If some of the nation’s more reactionary Republican governors are to be believed, one of the greatest threats to children in the United States right now is drag shows. You read that correctly. The thought would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. Because we all know that not only are drag shows not a threat to children, nor an indicator of how they will identify as they mature, but they are also hardly the last stop for the extreme right-wing that is more and more emboldened in the MAGA era.

They have already overturned Roe v. Wade, instituted huge voter suppression efforts, banned books, proliferated the number of assault weapons on our streets, spread misinformation on everything from science to election outcomes, and gone after the very idea we should be teaching about slavery and Native American genocide in our schools. And, as usual, our country’s biggest bullies are the ones who act like its biggest victims.

In the face of all of this, we applaud the City of West Hollywood for knowing who it is, embracing its flourishing drag culture, and considering it worthy of an application process that will produce and ambassador to celebrate and spread the word about the wonderful and entertaining culture that is drag.

But let’s back up and cover the nuts and bolts of the West Hollywood program’s update, presented to the city council Monday evening. The council first directed staff to develop a Drag Laureate program in October of 2020, prompting Westside Voice to share Councilmember Lauren Meister’s one simple question for staff, “Why haven’t we done this already?!”

The staff report reads, “This honorary position will serve as an official ambassador of West Hollywood’s vibrant drag culture and arts, using the position as a platform to both promote drag culture and arts in West Hollywood, and promote West Hollywood through the art form of drag performance.” The role was to have a modest stipend but several items didn’t seem thoroughly thought through.

After receiving feedback from the community and allies in the City and County of San Francisco, the staff report identifies the following changes to the Drag Laureate Program:

  • Increasing the annual honorarium to $15,000 per year to reflect a fair working wage which includes a $2,500 event budget, for an annual event planned and hosted by the Drag Laureate
  • Increase the number of events the Drag Laureate is expected to attend to 15, including City events with a focus on WeHo Pride, events supporting the local business community, and others as assigned
  • Management of the Drag Laureate program will transfer from the Business Development Division to the Arts Division within the Economic Development Department
  • The Drag Laureate will participate in the City’s Artist Bootcamp, a series of six interactive professional development workshops designed to assist artists in developing individualized plans for success
  • The Drag Laureate will participate in Media Training with the Communications Department
  • The Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission, with one representative from the LGBTQ+ Commission and one representative from the Transgender Advisory Board, will review applications and make the selection of the Drag Laureate
  • The Drag Laureate is expected to serve a two-year term beginning July 16, 2023

It is because the right wing is on the attack that Councilmember John Heilman inquired with staff about safeguards to the Drag Laureate’s recorded statements as an ambassador at events in and outside of the city; his concern is the Laureate saying anything particularly controversial or outrageous that might fuel the right-wing hatred further or bring negative attention on the city. The staff admittedly didn’t have anything concrete they could identify but did suggest they are confident the rigor of the application process will produce a Laureate with the kind of character that will set the tone as the city’s first. They think this person will also help further develop the program into what it should be over time.

Councilmember Chelsea Byers sounded enthused about the prospects for what the Drag Laureate could mean for educating different audiences about drag and opening people in various parts of the country up to it.

Mayor Pro Tem John Erickson asked if any exceptions could be made for the Drag Laureate to travel to cities or states for which West Hollywood refuses to do business because of their bigoted policies. He cited an example of allowing the Drag Laureate to travel to protest in a state considering banning drag or some other homophobic policy. Staff said the stipend in the current scope of work would only be used for sanctioned trips, but that would not prevent the person eventually chosen for the position to make what travel they wish on their own dime. They may be open to revisiting that in future Laureate cycles.

Ultimately, the staff’s scope was passed with two additions to a motion by Meister:

  • Meister’s own amendment that a proclamation be drawn up in support of drag in general following the State of Tennessee’s bigoted new law banning drag shows in public
  • Councilmember Erickson’s amendment that the next Drag Laureate cycle in 2025, and those going forward, add an equity lens to the pay/stipend involved

We applaud Meister for adding the proclamation. But really, this entire effort is the “Fuck You” the extremist American right-wing deserves. We realize that’s not why the city is developing this program. As we’ve stated, it originated in 2020, and the city already has a long-established drag tradition that should be elevated regardless of the political environment. Drag is fun, and has a great history. I hope more young people are exposed to it to expand their horizons and see that being different or enjoying being an entertainer in character is ok in this country.

That said, we hope all of MAGA learn about West Hollywood’s Drag Laureate program and lose many nights’ sleep over it.

Image by sayu_k

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