In a blog post a few months ago about “theybies,” I wrote that as increasing numbers of children declare gay, transgender, queer, and gender-creative identities and openly express their genders and desires, they are living different childhoods than generations before. These children and their parents are also changing the language that we use to describe gender, and children are gaining access to categories that were previously deemed “adult” identities or labels.
Part of my research has been to trace the ways that words like “transgender” and “gay” are applied to children, and how terminology has shifted from terms like “gender-nonconforming” to “gender-creative” or “gender-expansive.” Recently I have been paying attention to the increased visibility of a group of young folks who are calling themselves “drag kids,” children who are performing and exploring drag. I wanted to highlight a few of them here, and share a few of the things that I have been thinking about in regards to the increased visibility (on social media, in the fashion world, in print magazines) of these drag kids.
Young people have been a part of drag culture and ball culture for a long time. Many of the folks who were in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning were teens. I often think about the 13 year-old and 15 year-old who are interviewed in the street at 2:30 am, telling the interviewer about the kinship relationships within drag culture. “They treat each other like sisters, or brothers, or mothers, like I say, that is my sister, cause she is gay, and I am gay too.” One of them says that he doesn’t have a mother or a father, he is just staying with a friend. (See a clip here.) I often wonder, what happened to those kids? Did they survive the AIDS epidemic? What could they tell us about what it was like to be young and queer/gay in the late 1980s? What kind of spaces were open to them as young gay kids?
Drag has often been a place for young people who have been rejected by their own families, and drag culture has provided them with new kinship networks and chosen families. It developed as a sub-culture within a subculture, but as drag has become more mainstream with the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag Queen Storytime, as well as increased visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ identities, more and more folks are being introduced to drag and are playing around with gender and performance, including children. (Another place children are being introduced to drag is through Drag Queen Storytime, which has been happening at more and more libraries and schools around the US, and has stirred up lots of debate within conservative circles).
In the last year or two, I have noticed the rise in the visibility of very young kids, not just teens, who have been performing drag. In contrast to many of the folks seen in Paris is Burning or on RuPaul’s Drag Race, many of these young children are being supported by their families of origin. And many of them have been welcomed into the mainstream drag world, performing at RuPaul’s Drag Con and Wigstock, or being featured in mainstream fashion publications like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Elle. While I know that RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag Con are not representative of all drag, it is significant that children are gaining visibility in these spaces that have traditionally been for adult performances of gender.
Three young drag kids who have been especially visible are Desmond is Amazing, Queen Lactacia, and Pinky Punch (aka CJ from Raising My Rainbow). While they are not representative of all drag kids, as three of the most visible young queens I want to share their stories with you today, and discuss some of my thoughts about what drag means in terms of children’s access to various kinds of gendered expression.
Desmond is Amazing:
I don’t remember which Facebook friend posted the Desmond Is Amazing video that introduced me to the precocious ten-year old in 2017, but I have been following Desmond’s (very active) Instagram ever since. Desmond first got media attention in 2015 at NYC Pride when a video of him voguing during the Pride Parade went viral. In 2018 he opened Drag Con with RuPaul, was featured on the Daily Beast, walked the runway at NYC Fashion Week, starred in NYC Pride 2018’s ad campaign, and performed at Wigstock. On his Instagram (where he has over 100,000 followers) Desmond writes, “I’m a drag kid, dragutante, dragketeer, and draganista doing what I like to call kinderdrag 🍭. I’m a total drag slayer 🐉. ” It is not clear whether Desmond himself is running his account, or if it is his parents (or a bit of both).
On his website, Desmond is credited with starting the Haus of Amazing, a drag house for youth under 20, and he was interviewed for the Future is Fluid zine, which is what I am holding in the above image. In a few interviews, and on his site, Desmond explains that he is not transgender, but a boy who likes dressing in girl things, and he identifies as gay.
