Do Children Belong In Drag Culture?

Designer Brandon Hilton and his brand, The House Of Mann, have come under scrutiny because of a collaboration with 9 year old drag queen Lactatia, who was recently featured in the brand’s advertising. The House of Mann online store features erotic clothing items aimed towards a gay audience, and against this backdrop, the use of a child in promotional images has incited outrage on social media. Gay publication Into notes that Hilton was attacked on Twitter, with commentator Matt Walsh going so far as to invoke the term “pedophilia” with respect to the featured images of Lactatia. While I contend that this last point is a hysterical and baseless conclusion, it is an attack that the gay community should take seriously in an era of sex panic.

Those unfamiliar with or hostile to drag culture may look at a young boy in makeup and drag and immediately see exploitation. Imitating adult drag queens, Lactatia is projecting a more mature persona in the House of Mann images, which give added anxiety to those already flummoxed by someone so young playing with gender at all. What I see in Lactatia is an artistic young individual emulating the performance art that has flowered creatively thanks largely to RuPaul’s Drag Race. There is nothing sinister about this on the face of it, but we are right to question whether a child belongs in the adult world of professional drag. Parents showing their acceptance of their child’s interest in drag within the private realm is one matter, but bringing their child into the actual adult gay subculture of drag, as well as into business contexts where the child’s talents are exploited, is another.

Drag is not simply about dressing up in a costume, but is about creating a persona (or several), and entertaining an audience. Performers will utilize talents in acting, music, dance, comedy and fashion in their exploration of gender and the psyche. Queens on Drag Race often exhibit a scathing sense of humour, and in the show’s competitive scenarios, a ruthlessness as they survive weekly rounds of elimination — making for great television, but not suitable as daycare. RuPaul’s Drag Race has amply demonstrated that the best drag queens are aesthetes and connoisseurs whose performances draw upon their study of the history of art and popular culture, and from this perspective one can understand why a creative child might find drag attractive.

I would suggest that Lactatia has been embraced by the House of Mann and other segments of the LGBT community not because of any dark intentions, but because gay adults are trying to show a level of acceptance and support that was denied to them during their own gender non-conforming childhoods. We can appreciate this while maintaining that The House of Mann erred in choosing a child performer for their “Cover Girl,” and that drag culture is a realm of entertainment intended for adults, not children. A drag queen is admiring female sexual power and invoking it in their presentation. An adult doing drag can understand what they are wielding and accept responsibility for protecting themselves against those who do not wish them well; a child cannot.

In a society where adults agree to put a child’s best interests ahead of their own, we have to contend with the reality that children are incompatible with the subversive, fascinating realm of the drag queen. The line dividing acceptable arenas for children and adults not only protects children, but creates areas of life where adults are free to enjoy adult pleasures, including sexual or risqué humour and performance. By opening their thriving subculture to children out of a misguided sense of “inclusivity,” gay men risk losing a space for their expression at all — or alternatively, opening their subculture to Disneyfication. Brandon Hilton has remarked to his detractors that “maybe the future isn’t for you!” This statement reflects a progressive view that society will only grow more tolerant, an assumption which may leave the gay community unprepared for the possibility of sudden and long-lasting reversals.