Drag shows are only a threat to those who don’t know Shakespeare, George Pyle writes, or their Looney Tunes

Men dressing as women is centuries old. And only the Elmer Fudds of the world don’t get it.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tara Lipsynscki performs at the BES-TEAS all-ages drag show at Sugar Space, on Friday, March 10, 2023.

Two decades ago I was preparing to, in the words of Huckleberry Finn, light out for the territory. I had a thought that I could say a really proper good-bye to Kansas by looking up Topeka’s nationally known gay-bashing crusader Fred Phelps one last time and giving him a big, wet, sloppy kiss right on the mouth.

For a long time, it was one of the great regrets of my life that I didn’t do that. But I don’t really think that anymore. Partly because regrets are a stupid waste of time. Partly because such an invasion of anyone’s personal space is bad. Partly because one or the other of us might have liked it and that would have been just waaay too weird.

But mostly because, no matter how many joyful hours I spent admiring his work, I am not as uninhibited as Bugs Bunny. And Phelps was much more evil than Elmer Fudd. And I do not model my behavior on fictional characters. Such as giving my enemies a big, wet, sloppy kiss right on the mouth. Even though neither of us is gay. Just to annoy them. As Bugs did to Elmer so many times.

Many social media mavens in recent days have been pointing out, with illustrations, that Bugs Bunny was, as far back as the 1940s, one of the world’s most notorious cross-dressers. Not, so far as we could tell, because it turned him on, or because he was trying to recruit other transvestites. Because he knew that his ultra-maroon antagonists were so incredibly thick that they could be turned starry-eyed stupid by any creature in a wig and a skirt.

It didn’t really have to be a woman. It didn’t even have to be human. The point was that any character who was fooled by such a get-up was really, really dumb.

Even dumber than, say, Bassanio and Gratiano, two gentlemen in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” who were totally taken in when their own girlfriends, Portia and Nerissa, showed up in court dressed as men, claiming to be lawyers. And winning their case.

Maybe it was easier in Shakespeare’s time for the audience to accept that the male characters would be so easily fooled by female characters pretending to be men when, as was the law and custom of the time, all female characters in the theater were played by men. In drag. Or, in the case of Portia and Nerissa, double secret drag.

But neither theater aficionados nor cartoon junkies of my generation, or generations nearby, grew up thinking that we couldn’t wait to dress up as the other gender. Or to jump out of a phone booth and fly. Or take three steps off the edge of a cliff and stand there, suspended in midair, until we looked down and realized where we were.

In my day, we knew the difference between stories and reality. And get off my lawn.

It has only been recently, as our culture has suffered from the equally depressing declines of Shakespeare and Looney Tunes, that anyone has been so scandalized by men dressing as women, fearing that impressionable young people will see some such amusement and decide that they want to dress as the opposite sex, or even be the opposite sex.

Well, maybe some of them will. If that was already something deep in their nature. But 99% will get the joke, laugh, maybe be just a little bit impressed with all the work and care and panache and glitter that goes into doing such performances well enough to win the admiration of Dolly Parton.

Those with no sense or humor or style are now taking drag performances way too seriously. Some of them are armed. Some of them make laws. All of them are a pain in the bustle.

States such as Tennessee have banned drag shows in any circumstance where children might be present. Members of the Utah Legislature apparently gave it serious thought.

In recent months in Utah, one drag performance was threatened by a bunch of Elmer Fudds carrying real guns. Outside a more recent show, the arms were carried by those who felt a need to defend the performance, the performers and the audience.

As the internet meme says, the only danger involved in taking your children to a drag show is that a “Christian” might show up with a gun. (I added the quotation marks around “Christian,” as Jesus was not known to carry.)

There is no question that the anti-drag, anti-gay, anti-transgender stampede among Americans who are crossdressing as conservatives who care about children is a distraction from today’s ultra-right efforts to do nothing about real threats to our children. Threats such as too many guns, too much air pollution, censorship of books and libraries and teachers and of everything else that exists to preserve our culture onto the next generation and make it worthy of our dreams.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks he is awfully clever to put Huckleberry Finn and Fred Phelps in the same paragraph, because one of the villains in that novel was named Phelps. Which he only realized when one of Phelps’ daughters pointed it out to him.


Twitter, @debatestate