Maren Morris downs a shot of tequila with a wince. “I love that we’re taking shots and then saying, ‘OK, so let’s talk about Ron DeSantis,’ ” Morris says with a chuckle.
The four drag luminaries she’s toasting with today — Eureka O’Hara, Landon Cider, Sasha Colby and Symone — grimace through their own post-shot puckers at the mention of the Florida governor’s (and now, presidential hopeful’s) name. It’s an otherwise cheerful weekday in Los Angeles: Pop jams ranging from ABBA to Doja Cat play in the background as the quintet gabs gleefully about everything from Three’s Company to O’Hara’s adorable dachshund puppy, Princess Pink, who makes occasional appearances nearby.
But the shadow of the world outside can’t stay beyond this room for long. The mention of DeSantis — who recently signed a batch of anti-LGBTQ+ bills into law that collectively amount to a full attack on the civil rights of queer and trans people in Florida — is just one reminder that in 2023 alone, over 450 bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights have been introduced by right-wing politicians into state legislatures across the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That’s more than double the amount of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced in the same legislative session in 2022.
The five assembled today frequently, and fervently, use their respective individual platforms to speak against such attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. O’Hara, Cider, Colby and Symone are alums (and, in a few cases, winners) of some of TV’s most beloved drag reality shows, like RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula. Morris, who’s moderating today’s discussion, has made a name for herself not only as one of country music’s brightest stars, but as an outspoken advocate — both onstage and off — for queer and trans people, calling out their mistreatment in the music industry and beyond.
The legislation leveled against those communities spans a wide range of issues — censoring discussions of gender and sexuality in public schools, banning best-practice medical care for transgender youth (and in some instances for adults, too), eliminating nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community. And another type of legislation has quickly captured national attention: so-called “drag bans.” In March, Tennessee became the first state to pass a bill into law prohibiting “adult cabaret” performances (the definition of which includes “male or female impersonators”) in public or in the presence of minors.
“It’s just now becoming public knowledge how horrible it is there,” says O’Hara, who grew up in Tennessee, her voice quivering. “It’s scary to be trans today and to be a drag queen.” Colby puts it simply: “It’s about controlling queer kids.”
After the state’s ban sparked a legal battle with Memphis-based theater company Friends of George’s, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law. Then, on June 2, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker ruled that the law violates performers’ First Amendment rights and deemed it unconstitutional. The ruling prevents the law from taking effect in Tennessee’s Shelby County and creates potential for further legal challenges elsewhere in the state. Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti has already said that he plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
“This ruling is a turning point, and we will not go back,” said GLAAD president/CEO Sarah Kate Ellis in a statement. “Every anti-LGBTQ elected official is on notice that these baseless laws will not stand and that our constitutional freedom of speech and expression protects everyone and propels our culture forward.”
But LGBTQ+ advocates in Tennessee point out that, overturned or not, the law’s initial passage still accomplished one goal: creating a culture of confusion and fear surrounding self-expression in the state. Due to the intentional vagueness of the law, its enforcement would come down to individual interpretation, sparking hypothetical questions like, “If Harry Styles comes and does a concert at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville and has on a frilly shirt or a skirt or a dress…” posits Morris. “What do we do then? In a place like Tennessee, it’s obviously really meant to fearmonger.”
At least 15 other states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina and Texas, are either considering or have already passed legislation similar to Tennessee’s drag ban — and that’s creating an impending sense of dread that keeps the drag stars and Morris fired up. “If you don’t want to go to a drag show, don’t go to a drag show. If you don’t want to have your kids at a drag show, don’t take your kids to a drag show. But don’t put that on us!” Symone exclaims. Cider nods in agreement. “The only part of ‘grooming’ that I’m doing,” he says, “is grooming kids to find joy in their authentic selves.”
Maren Morris: How have you been coming to terms with the number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills passing through the state legislatures around the country? I live in Tennessee, and I feel like that’s unfortunately at the forefront for a lot of them.
Symone: I don’t think I’ve come to terms with it; I think I’ve just realized that I am in a rage about it. Growing up, it wasn’t like it is now, and it’s frustrating to see all this hate, this vitriol for people who just spread love and only want to be seen and accepted. I cannot believe in 2023 we’re here. Especially after doing the respective [TV] shows that we’ve done and being embraced over all these years, for it to feel like such a backlash is insane to me. I won’t come to terms with it because we deserve everything that you think that we don’t deserve.
Morris: Have you seen it affect your own bookings or your friends’ bookings?
