During the fall of 2022, Drag Story Hour—an event designed to teach children about gender inclusivity—drew protests outside the Arlington Hills Public Library in St. Paul. 

In response to about 30 conservative protesters, more than 100 supporters arrived equipped with cozy quilts, bubble machines, and signs expressing solidarity, determined to create an oasis of acceptance for children and their caregivers attending the story hour. 

“Everybody was just dancing. It felt like a mini ballroom,” said Pedra Pepa, a Venezuelan drag burlesque performer and member of Drag Story Hour. (Pepa uses they/them pronouns and prefers to use their stage name to deter harassment.) “With all of the very targeted, very sad, and grotesque hate we were getting, to have so much support was incredible.” 

Drag Story Hour at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Credit: Jason Bucklin

Across the nation, nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills are gaining traction in state legislatures, some targeting drag performers. Critics call such measures discriminatory, saying they impose unconstitutional restrictions on LGBTQ expression in public spheres.

“The protests have definitely started in response to harmful and inaccurate rhetoric that is being deliberately shared in order to manipulate people,” said Old Man Zimmer, a Drag Story Hour member who also prefers to go by their stage name. “It’s not only hurting queer people and queer families, but it’s taking advantage of people who are misinformed to get people to do harmful things.” 

In response to the intensifying challenges, the Minneapolis City Council adopted a resolution on June 28 “honoring drag performance and culture as a form of free speech.”

“It’s not just for our community here in Minneapolis, but it’s for communities all around the country,” City Council president Andrea Jenkins said at that meeting. “We know that drag, drag culture, and the LGBTQ community at large, and specifically our trans youth, are being attacked each and every day in legislatures and city halls all around America. So we are fighting back.” 

A legacy of struggle and strength

In Minnesota, drag culture originated in the state’s theater and vaudeville scene. Early on, as drag began to thrive in bars and nightclubs, Minneapolis prohibited cross-dressing, imposing fines on men who adorned themselves in feminine attire, a measure in place until the mid-1990s. St. Paul maintained a similar ordinance until 2003. 

But popular venues such as the 19 Bar, the Gay 90’s, the Town House, and the Saloon have long welcomed drag performers and patrons. And these establishments continue to serve the LGBTQ community.

Sid Sity, a Black and Muslim drag performer with the Drag Story Hour who prefers to go by their stage name, attended the Minneapolis council meeting to cheer on the resolution. 

While Minnesota protests against drag storytimes are less limiting than legislative actions like those seen in other states, Sid Sity said that “in some ways, drag is under attack in the Twin Cities from outside sources.”

Minneapolis’ recognition of these threats resonated with Old Man Zimmer, who said he was “glad that the city acknowledged that people are coming after drag artists and by extension, trans and queer people.”

“We need to really make sure that we stand behind the people who are the most vulnerable,” Old Man Zimmer said.

We need to really make sure that we stand behind the people who are the most vulnerable.

Old Man Zimmer, drag performer

Such concerns extend beyond drag storytimes to family-friendly drag brunches with themes drawn from movies such as “Encanto” and “The Hunger Games,” or based on Disney villains. 

Chad Kampe, the founder of Flip Phone Events, which presents weekly drag brunches nationwide, said he has received pushback in several cities, including Minneapolis. 

“A lot of the anti-drag bills really somehow create monsters out of drag performers,” he said. “We do shows in Nashville and in Florida as well, and we’ve definitely seen that legislation takes a hit on everything from the number of people who come to the shows to protesters like the Proud Boys that show up to the shows.”

Critics contend that drag performances, even in family-friendly settings, are inappropriate and potentially harmful to children, often comparing them to adult entertainment. 

Luis Nufio, better known as Black and Latin drag performer Priscilla Es Yuicy and host of Flip Phone’s drag brunches, said drag artists readily adapt their performances to diverse audiences. 

“I wouldn’t go into the nightclub scene and do my ‘Encanto’ number, you know?” Nufio said. “Like, the same way I wouldn’t go to my brunches that are family-friendly and do ‘The Pussycat Dolls.’” 

