The Toll of Drag Bans on Latino Performers

Jun 28, 2023
5:53 PM

Vena Cava, once a well-known drag queen in Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras nightlife scene, now living in New York City since Hurricane María swept across the island in September 2017 (Juan de Dios Sánchez Jurado/Latino Rebels)

Since the start of the year, conservative state legislatures across the country have passed bills banning or restricting an essential cultural manifestation for the LGBTQ+ community: drag shows.

According to tracking by the American Civil Liberties Union, about 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills are currently underway across the United States, many of which would ban or censor drag shows and similar events.

The ACLU describes these measures as “a malicious attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life,” adding that the bans “are being fueled by the same paranoia banning books and censoring teachers.”

Drag bans began to crop up in March when Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law SB003, criminalizing drag performances in public or anywhere within 1,000 feet of a school, church, or park, at any time of day that a minor may be present—the expressed impetus behind such bills being that drag performances are “inappropriate” for minors.

Although the law was temporarily blocked, other states have copied the Tennessee model. There are now currently about 14 bills introduced in Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia alone.

“These attacks on drag shows and performers strike at the heart of our rights to gather, read, and perform together,” wrote Pen America in January. “Drag shows are an exercise of artistic and creative expression that should be free from government suppression.”

Impact of Drag Bans on Latinos

Female impersonation has been a constant throughout recorded history, with drag as we know it continually gaining in popularity since the 19th century. For communities of color, however, particularly the Latino community, drag has been a means of sustenance and salvation.

Particularly since the 1980s, Latinos have found refuge, a family, and a livelihood in ball culture. Gay, queer and trans Latinos found a space to explore their identity and artistic skills—from costume-making to dance. The so-called “house” battles gave birth to vogueing and a subculture that, thanks to RuPaul and others, has been brought into the mainstream today.

From Angie Xtravaganza to Crystal LaBeija, drag queens of color have always been at the center of the scene. That’s why drag bans affect our community so much.

“I think we’ve seen that anti-LGBTQIA+ laws lead to an increase in violence towards visibly queer and trans people,” said Latin drag artist Moxie Delite. “This violence has also led to violence towards cisgender heterosexual people that hate groups assume are also queer and trans.”

“It’s leading to a lot of fear and taking away our perceptions of safety by making us fear being visible, and ultimately works to wipe queer and trans people from the public eye,” she added.

This has been reflected in figures collected by GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization.

GLAAD found 161 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats directed at drag events since the beginning of 2022, with a sharp spike beginning with the Pride 2022 season and continuing through the midterm election cycle. Twenty more incidents had been documented as of March 31 of this year.

“False rhetoric was deployed against performers in campaign ads for the 2022 midterm elections, and rhetoric escalated to violence, including the firebombing of a Tulsa donut shop that had hosted a drag event in October 2022,” GLAAD’s report reads.

Similarly, Equality Texas documented other targeted acts throughout the year, including an armed demonstration and confrontation in San Antonio.

For Blue Jean, a historian, educator and activist, anti-drag laws are “extremely detrimental to our community.”

“Aside from limiting artists by telling them what they can and cannot create, it promotes fear and misunderstanding around the art form that is drag,” she said.

“By declaring drag illegal, they are showing the masses (who almost certainly will not look into the issue further) that drag artists are criminals,” she added. “The LGBTQ+ community has long been targeted as ‘the other,’ whether it comes from a place of fear or a place of hate, and the bans put in place are just solidifying people’s fear of what they don’t understand.”

For Blue Jean, a performer specializing in the art of burlesque and current champion of Philly’s Burlesque Battle Royale, the impact on the Latinx community is twofold.

“Latinx people have been stereotyped in media as ‘dangerous,’ or ‘ghetto,’ especially in post-Trump America,” she explained. ” I think about the Pulse Club shooting in Orlando, Florida, where during Pride Month, a gay club was shot up by a man on Latin Night. Forty-nine people were killed, most of whom were of Hispanic/Latinx descent.”

“While people claim he didn’t necessarily use racism as his motive, it was established that Latin Night was a recurring event at the club, and to have a safe space for people to be themselves be violated like that during a month they’re trying to celebrate it is beyond upsetting,” she added.

“As Latinx people, we already face discrimination and violence,” she said. “Adding a ban to a celebrated part of queer culture only gives people more ‘reasons’ to hate and make us the ‘other.'”


Art historian by passion, writer by accident, Yamily Habib is a Syrian-Venezuelan migrant living in the diaspora for over 10 years. She published her first novel, La Ciudad de los Paraguas Rotos, in 2021, and currently works as an editor for NGLmitú. Instagram: @pollyannehoon