Asian Spectator



Tennessee's drag ban rehashes old culture war narratives

  • Written by Heather Hensman Kettrey, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Clemson University
Tennessee's drag ban rehashes old culture war narratives

Tennessee recently passed legislation[1] that bans drag from being performed in public spaces, as well as in the view of children. Although Tennessee is the first state to enact such a ban, it is unlikely to be the last, as others with conservative legislatures are currently considering similar action[2]. Some states proposing bans have explicitly targeted Drag Story Hour[3], which involves drag performers reading books to children in public spaces such as libraries.

So why does the American public suddenly need to be protected from drag?

The answer to this question has deep roots in modern U.S. history.

Tennessee’s ban on drag is not an isolated event. Rather, it is only the latest volley in the broader culture war between American conservatives and progressives to define the values of the country.

A centurylong war

In 1991, sociologist James Davison Hunter[4] alerted Americans that the nation was in the midst of a perpetual culture war that would “continue to have reverberations not only within public policy but within the lives of ordinary Americans everywhere.”

Examples of early culture war battles include the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial[5], in which a Tennessee high school science teacher was prosecuted for violating anti-evolution laws, and the 1962 Supreme Court ruling[6] that deemed school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional.

Culture war conflict came to a head in the 1980s and 1990s, with Senate hearings over the perceived dangers of heavy metal music[7] and obscenity in rap music[8].

Social scientists largely thought the culture wars had receded[9] at the turn of the 21st century. Then former President Donald Trump’s battle cry to “Make America Great Again” rallied troops back into action.

As Hunter noted in his monumental tome, culture war disputes usually intensify during times of upheaval[10], such as changes in the country’s demographics and shifts in the distribution of political power. These shifts lead people to wonder exactly whose values, languages, religions and opportunities are respected or promoted by the government, law and popular culture.

Not surprisingly, cultural conflict tends to emerge within institutions that have practical implications for Americans’ lives: family, public schools, popular media, public art and law.

Ripe conditions for a new battle

The first Drag Story Hour took place in 2015[11]. It was organized by author and queer activist Michelle Tea and the San Francisco-based literacy nonprofit RADAR Productions. The official mission[12] of Drag Story Hour is to celebrate “reading through the glamorous art of drag” and create “diverse, accessible, and culturally-inclusive family programming where kids can express their authentic selves.”

Because these performances take place in public spaces and in front of children, they hit upon a couple of important culture war triggers.

First, public performances can spark cultural conflict because they can signify exactly whose values are prioritized over others. Second, art and performances that reach audiences of children are often perceived as a threat to the family as an institution.

For example, in the 1980s, some activists and politicians viewed profane music as a threat to the family. This led to the introduction of parental advisory labels[13] to identify music deemed inappropriate for children.

‘When librarians were nice Christian ladies’

As social scientists who study gender and culture, we recently analyzed reactions to Drag Story Hour[14] that were posted on social media forums.

In our analysis, we found that many grievances centered on institutions and values crucial to the culture wars.

We found that conservatives reminisced about a time when their values were dominant in American society and rehashed old culture war narratives about “threatened children[15].”

Group of protesters hold signs with text reading 'groomer.'
Many opponents of Drag Story Hour claim that the events endanger kids by ‘grooming’ them to be sexually exploited. Guy Smallman/Getty Images[16]

They specifically expressed nostalgia for a time when American culture was anchored by conservative values, and progressive views existed on the periphery of public life. As one forum member lamented, “When I was a kid, the librarians were nice Christian ladies and there was an American flag outside. My current public library [has] scary levels of liberal posters and talks.”

Some conservatives also used rhetoric reminiscent of the “Satanic Panic[17]” of the 1980s and 1990s by claiming that drag performers were satanic pedophiles who sought to recruit, groom and sexually abuse children. Others argued that parents who take their children to Drag Story Hour should be jailed or lose their parental rights.

The safety of children as political fodder

In our view, it’s no accident that Tennessee’s ban on drag specifically targets drag performed in front of children.

Emphasizing threats to children is a well-established strategy for conveying the decline of American culture and values. As sociologists Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle have noted, adults often project their anxieties and fears[18] concerning a perceived disintegration of traditional norms onto younger generations, whom they believe need to be shielded.

In the 1970s, anti-gay activist Anita Bryant launched her “Save our Children” campaign. Claiming that gays and lesbians were “recruiting children” to their cause, she successfully pressed voters to oppose[19] anti-discrimination statutes.

Black and white photo of woman speaking at a microphone.
In today’s opposition to Drag Story Hour, there are echoes of the rhetoric of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant. Bettmann/Getty Images[20]

And in the 1980s, fears over changing family structures[21], such as rising divorce rates and an influx of working mothers, fueled a moral panic that day care staffers were ritualistically abusing children[22].

Almost half a century later, fears regarding advancements in LGBTQ+ rights have produced legislation restricting discussions of gender identity[23] in schools and stoked claims that drag performers are satanists who terrorize children.

The deployment of these well-worn narratives is unlikely to end with legislation such as Tennessee’s drag ban. Rather, it will continue as long as conservatives and progressives battle to define American values.


  1. ^ passed legislation (
  2. ^ currently considering similar action (
  3. ^ explicitly targeted Drag Story Hour (
  4. ^ James Davison Hunter (
  5. ^ Scopes Monkey Trial (
  6. ^ Supreme Court ruling (
  7. ^ heavy metal music (
  8. ^ rap music (
  9. ^ culture wars had receded (
  10. ^ usually intensify during times of upheaval (
  11. ^ took place in 2015 (
  12. ^ official mission (
  13. ^ parental advisory labels (
  14. ^ analyzed reactions to Drag Story Hour (
  15. ^ threatened children (
  16. ^ Guy Smallman/Getty Images (
  17. ^ Satanic Panic (
  18. ^ project their anxieties and fears (
  19. ^ she successfully pressed voters to oppose (
  20. ^ Bettmann/Getty Images (
  21. ^ fears over changing family structures (
  22. ^ day care staffers were ritualistically abusing children (
  23. ^ produced legislation restricting discussions of gender identity (

Authors: Heather Hensman Kettrey, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Clemson University

Read more


Tuberkulosis sulit dikendalikan, tenaga kefarmasian bisa berperan optimal untuk atasi masalah TB di Indonesia

Tenaga kesehatan merontgen thorax pasien di RSUD Kota Tangerang, Banten, 21 Maret 2023, untuk deteksi tuberkulosis.ANTARA FOTO/Fauzan/aww.Artikel ini diterbitkan untuk memperingati Hari Tuberkulosis ...

Cara memantau bencana alam dan perubahan lingkungan dengan data satelit gratis

Lebih dari 8.000 satelit mengorbit Bumi hari ini, menangkap gambar seperti ini, dari pantai Louisiana, Amerika Serikat.NASA Earth ObservatoryApakah kamu ingin memantau perubahan hutan di Amazon ataupu...

Laporan final perubahan iklim IPCC terbit, apa yang harus kita lakukan?

IISD/ENB/Anastasia RodopoulouPerubahan iklim mengakibatkan dunia gonjang-ganjing. Namun, jika bekerja keras, masalah ini bisa kita atasi.Itulah esensi Laporan Sintesis yang diterbitkan Panel Antarpeme...

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion