The shelving of the long-conflicted Drag Queen Story Time at Lafayette’s public library has opened the door for further questions, but this time, on the science behind the conflict as well as the effect this event would have on children.
In the clash, the distinction between drag queens and transgender members of the community is often blurred, thus adding to the confusion. By Merriam-Webster’s definition, a drag queen is a man, typically a gay man, who dresses up in women’s clothes for the purposes of entertainment. On the other hand, the definition transgender relates to a person who’s personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.
“I find it odd that nobody questions why a group of 20-year-old LGBT men and women are targeting three to six-year-olds and nobody seems to question the motives behind this,” said Rich Penkoski, founder and pastor with Warriors for Christ.
Penkoski was not alone in the sentiment.
Linda Lanclos likened bringing children to the event to hear about the drag queens’ lifestyles to allowing a drug addict to be a speaker. Lanclos, Executive Director of Escape from Poverty — a nonprofit group working to eradicate poverty in the community — and a speaker at the meeting, added, “How many of those kids will want to dress like drag queens to promote the lifestyle and say how cool it is?”
Science in the area of gender studies is, arguably, recent. Most studies in the area of gender identity began in the mid-1900s, near or following the movement for women’s suffrage, and, in fact, the term “gender identity” had not been used until the 1960s in a news release by Johns Hopkins Hospital. This, of course, leaves conflicting viewpoints on the matter.
“That's (the transgender) goal and if you go to other psychiatrists, you know, American Academy of Pediatricians or what have you, they'll tell you that it does have an effect on children because they're being indoctrinated,” Penkoski said of the discussion of transgender issues. “I know you may not like that word, but that's it, isn’t it? They're being indoctrinated with this, and they're being convinced and told at an early age that this is OK when historically, and all through human history, children have been born either male or female.”
“I would say there’s a distinction (between drag queens and members of the transgender community), but I would also say at the same time there’s a link between the two,” Penkoski said.
Marjorie Esman, previously executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the confusion that exists over drag queens and members of the transgender community is especially unusual in a place like Louisiana.
“Louisiana has a long-established, fabled tradition of costuming,” Esman said. “So the idea of a man dressing up as a woman is fully consistent, in fact, with community standards in the Lafayette area. It happens all the time and people enjoy it.”
Though no statistics exist on direct correlation available between the two terms, members of the local Lafayette drag community say they know personally that the terms drag queen and transgender are not the same.
Kenli Andrews, Miss Gay Louisiana America 2018, said: “As for myself, I am a male, and I consider myself a drag queen, and I’m still a male under all the makeup and wigs and all that good stuff.” For men like Andrews, whose offstage name is “Michael Martin,” drag allows for a higher level of self-expression.
Andrews added, when in drag, self-expression can blossom in many different ways. From becoming a “pageant queen,” to a funny character, Andrews described drag as whatever a person wants it to be, stressing there is no right or wrong way to define drag; it’s as simple as putting on a wig and heels.
“You know, doing female impersonations, like I said, really opened up doors for me,” Andrews said. “I won multiple titles. I got to experience nationals. I got to experience having memories with other people. And honestly, drag has helped me be the man I am today. It’s weird to say, but it actually gave me that boost of confidence that I needed for Michael because when you see Michael you see me like this, very calm, collected, you know the whole nine yards. But when you see Kenli, she is a diva.”
Opposers of the event also voiced concern regarding how exposure to the event and those hosting it — LGBT young men in drag — could influence the children.
“Part of growing up, there’s an age when boys don’t like girls. That’s the perfect age to tell them, ‘You don’t like girls … because you’re one of us, you see.’” Penkoski said about the targeted age group of story time, “It’s a way to introduce confusion into these children. Three, four and five-year-old children.”
Penkoski asked why as a society others feel the need to bring up the notion of gender or sexuality fluidity with children. He was especially concerned that the reach of this type of event does not end at Lafayette Parish, but extends around the U.S. through the national audience of Drag Queen Story Hour.
“Let’s not forget the study by Brown University which was studying rapid onset gender dysphoria,” Penkoski added. “(It) concluded that it was the influence of social media and all these things, this indoctrination that these kids are being shown these videos and social media things; that’s what’s causing rapid onset gender dysphoria”
The Brown University study, though it did allude to links between pressures of adolescence and increased amounts of gender dysphoria, used the observations of parents of children with gender dysphoria. Parents surveyed in the study were recruited from the websites 4thWaveNow, Transgender Trend and Youth TransCritical Professionals. Two of which are sites in which parents gather to converse on concerns with their child’s new transgendered identity.
In truth, critics like Julia Serano, an Oakland based writer on transgender issues and a former developmental biologist, question the motive of the parents when it comes to answering truthfully in the study.
Lisa Littman, the assistant professor who conducted the study, said she stands by her paper but also writes, “More research is needed to better understand rapid onset gender dysphoria, its implications and scope.”
Valanne MacGyvers Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said children acquire a basic grasp of gender from their early interactions with their parents who reinforce the gender of the child. She said in this age group children get rewarded for how many girl or boy traits they display, respectively.
Development of basic gender identity occurs in most children around 18 to 30 months, according to MacGyvers. She also cited that true gender dysphoria is a rarity.
She also mentioned that children do not know what either of the gendered terms, boy or girl, mean. Rather they know they are one of these terms, and remaining as such does have advantages for them. Some children, she said, even feel guilty for playing with another gender’s toys, such as Legos or pedal bikes of a different gender’s color.
“Why don’t they want to cross gender boundaries?” MacGyver added, “What do they know about gender? ‘Yeah, I’m a boy. Mommy and Daddy tell me I’m a boy. I’m a good boy. I don’t want to be a girl. If I play with that toy I could be a girl. I don’t want to be a girl. Mommy, I’m a good boy.’”
Amy Brown, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at UL Lafayette said she doesn’t agree with critics and does not believe the story time will change a child’s gender development.
“Even people that don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, so like transgender people, feel like that’s something inherent,” Brown said. “Most of them report that’s something that they’ve always felt.”
At this point in age, however, according to MacGyvers, seeing a man dressed up as a woman could push too far past the understanding of gender in the targeted age group.
“They are too young to understand. They don’t know what makes male and female apart from how you dress and how you wear your hair. So to those children, those people are ladies because they look like ladies.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders notes that children begin to experiment with gendered behaviors and interest, such as dressing up in certain ways, between the ages of two and four. This is true as well, according to the manual, for children experimenting with cross-gendered behaviors.
“We do see preschoolers talking about becoming a girl, or becoming a boy, but by that, they mean dressing in those clothes.” MacGyvers said, “In their mind, that’s what that means. If you put on the clothes, you become that. You put on a doctor’s clothes, you’re a doctor.”
Or in the case of Kenli Andrews, even as an adult, the clothes make the man, or rather, the queen.
“As soon as I pop on that wig, that’s it,” Andrews said. “The first layer of foundation, that’s it. It’s like diva mode.”
Andrews said she’s found support in the most unlikely of places — in the young niece of a close friend. According to Andrews, the young girl has taken something of a liking to Kenli, even going as so far to make “good luck” charms for her competitions in the form of coloring pictures of crowns and gowns.
“I look at these pictures, and I’m kind of tearing up,” Andrews said. “I’m like ‘Oh my gosh,’ and it was just simple little things like it was a picture of a crown and said ‘Good luck Kenli.’ It was the cutest thing ever. You know, just knowing that you’re a kid’s role model, it’s something crazy to me.
“I just think it’s an amazing feeling. I have someone that looks up to me. I need to keep my head up.”