Beating Back Bans & Making Bank: The State Of Drag In 2024

LET THEM EAT CAKE: Bob the Drag Queen performs onstage during Madonna’s free concert at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 4, 2024. Photo by Pablo Porciuncula / AFP / Getty Images

Anti-drag panic reached a fever pitch in 2023 after building for more than two years.

Fueled by the fundamentals of the latest re-eruption of America’s always latent culture wars, the outrage was seemingly sparked by the proliferation of Drag Queen Story Hours at public libraries and increasingly popular (and family friendly) Pride events throughout the country. The more conspiratorial opponents said drag’s new visibility was part of an effort to “groom” or “recruit” children.

Republican-majority legislatures in several states pursued legislation that explicitly or de facto would ban or restrict drag performances.

The most prominent — and wide-reaching — was Tennessee’s Adult Entertainment Act — which rewrote state law to include female or male impersonators as adult-oriented performance and barred such performances from any public space and any space where children could view it. As Tennessee State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, pointed out during debate over the bill, between 20 and 25 percent of the Volunteer State’s population is under the age of 18 and a “could view” standard essentially means everywhere from Memphis to Mountain City.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law April 1. The ACLU and a Memphis drag troupe joined forces to challenge the law’s constitutionality almost immediately and in a scathing and thorough decision, U.S. District Court Judge Tommy Parker — who was appointed to the bench by Donald Trump — echoed the concerns raised by opponents to the AEA throughout its legislative process: the law was vague and overly broad and an unconstitutional restriction on free speech that overreached the relatively narrow bounds of addressing a compelling state interest. He enjoined its enforcement. The state argues that Parker’s decision applies only to Memphis’ Shelby County; most legal experts disagree and in any case, no arrests have been made in Tennessee for violation of the law. The state appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was argued before a panel there in February and a decision is pending. 

Other states’ efforts met similar fates: Montana, Florida and Texas all saw their anti-drag efforts overturned by federal judges.

From a legal standpoint, drag opponents are chastened but not discouraged. Judicial decisions often provide roadmaps to cure constitutional questions and legislatures are free to take another stab and write laws that meet First Amendment muster, but the furor from statehouses has seemingly died down when federal judges — many of whom were appointed by Republican presidents — agreed with what opponents of the bans said all along: restrictions on drag are restrictions on free expression.

Of course, the attacks on drag aren’t just legislative. Pride events featuring drag — and sometimes just regularly scheduled drag performances — are often subject to protest, some of which carry sinister and threatening undertones. Reactionary movements often become bolder as they perceive the culture changing rapidly around them, but drag is nothing new. Greek dramatists and Shakespeare used female impersonators, sometimes because cultural norms prevented women from acting on stage, but often as plot points: at least three prominent female characters in Shakespeare dressed as men, which means when the plays debuted, there were men dressed as women dressed as men. If that’s not gender-bending, nothing is.

Drag performance has cultural purchase all over the world across the centuries and its persistence is no more attributable to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” making household names of queens than it is to Tony Randall and Jack Lemmon putting on dresses and wigs in “Some Like It Hot” in 1959.

That said: the most successful queens are certainly doing better financially than when they were merely lip-syncing for tips in dance bars. This week’s cover artist, Chappell Roan includes local drag queens in her shows. Bob The Drag Queen just wrapped up touring as the emcee for Madonna’s “Celebration Tour” (and its Copacabana Beach finale that drew 1.6 million people to the famous Brazilian shore) and will head out for more than 30 shows on her own this fall at theaters across the country. Trixie Mattel, another “Drag Race” alum, regularly sells out large theaters and clubs, as she did May 31 at Boston’s Big Night Live, grossing $81,130 on 1,584 tickets, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. Sapphira Cristál has a tour of North American theaters planned for the fall. The roadshow version of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” went global last year, playing Europe and Mexico, but before that was routed through large theaters in the U.S., regularly drawing up to 3,000, and grossing $327,288 on 4,513 tickets at Radio City Music Hall.

Drag queens were the public face of the opposition to the spate of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people in 2022 and 2023, helping to organize protests and playing prominent roles in benefit concerts, like Nashville Rising.

Undeterred, the queens aren’t going anywhere and the ticket buying public is still coming in droves to them.