“I think people need to change the conversation about what drag is,” said Kevin Billups, also known as Black drag performer Lala Luzious. Billups emphasized the multifaceted nature of drag, which encompasses skills such as sewing, hair styling, and makeup artistry.

“You can create a well-rounded person just through the art of drag, and why should that be denied to our younger generation?” Billups said. “The focus and determination it takes to be a successful drag queen is a lot of work.” 

Drag and diversity

Billups regards drag as a longstanding emblem of “queer excellence in the community.”

Even before the widespread popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag has “always been a form of discipline and hard work, but most importantly, fabulous creativity for our community,” the performer said.

However, despite Minnesota’s contributions to drag culture, the local drag scene continues to grapple with diversity challenges.

Black people’s impact on drag culture in the United States goes back to the 19th century. According to Channing Joseph, a Black journalist and queer culture historian, William Dorsey Swann, born in 1858 to enslaved parents, gained recognition as the first self-proclaimed public drag queen. He organized drag balls in the 1880s, founding the “House of Swann” with formerly enslaved Black men. 

Lala Luzious performing at TC Carabet at Gay 90s in Minneapolis on April 7, 2023. Credit: Clockwork Steve

Before the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2020, drag show promotional posters predominantly highlighted white performers, Billups said. While progress has been made in showcasing performers of color, the issue of tokenism persists in the drag community.

Billups noted an instance in which a local club’s drag show had “20 people on cast, and out of the 20 people, there’s one Black person, one person of Asian descent, one Latino, and the other 17 are white.”

“There is still plenty of work that needs to be done,” Billups said. 

Many times, I was the only queen of color in the show, and certainly the only plus-size queen in the show.

Kevin Billups, who performs as Lala Luzious

In 2021, Billups founded Power Drag Revue, an entertainment production spotlighting drag performers of color.

“I started my company because many times, I was the only queen of color in the show, and certainly the only plus-size queen in the show,” Billups said. “When I would go to amateur competitions and pageants and other shows, I would see diverse, talented people. I was just always confused as to why these people weren’t being showcased more. 

Lala Luzious performing with dancers Leah Westlund and Rebecca Stewart on Sunday, June 26, 2022, at the 2022 Twin Cities Parade in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Credit: Brian Geving

“The people that hold a lot of power and are gatekeeping aren’t even drag queens,” Billups said. “They’re white gay guys. They don’t even do drag. I would like to see more diversity and more color in our scene.” 

Nufio encountered similar issues in the Twin Cities, where the casts of drag shows were predominantly white, often with only one person of color. 

“A lot changed because POC performers got together and were like, ‘We’re done being rotated around,’” Nufio said. “When I first started doing drag, it was so rare when I would be able to perform with my sisters. They didn’t want us in the same show because they knew they needed to round out the three other white performers.”

Harry Mason, known as Black drag performer Sasha Cassadine and the host of Flip Phone Events, established the “Haus of Cassadine,” a drag house featuring primarily performers of color. Mason hopes that the Twin Cities drag scene will increasingly support independent organizations led by people of color. 

“The support for people of color can be a little lackluster,” Mason said. “They support us as long as we are part of what they are doing, but when it’s time to do our own things, it comes with a cost.”

The support for people of color can be a little lackluster. They support us as long as we are part of what they are doing, but when it’s time to do our own things, it comes at a cost.

Harry Mason, who performs drag as Sasha Cassadine 

Drag artists of color have remained committed to their craft’s artistry even in the face of adversity, continuing to adorn themselves in voluminous wigs, towering six-inch heels, and meticulously applied makeup. 

“We are quite used to getting ridiculed and criticized and told what we can and can’t do, and honestly beat down both mentally and physically,” Billups said. “And yet, we still get up and we still put on a show. I do believe that every time I step on stage, I am changing someone’s life.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Luis Nufio’s last name.

Myah Goff is an intern at Sahan Journal, currently pursuing a journalism degree at the University of Minnesota.