Philly drag performers press on despite national backlash  

Local drag performers at City Hall. (Photo by Kelly Burkhardt)

Vilification of drag shows and drag queens has been a growing part of the conservative political attacks against the LGBTQ community, with Republican lawmakers framing drag performances as harmful to children because of their perceived sexually-charged content. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill into law that penalizes establishments if they “admit a minor to an adult live performance,” and bills have been introduced in at least 14 other U.S. states, including Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kentucky. 

At least two Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers have spoken about introducing bills classifying drag as adult entertainment, but they have little chance of passing the Democrat-led House. In Philadelphia, which is considered a sanctuary city for LGBTQ communities, local drag performers and LGBTQ bar owners are largely unfazed by the political climate.  

VinChelle, a drag performer who runs Big Wig Brunch at Punch Line Philly, has been doing drag since 2015.

“I haven’t seen this much hate towards drag and it’s quite insane to me,” VinChelle said. “I want to know what the big switch was, because it wasn’t always like this. There have always been drag story hours, there’s always been drag queens performing with kids, so I don’t understand why now we are dissecting it.” 

VinChelle said that to be cautious, she has modified some things about her drag performances. Her weekly Big Wig brunch was previously open to all ages, but now patrons must be at least 21 to enter. She also puts thought into what she’s wearing when she performs in front of kids, such as avoiding short cut dresses. Still, she has never been the kind of queen to wear a leotard for a children’s performance, she said. 

“I personally don’t think that that is appropriate for kids,” VinChelle added. “However, drag is definitely appropriate. I think drag is like anything else, like a movie. Some movies are suitable for some kids and some movies aren’t. Some drag performances are suitable for some kids and some aren’t. I know when I’m booked for a kids show I will be fully covered, and I’m going to do numbers that don’t have a lot of cursing in it and that don’t have any sexual language in it.”

Deej Nutz is a local drag and burlesque performer who identifies as a drag king, but prefers the term drag royal because it’s not gendered. Even though they haven’t changed the way they perform because of the backlash around drag, they’re still impacted by it “because the people who are trying to make legislation to ban drag, it includes all of us.” They pointed out that most drag shows are 18+ or 21+ to enter, so children are not typically exposed to drag shows with adult content. 

“Drag has been around for decades,” Deej Nutz added. “If you go back to the founding fathers, weren’t all those people wearing powdered wigs? Is that not drag? [Conservatives] are always throwing out the ‘we’re trying to protect the children’ narrative. Are they really, or does this make them uncomfortable? Point fingers at the people who are the problem; we’re just sharing our art, we’re doing our jobs.”

Brittany Lynn, also known as Ian Morrison, is probably best known for Philly Drag Mafia and Drag Queen Story Time. She develops her program with child educators and librarians to find the right books to teach kids how to read. 

“My Drag Queen Story Time page has all of the videos and live streams from my events,” Morrison said. “You can actually watch what we do at our story times, and if you think watching me read stories is harmful to children, come on now. These people are [saying], ‘these drag queens are getting naked in front of children and trying to have sex with them.’ I don’t know what page you’re looking at, but that’s not my page.”

Lynn, along with Vinchelle and 8 other local performers, posed with Democratic mayoral candidates in a PGN photo shoot to rally against anti-drag legislation.

For trans/nonbinary drag performer Icon Ebony Fierce, the framing of drag performers as people who corrupt children is just another way of oppressing the trans community. 

“I feel like it’s an excuse to put in laws against trans folks because the language of all these laws is very transphobic,” Icon said. “Historically a lot of trans performers are based in the south and perform drag.”

Through their work at galaei, Icon organized the protest “Drag is not a Crime” in April 2023. It consisted of a rally, march and performances by QTBIPOC drag artists at City Hall. They hope to make it an annual protest.  

“Historically, drag has always been a form of protest,” Icon said. “Drag performers have been at the forefront of gay Pride and gay marching. What [better] example is there of Pride than somebody expressing gender in a way that is enhanced and camp and theatrical? We are all just making fun of what society has made us believe about what gender is.” 

The culminating performances for “Drag is not a Crime” took place at the local bar Cockatoo, where Ram Krishnan is the owner and manager. He said that he has taken some extra security precautions for drag shows, where he stands just outside the venue to surveille the immediate surroundings and keeps the building’s side doors closed during performances. Nonetheless, the anti-drag political climate hasn’t really changed much about how Krishnan operates Cockatoo from a business standpoint, he said. 

“I surely think that it has changed for people of the trans community and the drag community,” Krishnan said. “I think the story is still to be fully unraveled, and we’ve yet to know where this is going to end up. A lot of this is part of that machine that is trying to go after minorities, the trans community.” 

Still, he acknowledged that Philadelphia is a relatively safe city for drag performances. 

“We also have a large community, we’re very visible,” Krishnan said. “We talk to each other as business owners, we kind of know what’s going on. We keep an eye through the [crime app] Citizen and other social media to see if there’s any chatter going on.” 

Oskar and Katrina Duva, who manage Bob and Barbara’s, both said that they have not felt any negative effects of the backlash surrounding drag. Lisa Lisa, who puts on a weekly drag show at the bar, echoed the Duvas’ opinion on the issue.  

Jane Lipton, who runs Fat Lady Brewing in Manayunk, packed her bar’s calendar with all kinds of entertainment for Pride month, including drag bingo, burlesque and cabaret performances, LGBTQ movie nights and dance parties. 

Lipton is a lesbian who lived through the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when some of her close friends were getting sick and dying. As such, when it comes to fighting oppressive attacks on the LGBTQ community, she adopted the mentality that arose from the ACT UP slogan “silence equals death.” 

“Visibility is the key to the long-range goals of absolute equality,” Lipton said. “I refuse to step back from promoting these and other events that represent a segment of our humanity, a segment of our friends, family and neighbors in a positive and joyful light. We can’t forget how far we’ve come and how hard the work was, and how many people had to die or not live their authentic selves. It’s not reasonable to expect people to not take pride in who they are.”