As far as I can tell, Desmond (or Desmond’s parents), are in part responsible for championing the term “drag kid” instead of “drag queen” for young drag artists. His bio states,
Desmond prefers to be called a “drag kid”, rather than a “drag queen”, although he is accepting of the fact that the media almost exclusively refers to him as a “10-year old drag queen”. He believes that the term “queen” should be reserved for adult drag performers. Although he wants everyone to express themselves as genuinely as possible, he is concerned about the growing trend of young teen and child drag performers to dress or act overly sexy or provocatively, much like their adult counterparts. He feels that it sends the wrong message about all young drag performers and results in added aggression, bullying, and hatred, not only from society, but from within the LGBTQ community itself. Although an often controversial topic, he would personally like to see more young people discovering a drag style that speaks to their personal truth, but is at the same time, more age appropriate.
I am assuming that this bio has been written by Desmond’s parents based on the language used, and the style of writing. I wonder if this concern “about the growing trend of young teen and child drag performers to dress or act overly sexy or provocatively” is from Desmond himself, or from his parents. I don’t like the way it seems to place the blame for bullying/aggression on children’s gender expression, vs. the perpetrators of such violence. However, the above quote does bring up questions about what it means when young children are exploring an art form that has historically included campy, vulgar, sexual, and provocative humor. How can we support and celebrate children performing drag, and support their place within the drag world, while also thinking about the differences between children and adults?
This question of the “drag kid” vs. “drag queen” also makes me think about the way that feminine gender expression is often linked to queer sexuality and hyper-sexuality more broadly. Is certain gendered expression always sexual? Or are adults sexualizing children based on their own ideas of what is appropriate or not? Should children be protected from particular versions of drag or be prevented from engaging in particular types of drag? I also wonder about the ways that drag performed by boy children or children assigned male at birth is automatically seen as sexual and perverse, while cis girl children who perform in pageants or on Toddlers in Tiaras are not critiqued in the same way.
[edited to add: There are critiques of Toddlers and Tiaras, especially in regard to the sexualization of girls, but folks are not concerned that pageant kids will be confused about gender or sexuality, which is one of the concerns about kids performing in drag.]
Queen Lactacia is a little bit younger than Desmond is Amazing, but has been featured in a variety of places, including The Advocate and Teen Vogue, and she has an Instagram account, “run by mom,” which highlights her various drag looks. Recently Lactacia performed with Desmond and a group of drag kids at the afore-mentioned Wigstock, and she also attends RuPaul’s Drag Con each year. Like many of the other drag kids, Lactacia was introduced to drag through the tv show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” at age 7, although Nemis (Lactacia’s off-stage name) had been dressing up in dresses and high-heels since he was about 2.
In the above Elle video Lactacia addresses the fact that some adults think that children shouldn’t do drag, and responds by saying that you do not have to listen to those people and that you should do what you want. She also responds to the idea that drag is not appropriate (in the Drag Con video linked above) by saying that it is about having fun and that it makes her happy because it makes her feel like herself. There have been several articles addressing the media attention to Queen Lactacia that claim that she is being abused by her parents (I am not going to link to them here, but a quick google search will provide you with many of them), which points to the ways that gender non-conformity is supposed to be bad for children.
The Elle video also shows Queen Lactacia meeting an older drag queen, Vivacious, a former contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race who gives her advice, “Keep going, learn your lyrics…give a lot of energy, people always remember your energy.” One of the arguments of my dissertation is that the supportive parents who are raising the current generation of trans, gender-creative, and gay children are considering LGBTQ adults as resources of information rather than a threat to their children. Historically queer and trans adults were considered corrupting influences that could cause children to become gay or trans, but now we see supportive parents, who are primarily cisgender and heterosexual, reaching out to LGBTQ adults for advice on how to raise and support their LGBTQ children. I trace this in my research on blogs like Raising My Rainbow, and Gendermom, and it is also evident here in the narratives around drag kids. Children are getting inspiration from the drag queens they seen in the media, and are also being mentored by them.
Pinky Punch, aka CJ from Raising My Rainbow.
