three drag queens talking on a panel at sxsw

Adrienne Hunter (CC-BY)

The Trevor Project brings drag celebrities to SXSW in an effort to protect LGBTQ youth

Symone, Gottmik, and Jaida Essence Hall did not hold back in this timely panel.

 

Adrienne Hunter

IRL

“I’m from Arkansas if y’all didn’t know,” said Symone, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13, during a SXSW panel about anti-LGBTQ legislation.

“Recently there’s been bills [restricting drag] that have been passed and introduced. I think about all the people back home—I still have drag sisters back home—who are fighting it. I think about how drag literally saved my life. They’re trying to take that away from people who need to see themselves, and I think drag queens are that for a lot of people. And so to take that away is a detriment.”

Joining Symone at The Trevor Project-organized panel titled “Don’t Be a Drag, Just Be a Queen” were her fellow RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants Gottmik (season 13 finalist) and Jaida Essence Hall (season 12 winner). Moderating the panel was the Trevor Project’s senior vice president, Kevin Wong, as he guided the celebrity drag queens through a discussion that included various topics including anti-LGBTQ legislation, managing mental health, and using their platforms to raise awareness.

With a mission of ending suicide among LGBTQ young people, the Trevor Project is a non-profit organization that provides crisis support, peer support advocacy, research, and education to create a world where LGBTQ youth see a hopeful future for themselves. 

As a drag queen from Arkansas, the topic of anti-LGBT legislation hit close to home for Symone. After initially discussing how these bills affect her fellow Arkansans still in the state, Symone opened up about her own experiences finding herself through drag while growing up in the state.

“I think about myself when I was 18, and I went to prom in drag. And that’s how I was able to finally feel like I could express myself to people and people could finally see me. With all of this hate and all of the legislation coming by, I just think about the other people [in Arkansas]. If that was how important [drag] was for me, how important could it be for them?”

Symone’s home state of Arkansas has passed numerous laws targeting LGBTQ and trans people, notably becoming the first state to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth in a 2021 bill that was subsequently blocked by Federal judges before it went into effect. On March 14, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed into law legislation that would allow individuals who received gender-affirming care as minors to sue providers for malpractice, which could lead to an effective ban of gender-affirming care in the state if it goes into effect this summer.

Among the other anti-LGBTQ bills in Arkansas is SB43, which originally sought to restrict drag performance in public spaces. However, after initially passing in the state Senate, the bill was amended to target general nudity as opposed to drag. 

While the Arkansas drag ban did not succeed, these bills are still gaining traction across the country. On March 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed into law legislation that made Tennessee the first state to restrict drag performance in public spaces. At least fourteen other states have introduced anti-drag bills across state legislatures.

LGBTQ advocates have often criticized these anti-drag laws for serving as a vehicle to police trans people. “It’s … this subtle and sinister way to further criminalize just being trans,” the ACLU of Tennessee’s Henry Seaton told NPR

Gottmik, a trans activist and the first trans man to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race, opened up about the tribulations of being both a drag queen and trans person watching these bills be debated. “Drag is my art and being trans is who I am every day,” said Gottmik.

“I’m just so tired of people who don’t even know what a trans person is putting bills into existence to try and put us down and not allow us to express our art.”

In addition to the anti-drag bills, legislation targeting LGBT and trans expression is on the rise across the country. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 426 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in 2023 across state legislatures as of March 19. For reference, the Human Rights Campaign counted 315 anti-LGBT bills introduced on a state level in 2022. 

Research from the Trevor Project indicates that these bills affect the mental health of LGBTQ youth, with 86% of trans and nonbinary youth saying that anti-trans state bills have negatively impacted their mental health.

Similarly, the same study shows that 45% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that they experienced cyberbullying as a result of these bills. Additionally, 82% of transgender and nonbinary youth say that threats of violence against LGBTQ spaces have caused them stress or anxiety. 

Hall spoke on the difficulty imposed among queer and trans youth by these policies. “I think the last thing people need to deal with when they’re worrying about paying bills, going to work, getting an education, or their health is to worry about just being who they are and existing being a crime,” said Hall. 

“We have our young trans brothers and sisters who oftentimes need the most protection but might not be able to stand up for themselves. So, in my mind, I’m worried about everything that’s going on. But at the same time, I know this is the time for a fight and I’m ready to throw my hands up, honey.”

As the Trevor Project is dedicated to fighting against anti-LGBTQ policy to work towards ending LGBTQ suicide, Wong told the Daily Dot about the organization’s goals in assembling this panel. He elaborated that as an organization with many audiences, these personalities garner a wide reach—each of the panelists have millions of followers across their social media platforms. “It is true that when you’re a Drag Race queen, especially if you’re a winner, you rise to rock stardom,” Wong said.

“You have to remember they come with considerable and influential platforms that they don’t take that lightly. So when they work with an organization like the Trevor Project, they know what they’re getting into.” 

Wong told the Daily Dot that the Trevor Project is far from the only organization fighting against these bills and that the consistent organizing around the country provides a sense of optimism. “The Trevor Project is still pretty hopeful, especially working with our on-the-ground partners like Equality Texas, TENT, and advocates all across the US,” said Wong. 

“[Advocates] were pretty successful last year striking down 91% of the [anti-LGBTQ] bills that were introduced. We’re hopeful this trend continues in 2023. It’s going to be a lot of work to get there. It’s really really difficult and it can be tough, but look at what we were able to accomplish last year.”

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