-conformity. Surprisingly, the most reasonable and balanced discussion on this topic I’ve heard has starred none other than walking-controversy Laurence Fox in conversation with drag sensation Vanity Von Glow. I highly recommend watching the clip on YouTube.

I love drag. I admire the defiance and bravery of drag artists, and I know plenty of drag queens personally. As many children in the UK do, I saw a drag performance for the first time when I was about 5-years-old at the pantomime. A take on an older Shakespearean tradition, the panto dame is always played by a man, and the first boy is often played by a woman, subtly introducing children to the performative aspect of gender from a young age.

I saw drag queens in Ibiza on holiday as a child, and as a teenager I eventually went through an obsession with RuPaul’s Drag Race. When I lived in Brighton I worked in pubs and bars, where I saw a live cabaret almost every night. Drag is a diverse art form, and needn’t be universally restricted by age or place. 

Due to their popularity, many drag queens are in a perfect position to be ambassadors for the wider LGBT population, and this explains why drag is being pushed further into the public domain. Drag queens are loud in every sense of the word, they’re impossible to ignore, and they’ve been at the forefront of the gay rights movement since its inception.

Drag queens inherently present no more or less of a threat to children than any other demographic of artist, influencer, or role model. In fact, statistically speaking you’re better off leaving your child at a drag bar than you are at choir practise. Please don’t, though, the drag queens certainly wouldn’t thank you.

Many drag artists perform in bars and nightclubs, but others also work as children’s entertainers somewhere between a clown and a magician. Illusionists doing their thing. As many of the night-time-economy drag artists have pointed out, they can’t imagine anything worse than performing for children, but they themselves would exercise parental discretion to not expose their own children to the more risqué trends in the scene.

There are several reasons drag queen story time is receiving such backlash in the media and from the general public. The first is a question of relevance – what exactly is the point of drag queen story time? I’ve asked various drag artists this question and the most obvious answer is so children have visible and positive examples of LGBT diversity within our society. My response has been – do they not already? 

Gok Wan, Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig, Tom Allen, Rylan Clark, Gina Yashere, Ian McKellen, Paul O’Grady, Alan Carr, Olly Alexander, Russel Tovey, Jacqueline Wilson, Holland Taylor, Sue Perkins, Ellen Degeneres, Portia de Rossi, Lily Tomlin, Sarah Paulson, Neil Patrick Harris, John Barrowman, Ricky Martin, Harvey Fierstein, Leslie Jordan, Adam Lambert, virtually the entire cast of every season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Laverne Cox, Munroe Bergdorf, Blaire White, Natalie Wynn, Isis King, M.J. Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Kim Petras, I could go on for quite a while.

Another reason cited is the literary content of some of the books being read to children by drag performers, and generally similar content which is readily available in or recommended via school libraries. A few books which advise children there’s an array of gender identities to choose from like a tuck shop, and it’s possible for them to be in the ‘wrong’ body and to change their sex. Books parroting lies such as if you’re a boy who likes ‘girly’ things then you’re actually a girl in a boys body (and vice versa), and both can and must materially change this. 

The oversimplification of complex concepts, an incredibly difficult process, and irreversible life-changing decisions – for little humans who’ve barely developed the capacity to tie their own shoelaces – is objectively harmful. It conflates the complex cognitive understanding and attitudes of adults with the limited capacity and highly creative imagination of children. Gender is an abstract and subjective political concept, children have the right to live free from such intrusions on their childhood – just let children be themselves without worrying they might need to drastically change major aspects of their physical being and social existence.

Most people don’t have any issue with LGBT representation, and arguably we are proportionally overrepresented in ‘Western’ media. Having LGBT characters is the norm, and it’s gotten far deeper than tropes and tokenism. There would probably be less backlash if drag queens were only reading Horrid Henry books to a room full of primary school pupils. This would simply be part of a wider cultural programme to expose children to different kinds of people – disabled veterans, butch lesbians, firefighters, former refugees, etcetera. Except sometimes it’s going further than just an appreciation of diversity, literature, and the joy of reading.

When explaining complex things to children, such as sexuality, we start off with the building blocks – for example, children’s books about families also feature gay parents, reconstituted families, and so on, without any extraneous detail. Pre-puberty, children do not need to learn about the ins and outs of sex (pun 100% intended), whether its homosexual or heterosexual. The opposition to such premature education is understandable.

Gender is an even more complex subject matter. The building blocks necessary to begin understanding what we mean when we say gender are at the very least GCSE, if not undergraduate, level – given gender relates to a broad syllabus of academic theory and research, not to mention how little is actually known about transgender people and healthcare in the first place. 

There’s a fair argument to be made that we shouldn’t be confusing children with the complexity of gender identity and the concept of transition, and instead focus our resources on identifying children who are actually suffering and help them. It would then be pertinent to encourage tolerance, apparently core a British value, among children in relation to diverse gender expression – for example, using a trans person’s chosen name, and not picking on boys for wearing skirts. These are achievable aims, attempting to instil some sense of genuine and meaningful understanding about gender transition in children – not so much. Most adults don’t understand.

The other reason drag story time is a hot topic at the moment is the handful of widely-distributed videos of sexually provocative performances – for whatever reason – in front of children. Some are worse than others. 

If you’re going to dance in nothing but a wig, heels, and a thong in front of young families, be recorded while doing so, and have this video put onto the internet for all to see – I’m keen to know exactly what kind of response was to be expected? Applause from the Midwestern and Southern states of the USA, perhaps? Parents in the North of England eager to book you for their kid’s seventh birthday? Australian journalists writing about what a positive influence on children you are?

There’s certainly been an overreaction from the conservative media and certain states in the USA about drag queens around children. As Vanity Von Glow stated, there’s been a “concept inflation” of terms like ‘grooming’ and this is harmful and painful for LGBT communities. Especially given we’ve had to deal with such insinuations and accusations for time immemorial, how precisely do instances such as this help with that?

As many people have pointed out – where’s the outrage at the Catholic Church? Where’s the outrage at the actual gangs grooming children and teenagers all over the UK? The outrage is there if you look for it, it’s just not currently in the spotlight. You’ll find ardent opposition to this outrage too – often cited as classism, xenophobia, islamophobia, and whatever the equivalent is for Christianity. Sometimes people from oppressed groups and minorities do bad or undesirable things, regardless it’s not in our interests to defend their actions.

There’s simple solutions to ameliorate this growing opposition to drag artists in public spaces and around children. Firstly, consider whether your act is appropriate, and amend if it isn’t (as most do). Wear clothes (as most do). Don’t twerk in a toddler’s face (I’ve only seen it the once); and don’t unnecessarily confuse children with complex and controversial academic, medical, and scientific concepts. By all means do emphasise the value of creativity and free gender exploration and expression, rather than calling parents fascists because they have legitimate concerns about the appropriateness of certain acts and ideas for the eyes and ears of their children.

It may be the case some concerns surrounding drag queen story time and migrants on small boats are legitimate, but there are also undercurrents of homophobia, transphobia, and racism which characterise the more extreme views being expressed in relation to these issues. Some of the language used to describe refugees, for example, is absolutely disgraceful. As Gary Lineker lost his job for pointing out, despite the general lack of socialism, the nationalist and dehumanising rhetoric is wholly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.

These are not major existential threats, or even moderate threats, to our society and culture. They are merely distractions from the real issues at hand – the cost of living crisis, and the net negative consequences of Brexit and the lockdowns. All of which is the fault of the entire House of Commons, including His Majesty’s Opposition, who have fundamentally failed to oppose the Conservatives for thirteen years. 

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