Ain’t it a Drag? Program Challenges at the Public Library


By: James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom

Many years ago, in Tucson, Ariz., I had just missed a bus on the corner of Speedway and Stone. It was around 5:30 p.m., and the next bus was an hour away. I resigned myself to a long walk, then saw a great deal across the street: $1.50 spaghetti night and show. I figured, why not?

Rome Gay Pride Parade
Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Blackcat

It turns out that the “show” was a drag show (here meaning men dressing as women, and performing on a stage). The first act was a guy who did scenes from the life of Judy Garland. A large, distinctly circular man, in gingham dress and a pig-tailed wig, came out to lip-synch “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He was hilarious. Then there was a Miss Gay Florida who may have had the best legs I’ve ever seen and was a fantastic dancer. Then the Garland imitator came back – stumbling across the stage, shattered, singing “Smile.” It wasn’t funny at all; it was heartbreaking, and genuinely moving. There were other skits, too. (Even the spaghetti was good. I had two plates.)

An hour later, just in time for the bus, I left well-fed, profoundly entertained, and surprised by just how rich the whole drag queen genre could be.

Lately, a number of libraries have offered programs in which drag queens read to children (from San Francisco to New York), or share make-up or fashion tips. Predictably, some among us see this as a sign of the Apocalypse, a sure sign that America’s moral center is collapsing. Therefore, of course, libraries get challenges. And if your library receives complaints, challenges or if your programs get censored please report it! Censoring any library resource, including programs, just like books, needs to be resisted.

When did drag shows’ popularity begin? Some people point to America’s Got Talent Scott Heierman, whose bearded drag performance in 2015 sparked all kinds of imitators, even among children.

But the history of female impersonators goes back way farther than that. Remember Shakespeare in Love? In the Elizabethan Age, women weren’t allowed to act on stage until 1660, so men took their place. Fun Fact: The etymology of the phrase “drag queen” is debatable, but many scholars believe that the phrase was coined in the 1800s as a reference to the hoop skirt that would “drag” along the ground. (54 Rare Historical Photos Of Drag Queens Before It Was Safe To Be Out!)

The first female impersonator I remember was Bugs Bunny, flirting with Elmer Fudd. (Wayne’s World Garth remembers it, too.) But Bugs himself was a kind of reimagined Milton Berle, who also did drag. In 1959, one of the top movie hits was Some Like It Hot, which is deservedly getting a new theatrical release this month. Then there were the boys of Monty Python. Who can forget Dame Edna? No doubt, you have your favorite film or TV examples, too.

The point is this: Men dressing as women for the purposes of entertainment, even the entertainment of children, isn’t new at all. But like so many things, popularity is cyclical. It comes, it goes. Library programming, as many policies attest (and policies really matter), offers presentations, workshops and lectures on “topics of contemporary interest.” Why? Such programming highlights the library as a community resource. It connects people. It lets them laugh. It gets you out of the house for “something completely different.”

If that includes reading books, some singing, some dancing, some costume and make-up tips, and definitely some laughing, well, why not?  And if that’s not your cup of tea, the library will have another program scheduled that will pique your interest.


  • What great timing! Rockland county (NY) is celebrating Gay Pride month. Thanks for an interesting article. Sorry I am not going to be in attendance when you do your workshop for librarians in the Ramapo Catskill Library System. – Sam Simon

  • What great timing, Mr. LaRue! Rockland county (NY) is celebrating Gay Pride month. Thanks for an interesting article. I am sorry that I will not be in attendance when you do a workshop on intellectual freedom/censorship for librarians in the Ramapo Catskill Library System.

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