The Drag Educational Model, Where Learning is Not a Drag

For a while now, drag has been caught in the crosshairs of the raging culture wars. The religious right and conservative politicians have declared drag as a degenerate form of art and used it as a tool for weaponized anti-LGBTQ litigation. As a result of this public outcry, drag performers are grossly misrepresented by spin campaigns and are in grave danger of professional and physical harm. Talking points used against drag performance are revisionist and part of an agenda that seeks to dehumanize queer communities. In reality, drag has an uplifting role evident from both past and present cultural examples in art, activism and education.

During the Elizabethan era (1558-1603) the roles of women in plays were enacted by male thespians. This was because governing organizations like the church had influence over the theater and deemed it inappropriate for women to perform on stage (Garcia, 2018). While this example does not portray the empowerment that drag can have on our expression of gender and identity, it does expose the hypocrisy of religious and political perspectives regarding these facets.

Hunter Reynolds, Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress (1993 to 2007).
Photograph by Maxine Henryson.

As history progressed, drag became its own distinct theatrical endeavor that challenged stifling regulations and sought to liberate generations of oppressed identities (see: BBC, 2019). Today, drag is a flexible practice. It is representative of mainstream entertainment, exemplified by the popularity of drag performers like RuPaul, Trixie Motel and Shangela. The powerful personas of drag entertainers might be categorized as exaggerated performances of intersectional identity. The bombastic nature of drag highlights gender signifiers and gender roles, in order to reveal how gender is performed and/or understood throughout the collective culture. Through an exuberant and fantastical lens, drag often makes profound statements about transcending the effects of oppression in society. Examples from visual art include Patina Du Prey, a persona of the late conceptual artist Hunter Reynolds. Du Prey wore clothing that Reynolds designed, which depicted activist-centered fashion statements; such as Memorial Dress (1993-2007), a black strapless ball gown and hoop skirt with the names of 25,000 people who died from AIDS adorned in gold lettering. The dress, which combines the solemness of funeral attire with the functionality of celebratory and sensual wear, is a symbol for mourning, loss, survival, healing and hope. Reynolds reflected that the dress is an audacious portrayal of hope and grief “anyone going through this sort of thing, you just have to find the strength in yourself to have hope” (quoted in Sanchez, 2022).

The playful, artful and defiant qualities of drag offer wide-reaching pedagogical benefits for intergenerational audiences. The television series We’re Here and Drag Queen Story Hour are popular programs, each offering educational value to community and classroom environments.

A powerful pedagogical message from the series We’re Here on HBO Max.
Courtesy of We’re Here.

We’re Here is a reality television show where three renowned drag queens, Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara, travel across the United States to mentor residents in the art of drag. The places that they visit are largely conservative and religiously dogmatic, but what the show emphasizes is that queer culture is part of the human condition. In addition to enlisting local individuals from the LBGTQ community, the drag queens recruit individuals who identify as a heterosexual to step out of their comfort zone by performing in drag. The beneficial results are twofold. For the LGBTQ residents, the performance provides a safe space for them to express themselves. This is depicted as a vital means for survival and self-determination in an environment that is hostile toward differentiation from what is perceived to be the norm. The heterosexual residents who perform in drag are generally aligned with LBGTQ issues, but some struggle with being a public ally due to the overarching biases of their peers. The different individuals coming together in support of their fellow neighbors shows that transformative change is possible, and that it begins with a pedagogical and social understanding of others’ lived experiences. Shangela, Bob and Eureka do what good educators do, by purposefully engaging with the community in a way that prompts them to live, learn and love through a process of self-actualization and empathetic reflection.

Drag Queen Aunt Henrik at the event Among Dragons and Drag Queens at Vallentuna Cultural Center in Vallentuna, Sweden, 2021. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) is one of several instances where drag has made the foray into traditional education. Starting in San Francisco in 2015, by author and activist Michelle Tea, the program has spread to libraries, community centers and schools across the United States, as well as internationally. DQSH performers engage in read aloud sessions and also organize craft-based activities and movement exercises. The books generally have LBGTQ characters and themes, and overarching narratives about finding one’s voice (Keenan and Lil Hot Mess, 2020). The activities are also inspired by queer culture’s knack for exploration, and include imaginative projects like tiara and costume making, as well as sing-a-longs and dances. Discussions during DQSH sessions prompt children to consider and reflect on what authentic expressions of identity involve. Through all of these collaborative endeavors, children are encouraged to revel in self-discovery, as well as being a diverse individual within a larger community.

The overarching goal of DQSH is to promote literacy and empathetic awareness about intersectional diversity. The pairing of drag queens with young learners is spot on. Drag performers and children have a lot in common. They are both often boisterous, inquisitive and expressors of active imaginations. This is why DQSH’s framework facilitates and supports the innate impulses of childhood imagination and play. The pedagogical philosophy and methodology of DQSH is very much in accordance with constructivist educational models, which most accurately account for how children develop and understand the world through actively engaging with subjects, objects, their teachers/caregivers and their peers. Through radical expressions of authenticity and camaraderie for all kinds of people, the drag educators show children what self-love and collective empathy can look like.

Drag Queen storytime with Bardada de Barbades at the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal. Photo: Jennifer Ricard, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Educational scholar Harper Keenan and Drag Story Hour activist Lil Miss Hot Mess (2020), posit that “drag pedagogy provides a performative approach to queer pedagogy that is not simply about LGBT lives, but living queerly.” Living queerly is not unlike living artfully. Both methods of interacting with the world and others, involve living a life full of unabashed pride and creative trailblazing intent. Drag performers are apt role models to facilitate involvement in this culture of empowerment and self-expression, because that is the crux of their practice. Through their confidence and bold gestures, kids are able to see instances of real-life people who defy rigid and biased restrictions. This might help them to visualize and participate in shaping a world that respects difference and values the presentation of our authentic selves.

Drag and art education share the same core principles, most notably: embracing ambiguity, flexible purposing and taking bold action and risks. Both disciplines divulge how themes and issues within life can be interpreted in multiple ways. In lieu of getting fixated and stifled looking for a clear cut solution, the art of drag teaches that resolutions require a consistent assessment of prior and present learning and experiences. Trying out new ideas and routines that are challenging and unfamiliar often leads to a more complete understanding of ourselves, as well as insight into what others’ are experiencing. Famed drag performer Nina West asserts that drag is “an opportunity for children to get creative and think outside the boxes us silly adults have crafted for them” (quoted in Wong, 2019).

We all develop cognitive, social and emotional abilities by interacting with each other and our surrounding environments. By accentuating the experiences, backgrounds and culture of each individual, drag art is the antithesis of indoctrination.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abou Nasr, Gaelle. “The Evolution of Drag: A History of Self-Expressionism,” By Arcadia, 12 December 2021.

Abraham, Amelia. “A Brief History of Drag in the Art World,” Artsy, 14 April 2017

BBC, “The History of Drag,” BBC Bitesize, May 2019.

Bryde, Lindsay and Mayberry, Tommy. 2022. RuPedagogies of Realness, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.

Garcia, Lucas. “Gender on Shakespeare’s Stage: A Brief History,” Writers Theater Blog, 21 November 2018.

Keenan, Harper and Lil Miss Hot Mess. “Drag pedagogy: The playful practice of queer imagination in early childhood,Curriculum Inquiry, 50:5, 440-461, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/03626784.2020.1864621

Sanchez, Charles. “An Artful Life,” POZ, 16 May 2022.

Wong, Curtis M. “Nina West Of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Wants Kids To Feel ‘Loved And Seen’ With New Video,” Huffington Post, May 21 May 2019.

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