I have been following CJ’s story since he was 3 years old and his mother, Lori Duron, began writing a blog about raising a gender non-conforming boy who liked to play with barbies. She began writing because she wasn’t sure if her kiddo was gay or trans or something else, and she wanted to know how to best support him. She was motivated in part by the fact that her brother is gay, and she did not want her son to experience the same rejection and bullying that her brother dealt with growing up. Since then she has written a lot about parenting a gender-creative son, has published a memoir by the same name, and has started primarily posting on Instagram, although she continues to update the blog.
CJ is now 11 and identifies as gender-creative and as a member of the LGBTQ community. He wants to be a make-up artist and drag queen when he grows up, and like Lactacia became aware of drag through RuPaul’s Drag Race. His mom’s posts about his first experiences watching the show (which he was introduced to by his Uncle at 9) are fantastic. He has participated in several Sephora make-up classes, is a hair-stylist trainee, and participated in a make-up camp where he learned to do special effects make-up, including this creepy zombie look.
In 2016 he dressed up as Bob the Drag Queen (winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race) and had the amazing experience of having Bob show up to Trick or Treat with him, thanks to the power of social media. Again, we see older drag queens are building relationships with, and mentoring younger drag kids, and their relationships are supported by the children’s parents.
This past year (2018) was a rough year for CJ as he endured some terrible bullying, but he was also the youngest grand marshal in San Francisco Pride’s history! Like Desmond is Amazing and Queen Lactacia, he also performed at Wigstock, and has attended RuPaul’s Drag Con. Recently he was featured in an episode of Kheris Roger’s “Beyond Bullied.” (It’s super cute to watch these two kids who experienced bullying for being different connect with each other). Over the years he has experimented with a variety of looks, but Pinky Punch has become his most frequent drag persona. I especially like the back stories that he creates for his looks, like the one he created out of trashbags which was what Ariel would look like coming out of a plastic-saturated ocean, or this one where he was a drag queen that got run-over.
As he has gotten older CJ has occasionally written on Raising My Rainbow himself, and I especially appreciate this post about how parents of gender-creative kids need to “do a lot more relaxing.” He also writes about the ways that he has forgotten a lot of what happened when he was younger or in kindergarten. At some point I would love to write an article about the role of memory/remembering/forgetting in narratives of queer/trans kids.
A few final thoughts:
All of the kids that I have featured above are white, and I am sure that their access to the fashion world, and their visibility in the public eye is related to race and class privilege. I wonder how much they know about the history of drag and voguing, and the beginnings of these art forms within queer communities of color. It is interesting that the two older drag queens seen interacting with and mentoring drag kids are black, and the kids are white. Lori Duron on Raising My Rainbow addresses race in part, in her blog post about CJ dressing as Bob the Drag Queen. She cautions him against going in blackface, and he is shocked that she would assume he needed to paint his skin brown. Still, I know that there is a lot more to think about here in terms of race and representation and what kinds of drag becomes mainstream.
There are some drag kids of color on Instagram, including Suzan Bee Anthony (11 years old) and Cotton Candy the Drag Kid (8 years old) who have also received some press and/or are members of the Haus of Amazing. They are both supported by their families and post a lot of great photos of themselves with their family and their drag looks.
Another thing to note is that while the three drag kids I featured (Desmond, Lactacia, Pinky Punch) all identify as boys who perform in drag, drag kids are not all boys or children who were assigned male at birth. Cotton Candy the Drag Kid is a trans girl, E! The Dragnificent is a 13 year-old gender-fluid kid, Sparkle Lynn More (10 yrs old) is an “awesome human,” and Katastrophe Jest is a non-binary 14 year old who was assigned female at birth (AFAB), who raises awareness about the fact that AFAB people can perform drag too.
In conclusion, there are lots of awesome kids doing drag, having fun with gender performance, and changing the ways that we think about drag itself. I think it is fabulous that they are able to be creative with gender and express themselves so freely, and I am curious to think more about the ways that drag kids can help us think about drag as “play.” Children learn about their worlds and identities through play, and drag is in part about playing with gender. I look forward to watching how these kids are changed by drag, and how they will also change drag itself.
Featured Image: Jackson Brady Photography.