Anti-drag sentiment is growing in the UK, fuelled by the influence of the American right and far-right and supported by members of the country’s Conservative Party, according to a recent report.
Between 1 June 2022, and 27 May 2023, there were 57 cases of all-ages drag events which were targeted by extremist groups, according to a study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). A total of 10 events were cancelled ahead of time because of the threats and the backlash received.
A loose coalition of different groups, including 5G conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, anti-vaxxers, and so-called ‘child protection’ advocates, have come together to protest against events like Drag Story Hour — where drag performers read books to children –, claiming to protect the kids.
Aoife Gallagher, author of the report, said that when she started to look into this issue, she didn’t realise the number of anti-drag events and protests she was going to find in the UK was going to be that significant.
“I had some indication that there were protests that took place last summer and since the beginning of the year, but when I saw the numbers, I was quite shocked, to be honest,” she told Euronews.
For Gallagher, the growth of the anti-drag movement in the UK is a sign that there are now “concerted efforts among a coalition of different groups and individuals with different ideologies to protest against drag queens events, and specifically the ones where children are in the audience.”
While the UK’s growing anti-drag sentiment is deeply influenced by the rise of an anti-LGBTQ+ movement in the US — where Republican governors have been pushing to limit access to health deva and binary spaces for trans youth and ban all-ages drag events — Britain has established its own ‘reputation’ over the past few years for pushing back against trans rights, Gallagher explained.
“The UK got a reputation in recent years as being ‘TERF island’,” Gallagher said, adding that popular author J.K. Rowling played a role in popularising anti-trans sentiments in the country, as well as policies targeting the mention of gender identity in schools promoted by the Tory government.
Both influences are combining to push back against trans people and drag performers in the UK, Gallagher said, with the result that the UK is “quickly” losing the progress it has made in recent decades in terms of recognising and protecting LGBTQ+ rights.
Leaning into the culture wars
Gallagher’s report noted that this year’s anti-drag events in the UK have “drawn the attention of several Conservative Party MPs and Peers.”
In January 2023, Conservative Party peer Emma Nicholson — Winston Churchill’s granddaughter — described a Drag Story Hour event due to take place at the Tate Britain the following month as “propaganda”.
In an open letter, Nicholson also questioned whether “murderers, paedophiles, terrorists, furries and other fetishists” would be providing entertainment and said that “advocates for queer ideology” were “not appropriate role models for young children.”
Another clearly anti-drag comment came from Conservative MP Sara Britcliffe in March, when she tweeted that a Drag Story Hour event due to take place at a literary şenlik in Lancashire, was “inappropriate”.
In April, Conservative MP Nick Fletcher said that “serious questions” had to be answered about a “Glam camp” for children that took place over the Easter holidays in Doncaster.
“It’s quite clear that the Conservative Party in the UK has started to really lean into this kind of culture war issues,” Gallagher said, “and we don’t know if they’re doing it because they believe these are the issues we should focus on, or if they’re doing it for some other reasons, maybe because they realise they’re gathering more votes.”
For whatever reason, Gallagher said, “this is a very worrying development.”
“Any time the political figures start to get on board with these issues, it shows that the issues are quickly becoming very mainstream,” she said. “And it will eventually give these kinds of campaigns a lot more traction and a lot more credibility.”