Sasha Colby: Right now, being in gigs with the other season 15 [Drag Race] girls, I feel like in our group chats we’re all very much on high alert and asking our friends, like Aura [Mayari] who’s in Tennessee, “How is it?” I think everyone’s just being very cautious.
Drag is so popular right now [because] it’s hitting a nerve with people, both good and bad. The bad is that they see how good we’re doing and how happy we’re making people and how out of the matrix we are. Kids are coming! It’s not grooming, it’s just making space for them to be themselves.
Landon Cider: When we were hiding and forced to create secret spaces, we found community. We were bonding and forging these relationships in this underground culture. Now that it’s celebrated in the mainstream, it backfired. It’s thrown in our face. We didn’t force it to be mainstream! They did!
Colby: We weren’t allowed in cis spaces. We weren’t allowed to be anything but outcasts. And then we share it with the world, and they just want to colonize our thoughts as well as everything else.
Symone: I think it does scare them because of the kids. The kids are seeing us, and they grow up saying, “Well, why would I need to be anything other than this?” That is scary for people who are not of this generation and who grew up a different way.
Morris: There is not a “one size fits all” conveyor belt of parenting; everyone has a different thing. Saying that this is all “adult” — some drag is, absolutely! But I’ve seen the Mrs. Doubtfire reference made a lot, where it’s hilarious if it’s a cis [straight] male in drag. Then it’s OK for the kids to see, but God forbid you see someone truly expressing themselves, entertaining and just being free.
Eureka O’Hara: It’s OK if it’s a joke. But we take this seriously — this gives us inspiration and life. I come from East Tennessee, and I went through all of this times 10 living there. It makes me so mad — I have a trans Black sister who just moved in with me a few months ago, and she’s finally doing OK after 19 years of being abused. And that’s what this is.
You all know it’s not about drag. Let’s be real. These [are] scare tactics, and it just gets me so emotional. It’s about how we express ourselves, and it’s about the youth — because we have the queerest youth we’ve ever had right now. And that’s what they’re mad about. These kids are learning about who they are before they’re 18, 25, 30 years old and still have to deal with abuse like this.
Colby: The whole thing with being trans is they sexualize us. It’s funny when it’s a joke, but as soon as they sexualize us, then they’re going to want to control, like how they do with cisgender women, how they do with kids.
Cider: They’re projecting their own hatred and fear of their own community and their own small “safe” spaces.
Morris: What’s that saying? “Every threat from them is an actual admission.”
Colby: Exactly. It’s always them showing their cards.
Symone: I also just want to put out there that people may think now that it’s just the drag queens, it’s just trans people. But if they can do it to them, then they can do it to anybody else. Don’t think that just because they’re attacking us right now that y’all are going to be somehow exempt from it. We’re just the easiest targets. Just look at history.
That’s another thing that I cannot stand — the misinformation. Know what you’re speaking about, know what you’re saying before you speak. You don’t have to like a trans person. But don’t say things that you don’t know anything about. Educate yourself. Don’t put your stuff on somebody else. What did Madonna say? “Don’t hang your sh-t on me.”
Cider: Don’t push your legislature to take control and tell other people what they can or cannot do [with their bodies]. Usually, it is religious reasons why they’re doing all of this because their beliefs are binary. When we have this particular religious control, they want to put fearmongering into what has been celebrated because they don’t understand it.
Morris: The fact is, they don’t have solutions for actual problems — this is their niche thing that they get to go off on. I’m from Texas, I live in Tennessee, and I do love the community I have there, but these bills almost incentivize us to turn on one another. They’re rewarding us to turn each other in, which feels kind of like a Nazi Germany thing where we turn on our own communities.
Colby: And they call it “patriotism.”
Morris: With drag being more popular than ever right now, how do you think it ultimately influences pop culture?
Colby: We used to be a mirror — like in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, we would mirror pop culture. Now we get to be pop culture. We are who celebrities, designers, artists want to work with or are inspired by.
O’Hara: Obviously, there’s so much bad that comes from the hatred and the discrimination. But to have it be publicly talked about and having these discussions — like, how many celebrities have stood up for drag lately?
Cider: It’s interesting because it’s kind of the flip for me. As a drag king, I don’t see myself and my version of my art form celebrated the way that the art of drag queens is. So it’s bittersweet because I see my sisters being catapulted into this stardom, and I’m so excited and happy for all of them. But when are we going to understand that kings have been around for just as long, if not longer, in some cultures? Sexism and misogyny take over a lot, and that’s why trans women have been hidden in secret, too; it’s that same misogyny, the same sexism.
