Targeting Drag Queens in Classrooms Is a “War on Imagination”

The pair write that drag pedagogy benefits teaching and learning in ways that “extend beyond traditional approaches to LGBT curricular inclusion.” These benefits include destigmatizing shame, encouraging children to advocate for themselves and teachers to engage dissent in productive ways, and fostering embodied kinship, a connection that goes further than simply tolerating and incorporating outsiders into the normative structures of society.

“When I think of inclusion, I think about almost a patronizing approach,” explains Hot Mess. “It’s sort of saying ‘Well, you’re different and we’re going to include you because we feel like we have to.’ It’s coming from a place of ‘You’re not in the norm.’” With queer or drag pedagogies, Hot Mess continues, “We’re going beyond that. It’s about disrupting the status quo.”

This work begins as soon as a drag artist steps into a classroom, where their mere presence pushes the boundaries of what a teacher can look like and what teaching and learning can be, thus showing students that other worlds are possible. “Just the way that drag performers model an [other kind of life] is itself a really valuable contribution to children learning about themselves and their modes of relation to others,” Smilges says.

That “otherwise” could be many things, Hot Mess says. “That could be imagining roles outside of gender norms. It could be about imagining non-violent solutions to conflict. It could be about imagining a more sustainable world. It’s about going against the grain.”

Through their commitment to imagining and creating an otherwise, drag and queer pedagogies also further myriad other liberation struggles — from the disability justice that informs Smilges’ work and the racial justice that Per Sia and Towers engage in their performance and teaching to the liberation of Palestine, which Canada’s Drag Race Season 3 cast member, Halal Bae, has just brought roaring into the drag mainstream.

It’s no surprise that drag artists take up these struggles in their work. Queer people are accustomed to disrupting social norms, questioning relations of power, challenging systems of exclusion, and practicing solidarity because they have always had to do so to survive. “As queer people, we are used to imagining other worlds because in so many ways we have had to live our lives against what we’re being told is the norm,” Hot Mess says. “So we make our own communities, chosen families, sets of cultural tropes, and ways of being in the world.”

Embracing this ethos benefits everyone, not only the queer youth who might feel represented by a drag artist in their classroom or other marginalized communities for whom drag performers create space. “When we start to push past liberal or neoliberal rhetorics of inclusion towards something a little bit more radical, we’re thus inviting not only marginalized communities but also people who have a more desirable relation to power to imagine a different life for themselves and for all of us, collectively,” Smilges says.

With a record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ+ laws filed this year and violence against queer communities, women, and communities of color on the rise, the world needs drag performers now more than ever — in the nightclub, on the main stage, and in libraries and classrooms. Inviting these performers and their principles into educational spaces is not just about building a more inclusive classroom. It’s about challenging structures of power, fostering new ways of relating to each other and our material world, and coming together to build a more just society.

After all, when the lights come up, a world that learns from drag performers would be one “driven by pleasure, enjoyment, feeling good, taking care of each other, making sure peoples’ needs are met,” Hot Mess says — and “a more glittery and sparkly world” to boot.

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