AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Y'vonna F Mei is soft-spoken. Inside a hectic bar, she can blend into the crowd.
The makeup on her face last Monday — some eyeshadow, eyeliner, lipstick and fake eyelashes — were hints she wasn't just a bar-goer but a rising star in Austin’s vibrant drag community. Another hint was the greeting by fans and friends as she arrived at Oilcan Harry’s, a popular gay bar in downtown Austin.
It was the day before Valentine’s Day, and Oilcan was hosting the third round of the "Grackle Games," one of several local drag competitions. Emceeing was Lady Grackle, a popular local queen.
The competition is like the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” but “without RuPaul, without the budget and without the lighting,” Lady Grackle explained to the crowd. The theme for the night was “Anti-Valentine’s Day." Every drag queen had her own take on the prompt.
A performer named Poison Ivy Queen did a throwback of mid-2000s screamo music.
Eva Inez, dressed in full mariachi garb, sung “No Me Queda Más” by Selena.
LawrieBird tore a plastic heart from a backup dancer. She ate it between two pieces of bread.
Wanda D’Streets used a bat to smash a fake car.
Owie performed a rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James while blindfolded — “an extra element of danger,” as one judge approvingly put it.
When Y’vonna emerged on stage that night, her transformation was complete. A long red gown trailed behind her. She donned a wig of curly black hair.
Y’vonna typically does high-octane shows. For this event, she wanted to do something different.
She swayed gently on stage, crooning to a Kelly Clarkson version of the song “Happier Than Ever”:
When I'm away from you
I'm happier than ever
Wish I could explain it better
I wish it wasn't true
Standing in a laughing and cheering crowd of a few dozen, this local drag competition seemed an unlikely frontline in a roiling culture war.
And yet, amid a fierce nationwide debate over gender identity and LGBTQ+ issues, that’s precisely what shows like this have become.
To give a sense of the pitch of debate in Texas: A video circulated last month by the right-wing group Texas Scorecard accused drag queens of indoctrinating and abusing children through drag queen readings, all-ages drag shows and other events. The video described these entertainers as “subversive,” “evil,” “connected to sex trafficking,” “anti-God,” “a door for Satan” and “driven by child pornography.”
Participants in the video, a collection of evangelical and far-right figures, evoked images of war.
"If you’re going to attack a certain location, you would bomb this certain location to soften the target and make it easier for you to advance,” Chris Hopper, president at Texas Family Project, says in the video. Drag queens are “attacking the stronghold, which is the family, but the ultimate target are the children.”
Far from being relegated to fringe internet videos, rhetoric like this has spilled onto the streets and into statehouses. Armed men now show up at daytime and all-ages drag events. Lawmakers in at least 14 states have introduced bills to restrict drag shows.
In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is currently attempting to revoke the liquor license of the Orlando Philharmonic following controversy over a “Drag Queen Christmas” event. Children were at the show, violating Florida law, a state licensing agency has alleged in court filings.
Meanwhile, in Texas, four proposed bills would crack down on drag shows, including by redefining any place that hosts a drag show as a “sexually oriented business.” This designation would impose a $5-per-person fee on every audience member and enforce the same zoning rules used for strip clubs and sex shops.