I am not trans, but when I see my trans siblings getting attacked… If you attack one of us, you attack all of us. And it’s the same when I see my siblings being celebrated — you celebrate one of us, you celebrate all of us. So I’m celebrating them, but I’m still waiting for us to be recognized and fully embraced. We see masculinity celebrated on the runway on RuPaul’s Drag Race all the time — in the Snatch Game or Victoria [Scone] and Mo Heart doing these very masculine looks — but we still don’t see kings.
O’Hara: You talked about the sexism and misogyny — it’s also the heteronormative culture of “Men are men, women are women,” and seeing a drag king is probably even harder for them to see.
Colby: Because they don’t know how to sexualize and objectify you.
Morris: Piggybacking on that, these bills are so vague in their language that it’s intentionally hard to know where the line is between what is drag and what is not, and it’s obviously really meant to eradicate the existence of trans people. I mean, even a lot of these [male] country artists wear tighter jeans than I do.
Colby: And have bigger highlights! But that’s the thing: All the beauty in country music is always so good.
Morris: It’s elevated, right? Dolly Parton famously said that if she wasn’t Dolly, she would be a drag queen. Especially when I’m going into glam for an event, I’m looking at a lot of y’all’s photos. Like, talk about culture and impact — it affects me, too! I want to sit and be beat for the gods! Even that language — I just said something that was totally born out of this community. I exist in this space of country music, where you don’t have to do much to be seen as a brave voice, unfortunately.
Symone: And that’s why it’s so important for you to be here, because country music — and I’ll also add in rap and hip-hop here — those genres need people to come out and say something more than any other [genre] because those are the ones that are the most heteronormative.
Colby: And they have a lot of people’s ears in America. They are two of the most listened-to genres in the country.
Symone: For you to be here and say those things is so important — we need all our divas. We need you to love us now.
Morris: Are there any specific examples of good, helpful allyship that you’ve seen from artists in the last few years?
Cider: Aside from you, I look at somebody like Lizzo and the show she did in Nashville recently [with drag performers].
Symone: Yes, completely. If you’re going to Tennessee this summer for touring, get the girls up there. Get some kings up there, too!
Colby: The local girls, too, because the local performers are the ones in danger here, especially in these small towns with a lot of drag. I’ve noticed that a lot of small Southern towns have these safe spaces for queer people, and they are the ones who are going to feel the impact of all this legislation first. We get to be the face and the voice and try to do our best, but it’s these small towns that we really have to be concerned about.
Morris: For anyone who may be reading this, what can people do to help?
Symone: Vote. That’s first and foremost.
O’Hara: Go to these organizations that work with lobbyists to watch out for the progression of these bills. Because it’s not just at a state and national level that we’re being harmed. It’s the small community governments, it’s the city governments, it’s these local places. We have organizations like ACLU and places of that nature, every state has those lobbyists — the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition would be a great one for anyone to donate to. Of course you have to vote, but we scream that all day every day. It’s not just about voting for the president.
A lot of times, I think the most important thing is to take care of the people around you who aren’t being looked after. Talk to the quiet queer kids that look scared, that aren’t being social. Go befriend the people that don’t look happy. Stop being mean girls, and that goes for gay people, too. Step up and be there for each other, for someone other than yourself and the people who make you feel cool.
Cider: Be an active ally when it matters. If you’ve shared a smile, a laugh, a memory with a queer person, don’t let that memory hide in the closet. Take that memory where it counts — to your pulpits, to your family reunions, to the locker rooms, to the places where you know you’re going to get sh-t on for speaking out for us. That’s where it matters the most because maybe it’ll open some eyes.
Colby: I always tell my cis-het friends who have children, “You don’t have to go to every protest and stand on your soapbox. What you do have control over is the kids you created. All you can do is leave this world a little better than you left it. Make those kids allies.”
Morris: Is there anything y’all want to ask me?
Cider: You’re using your platform beautifully already, and we appreciate you, we thank you for everything. But it’s also not a hard thing to do, to be an ally and to use your platform in the way that you do. How would you encourage your peers to do the same?
Morris: I have heard the term “Shut up and sing” more times than I can count — that’s always the cutesy little threat that they like to make. So I would say to my peers who are artists and to record-label heads, publishers, songwriters: I don’t think any of us got into this art form to be an activist, but that’s ultimately thrust upon you to exist in this space and to feel like you can sleep at night. You’re going to lose fans along the way — that is just part and parcel of being public-facing. But there is a lane that you’re widening; I see it year over year at my shows, the crowd feels so diverse and so safe. I know everyone likes money, but is it worth your biography saying that you never picked a side because both sides pay money to buy a T-shirt?