Australia’s drag community knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of hate. But recently, they’ve been at the centre of a political storm.
Over the past six months, bigoted and sometimes violent threats have led to the cancellation of dozens of queer events across the country, a dramatic shift for a nation with a long history of drag in the cultural mainstream.
At the start of March, you’d be forgiven for thinking the country seemed to be heading in an entirely different direction.
Amongst the sequins and sparkles of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, Anthony Albanese made history when he became the first sitting prime minister to march alongside thousands of queer Australians. Never had such overt support for the LGBT community been shown by the head of state, in what many saw as a step towards a more progressive Australia.
Then the tone changed.
Less than two months later, far-right extremists were seen performing Nazi salutes on the steps of Victoria’s state parliament in support of anti-trans activist Posie Parker.
In the following months, anti-trans and homophobic protestors have come out of the woodworks, with an increased number of physical and rhetorical attacks recorded against LGBT Australians.
One of the main targets of right-wing ire has been Drag Queen Story Hour events, where drag performers read classic tales and stories of inclusion to young children. The events are intended to act as an educational way of introducing children to queer members of society, but many have been forced to cancel due to a slew of hate messages and violent threats directed towards performers.
Co-owner of Phish and Phreak and Canberra-based drag queen, Faux née Phish says she has felt the impact of the newfound vocal bigotry firsthand. “I’ve found it really disturbing and distressing,” says Phish.
“I was working in the libraries for a little bit and trying to run some drag story times and we got hate calls and threats to the staff and online comments, whereas before COVID…there was nothing.”
Much of the hateful rhetoric revolves around a baseless ‘groomer’ narrative, reviving a decades-old attempt to associate queer people with paedophilia.
“It’s insulting because it’s implying that we’re sex offenders, that we don’t know how to be appropriate in front of children,” says Phish.
“Just because we do nightclub shows somehow we don’t understand how to behave in any other contexts. Actors who do voiceovers for [children’s] animations do serious adult films with sex scenes and nobody at all makes that link.”
Phish has an academic background in early childhood education and says it’s incredibly important for children and young people to interact with those different from themselves.
“One of the things I looked at was how quickly and early biases form, purely based off what [children] are exposed to in the first three years. The best thing to mitigate the human tendency to be afraid of difference is to have exposure.”
Canberra drag queen, Faux née Phish says it's been too difficult to continue drag queen story time events in Canberra
While the drag scene may be relatively new to Canberra, drag and cross-dressing has long been a part of cultural expression and has even had mainstream acceptance in certain cases.
From Shakespearean plays to RuPaul’s Drag Race; audiences have enjoyed gender-bending performances for much of human history. Generations of Australians will fondly remember films like ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ and the late Barry Humphries’ purple-haired creation, Dame Edna Everage.
So how did we get here?
Community engagement manager at Meridian, Lee Caldwell, says that cultural attitudes from the United States are partly to blame.
“I think there’s a sort of trickle-down effect from what’s happening in the U.S,” says Lee.
“There’s lots of disinformation flying around and people intentionally planting seeds in people’s minds.”
Indeed, widespread protests in Australia come as the Human Rights Campaign announced a “state of emergency” for LGBT people in the United States.
American lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills targeting drag performers and transgender youth and adults.
Florida has emerged as one of the main battlegrounds for LGBT rights, banning gender-affirming healthcare for minors and attempting to pass laws which would bar children from attending drag shows.
Lee says that the increase in hate is not surprising, especially as transgender people have become more visible in society.
“We have a lot more trans people in the media, film, television and politics…and when you have that rise in visibility, you’re going to have rise in opposition,” he says.
“Drag queens and trans women have been unduly focused on as people to be frightened of,” says Lee.
“It’s very easy for society to hate on people that they don’t know or have never met on the basis of fear and misunderstanding.”
Meridian has seen a sharp increase in the number of queer youth presenting with complex mental health problems in recent years. One of the main contributors is marginalisation due to sexual and gender identity.
Lee says that for things to improve, systemic change is vital.
“When we’re talking about the very culture of a society changing in any way, what we need is people at the top of any given tree to stand and act as a proud ally to any cohort that is marginalised,” he says.
While Lee is hopeful that in Australia transphobia and homophobia won’t become as acute as the US, he says that activists must not become complacent.
“I don’t think progress is linear…there are always going to be cohorts who are going to pathologise trans and sexually diverse experiences,” he says.
Despite some instances of anti-LGBT opposition, Lee points to the ACT as an example of diversity and inclusion.
“Canberra is a real hotbed for what can happen when you become a little bit more progressive,” he says.
“And you know what? The world doesn’t cave in.”