WASHINGTON (TND) — Republican lawmakers blasted top U.S. military officials on Capitol Hill Wednesday, accusing them of funding drag-based events on military bases.
During a House Armed Services Committee meeting, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., pulled no punches in his questioning of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.
Gaetz, who has passionately spared with Milley before over the intersection of culture war issues with the military — especially on discussions of Critical Race Theory in the armed forces’ leadership — pointed to images from “drag queen story hour” events on bases to begin his questioning.
“That’s DoD Insignia, that’s a drag queen story hour for children,” he claimed during the hearing, which was set to discuss the Department of Defense’s (DoD) budget requests for the 2024 fiscal year.
“How much taxpayer money should go to fund drag queen story hours on military bases?" Gaetz asked, pressing the nation’s senior-most military officials.
Gaetz put forth to Milley and Austin several examples of drag-related events for kids being held at various military bases around the globe that have been covered in the news.
Both Austin and Milley denied any official DoD support for such events on U.S. military ground — monetary or otherwise — and signaled agreement with the Florida congressman that they should not be happening at such locations.
"Drag shows are not something that the Department of Defense supports or funds,” Austin stated plainly.
Milley followed up, saying “I think those things shouldn’t be happening."
“Then why, why are they happening on military bases?" a perplexed Gaetz responded.
One of the images the congressman provided during the hearing came from a flier for a proposed — and later canceled — book reading planned for the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany. Officers at the base allegedly planned the event for June 2, 2022, to be part of Pride Month acknowledgments among the military community there.
The drag queen story time was announced on May 21 with a since-deleted post on the base library’s Facebook page. By May 27, the event was canceled. A statement made that day by the public affairs division of the 86th Airlift Wing said that the event had not been properly vetted in the first place, nor was it set in stone by the time of the announcement.
"An advertisement was posted to the base library social media page before the event had completed Ramstein's established processes for special observance coordination and approval.”
That statement did not summarily deny any future drag events on base or drag performers either, instead promising that base leaders at Ramstein “strive to foster a culture based on inclusion where all people are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their political views, color of their skin or sexual orientation."
Conservative critics claimed that the event was canceled after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., discovered the flier too and shortly thereafter sent a letter to U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. In his May 26 missive, the senior senator for the Sunshine State urged him to “immediately cancel this politically divisive event, and take appropriate disciplinary action against all involved in allowing this gross abuse of taxpayer funding to place children in a sexualized environment.”
Lt. Col. Will Powell, a spokesman for the 86th Airlift Wing, pushed back against this notion in a statement on June 1, saying the base wanted to retool the event to be more broadly inclusive rather than focus on the drag aspect.
“Rather than viewing the reading as acceptable or not,” he said, “base leaders decided it would be better to broaden it to reflect and include the larger LGBTQ+ community, in an attempt to make it more inclusive, rather than focus exclusively on one aspect of it.”
Powell emphasized the point, saying, “this decision was not based on individuals speaking out against the event or LGBTQ+ community.
Stacey Teed, a drag performer associated with an entertainment group in Germany called “Fans of the Monarchy of RoyalTEA Drag Family,” told Stars and Stripes she was contacted about reading for the proposed on-base event after she had performed a similar and “very well-received” reading for members of the military community at an off-base site the previous year.
Following the hearing, the congressman spoke to The National Desk in an exclusive interview in the Capitol rotunda. He said Milley committed to ensuring that there were no drag queen story hour events on U.S. military bases.
“I think that’s a good step,” he said. “If we focus on holding the high ground against our near-peer adversaries, then the military is fulfilling our mission to the country, rather than engaging in a political virtue signaling.”
This capital showdown over drag queens reading books to children comes as Republican lawmakers across the country are pushing to restrict drag shows in the presence of children in what they say is an effort to protect them. Conservatives often refer to drag performances as sexual in nature and therefore inappropriate for children — or accuse them of being highly misogynistic.
Tennessee is taking this battle for child safety to a new extent. The state passed legislation in February to ban drag shows in the presence of minors; the law takes effect Saturday.
According to the polling website FiveThirtyEight, Republican lawmakers in at least 16 states have introduced bills this year that seek to restrict or criminalize drag performances — and not just those in front of kids.
However, drag queens themselves would be the first to say that there is nothing sexual about what they do, especially in front of children.
"There's nothing sexualized about a drag queen reading a book to a group of children,” says Daniels Hays, who also goes by Muffy Blake Stevens, a drag queen-based in Washington, D.C. and the subject of the 2020 documentary “Queen of the Capital.”
Hays, who works by day for the federal government, says these bans are a form of censorship and a way for politicians to energize their supporters.
“Politicians of any stripe [are] using drag queens as their wedge issue to try and ignite their base and say, somehow, we’re coming for them.”
He points out that these events, which were founded in 2015 in San Francisco and aim to capture “the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models," are also not unsupervised by parents or done without parental consent.
These children are coming with their parents, [or they’re] bringing them. We’re not going out into people’s homes and saying, ‘Hi, my name is Muffy Blake Stevens do you have any children I could come in and read to?’ And even if we were, none of us are on a crusade to change anyone.
Hays has support from some officials in the U.S., like New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who praised drag queen story time in remarks last year.
“Drag storytellers, and the libraries and schools that support them, are advancing a love of diversity, personal expression, and literacy that is core to what our city embraces," he said. “At a time when our LGBTQ+ communities are under increased attack across this country, we must use our education system to educate. The goal is not only for our children to be academically smart, but also emotionally intelligent."
A majority of the American people would appear to agree with Hays and Adams. A new Marist poll shows 58% of Americans oppose laws that would restrict drag shows or performances in their state, with only 39% supporting such bans.
While these attitudes tended to break down along party lines — 61% of Republicans favored restrictions to drag shows while 73% of Democrats opposed them — a majority of Independents, 57%, oppose efforts to ban drag performances in their states.
“What we’re doing is showing our art — it is in fact an art form, the art of female illusion — and using that as a way to educate everyone about the beauty of our diversity,” said Hays. “And we are, in part, the great country we are because we have the diversity of our strength and being made up of a rainbow of people with a very diverse set of backgrounds.”