Sixteen-year old Katastrophe saw their first drag show at age 10. Their mom brought them to a Broadway-themed drag brunch at Lips in New York City, and Katastrophe was hooked. "I popped out of the womb with jazz hands," Katastrophe says. "It was just something that I really related to." As a theater kid, Katastrophe was dazzled by the queens’ confidence onstage in their makeup, costumes, and especially their wigs. "I have an anxiety disorder called trichotillomania that causes me to pull out my hair to destress," they explain, "so I wear wigs." Feeling a unique connection to the performers, Katastrophe says, "I just fell in love."
A self-described "baby drag queen," Katastrophe is part of a new movement dubbed "kinder drag," where young people explore drag performance as a form of creative self-expression. Thanks in part to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, young queens like Lactatia and Desmond is Amazing are discovering their passion for drag and achieving viral recognition on social media.
"Drag means the outer expression of your inner-self," 10-year-old Desmond says. Being in drag "feels amazing," he adds. "I love looking beautiful, but not just beautiful. Artistic, creative, amazing."
"I put RuPaul’s Drag Race on thinking it was to do with cars and I was instantly hooked," says 11-year-old Leo, who lives in the UK and goes by the name Violet Vixen online. "I loved the fact that these men were breaking the mold and showing us that it’s okay to be what you want to be." Karastrophe agrees, adding that in drag, "I can wear whatever I want, I do what I want, I can say what I want. I get to perform, which I love. I feel so confident."
However, these young performers have also attracted controversy for exploring a form of expression that has origins in queer nightlife scenes. "I will say that who can participate in drag is contentious and debatable," Brandon Robinson, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Gender and Sexuality at the University of California, Riverside, says. He points to a recent controversy following RuPaul’s remarks about excluding trans Drag Race contestants as an example of the ongoing discussion around gatekeeping in the drag community. It's a debate that's only made more complicated when children are added to the equation. Though kids deserve to explore gender without judgment, some argue that drag is not the space to do so because it's imbued with queer history the children don't yet understand.
Robinson explains that drag has figured prominently as a critique and rejection of heteronormative social structures and played a significant role in catalyzing what is now known as the gay rights movement. "Historically, many cities and states criminalized drag," Robinson says. "This criminalization of 'cross-dressing' attire was part of the many police raids on gay bars and nightclubs," which included places like the Stonewall Inn and Compton’s Cafeteria during the late 1960s—sites where drag queens, along with many others, "fought back against the police" and the "policing of gender."
With such a deeply political history, drag performances are often subversive and intentionally shocking, creating environments that some believe are unfit for children. "Drag in the past 40 years has been reserved predominately for queer people in adult queer spaces," Dracmorda, one half of the Boulet Brothers drag duo, tells Broadly. "It was a way for queer performers to express art, political views, social commentary, and taboo sexual topics through entertainment and performances for our peers. A lot of times it was gross, wrong, offensive, sexual, or shocking. The outside world was not made for queers, and a lot of people who had to hide their gayness during the day could come out at night and commit over-the-top faggotry and relate to one another through drag and self expression."
"The recent pop explosion of drag has created a new form of drag that is more family-friendly," Swanthula of the Boulet Brothers points out. Still, "I don’t think contemporary drag, at its core, is necessarily family-friendly unless you think a little kid should be listening to Lady Bunny crack jokes about fisting and piss queens," Swanthula adds. "That sounds lewd, but that is what a lot of drag has been like for the past forty years."
Robinson also questions the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race on children and the preservation of queer history. "While I think the mainstreaming of drag can lead to queer acceptance and gender diversity ... what does the mainstreaming of drag erase? For example, do many people—especially straight people—consuming Drag Race know that many references on the show are references to the Black queer ball scene and culture? And what does it mean to have a cultural shift, but perhaps not have an understanding of this history and struggle?"
The Boulet Brothers have similar questions about maintaining the spirit and authenticity of drag, though they make it a point to emphasize that they support young drag queens. "I think for queer people who know drag from nightlife, clubs, gay cruises, theater and shows, it feels weird to see drag be made 'safe' and 'family-friendly' and marketed to children who are neither queer nor who understand the queer experience," Dracmorda explains. "As you can imagine, it feels like part of your culture is being appropriated and sold to the masses."
Desmond Is Amazing's mother Wendy Napoles says that though these questions are important, they can provide a rather limiting framework. "Drag is a form of art," she explains. "Art is infinite and constantly evolving. It is vitally important to know the history and origins of drag, but it is also necessary to allow drag, as an art form, to grow and continually reinvent itself. That is the very nature of art itself.
Leo's mother Lauren tells Broadly that in her experience, adult drag queens have been supportive of her son's drag because "most drag queens we've spoken to started some form of drag, like dressing up in mum's clothes or experimenting with makeup, from a young age." She believes that although certain performances can be inappropriate for some children, they could actually help other kids better understand and connect with the history of drag. "Nightclubs don't tend to allow children in anyway, but appropriateness and taste levels are based on individuals," she says. "Some kids have a mature head and a better understanding. Seeing drag artists perform helps them to immerse themselves in the culture and experience drag at its roots."
Although children who participate in drag aren't necessarily queer (no one should be assigned or pressured into an identity based on a hobby), Robinson worries that because the scene is embedded in the queer community, involvement could leave kids more vulnerable to bigotry and prejudice. "Queer youth may see drag culture and want to explore their expansive expressions of gender more, but the same youth still deal with many people and institutions such as families, schools, and religious communities who may not be accepting of expansive expressions of gender," explains Robinson. "We still live in a society with extreme homophobia and transphobia and an investment in the gender binary" that supports "backlash against gender-expansive people who may challenge the gender binary."
In some instances, drag kids like Lactatia have been targeted by online threats and bullying. Napoles says that she's exposed to a "constant flow of hate" because her son is a prominent drag kid who uses his platform to advocate for LGBTQ rights. "People call me a child abuser, pedophile, say I should be in jail or a mental hospital, or threaten me with violence," she tells Broadly.
"There’s been many times I’ve heard from those around me and those online that drag is inappropriate and not for kids," Leo says. "Drag Race does have some adult content, but I can be really open with my Mum and talk to her about stuff. She helps me understand what might not be suitable to repeat or copy."
Leo's hobby has deepened both his and his mother's understanding of drag and the queer community, and Robinson thinks the mainstreaming of drag could help other children in this regard as well. "Representation matters," he explains. "And the mainstreaming of drag culture, then, could be a source of gender affirmation and exploration for some queer youth."
The Boulet Brothers agree, with Swanthula saying, "Older generations know what it’s like to not be supported or accepted for their queerness, so if young people doing drag makes things easier for future queer generations, then we are all for it."
Drag "makes me happy," Katastrophe explains. "If someone’s happiness makes you mad, then you should really think more deeply about what your issues are because there are a lot of issues going on the world that need to be talked about. If someone expressing themselves makes you uncomfortable, just don’t pay any attention. Stay in your own lane."
"Anyone should be allowed to be and wear anything they want without judgement. We are not hurting anyone," Leo says. "I feel so happy as Violet Vixen, and surely that’s what it’s all about. Feeling happy with myself and loving myself."