Theater is the creation of a reality based on mental representations of experiences, the creation of a self that simultaneously exists and does not exist, in a reality that simultaneously exists and does not exist … mic drop.
Children use drag as a way to understand and express their lives and fantasies in order to process who they are. In a way, we all use drag to express ourselves. Whether it is a business suit, a sports uniform, or a wedding gown, drag is inherently the exaggeration of all things we want to be.
Drag is a performance art, and some of us are method actors. Singing, dancing, comedic routines, and pageantry are equal representations of the diverse subculture that has become so mainstream that children are pilfering parents’ Pradas to participate, but how exactly does it help them developmentally?
Reading a dry dissertation by Dr. Pilios-Dimitris Stavrou requires more than a glass of chardonnay, as he explores his thesis on theatrical play and children’s psychological development: “Theatrical play is nothing more than a form of pretend play that requires the representation of external (everyday life) or internal (fantasies) reality through mental representations of experiences brought into action.” As he delves further into the existential relationship between theater and reality, the good doctor hits on an incredibly profound point:
By falling through the metaphorical looking glass, children are not only living the Lewis Carroll fantasy but actually creating a reality where they can express themselves through drag.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” – George Bernard Shaw
We, as parents, are then led to the natural question; How can we best support a child who is not only LGBTQ, but has a desire to shine onstage? How do we protect our children as well as provide them with the means to express themselves creatively? If it were sports or music, we could automatically turn to teachers provided through our public school system; however, learning drag poses some inherently awkward challenges. The obvious answer is like any other extracurricular interest: Find a peer group where our children can thrive. But where do we look?
Finding their village is part of children’s development, and seeking to find others that not only affirm their drag but share their love for the art is becoming easier. Here in Denver, local mom Robin Fulton created Dragutante to connect parents and children through an extravagant annual drag performance for kids. “It’s something that I needed as much as my child did,” she explained. “Finding other parents on a similar path, I learned to parent the way my child needed … not the way society expected. I knew in my heart that there had to be other kids out there that needed this too.”
Fulton is the parent to 15-year-old drag teen and activist Ophelia Peaches, who began to dabble in drag before kindergarten. “When he was little, he would wear his sister’s princess costumes to the store.” Ophelia’s mom smiled at the memory. “Unfortunately, not everyone was OK with the dresses, so it became something he did at home, or during Halloween. When he decided at 13 that he wanted to do drag, I wasn’t surprised at all. I was so proud that he was confident enough to be himself.”
She continued, “In the beginning, I was mainly concerned that something terrible would happen, something that would make my child regret speaking his truth. But the more he did it, the more people cheered for him. Now, he speaks in front of thousands of people and has become one of the strongest people I know. Drag gave him a voice, and he’s using it to help other kids like himself to find theirs.”
Finding and creating a tribe was easier than Fulton anticipated, as young performers are lining up for the spotlight. “Dragutante was the first of its kind here in the United States, and I’m proud that there are increasing opportunities for kids to experience drag in safe environments. Our Denver, LGBTQ community has embraced the role of mentor and protector for these kids in a way I never dreamed possible. It’s more than family; it’s the tribe my child deserved … it’s the tribe that ALL these children deserved before him. It’s finally happening.”
Theater is the creation of a reality based on mental representations of experiences, the creation of a self that simultaneously exists and does not exist, in a reality that simultaneously exists and does not exist… mic drop.
For those of us with little ones who’ve been glued to the royalty of Ru (who thankfully sang better songs than their Disney counterparts), another event, DragCon, is revolutionary in the access it gives young people to all things drag. This convention is open to anyone of any age and gives young people access to fabulous queens who represent everything from superheroes to supermodels. A woke generation of youngsters are able to watch and get to know drag artists who represent a vast array of gender expressions and sexualities. Experiencing DragCon in all its fabulousness gives kids the opportunity to exist in a room full of people like them, if not exactly like them; it’s a room full of people devoid of judgment.
This new, creative generation requires new, creative parenting. Canadian AFAB (assigned female at birth) queen Bracken is 13 years old and has chosen an irreverent take on femininity. Her exaggerated eye makeup, pink cheeks, and colorful hair mark her signature look. Her mother, Dominique, described her child’s love for drag.
“It might seem ironic and hard to believe to some that drag has allowed my child to hold onto the precious years of her childhood and to traverse the challenging stages of adolescence with grace and humor. To those who find that hard to comprehend, a quick perusal of any teen girl’s social media will quickly make clear the level of pressure young girls are under to look and behave far beyond their years. Flame and cake emojis constitute the highest form of praise, and for girls who don’t measure up, cruel commentary about their apparent shortcomings litter their feed.
“For my daughter, being able to exaggerate and caricature some of the elements of the feminine means she sees the humor in it. She is also grateful to wipe the character off at the end of a performance. As a performer, her value in herself is weighted in her ability to create and entertain, and while like any teen, nagging doubt can creep in, her sense of self and individualism keep her focused and grounded in what is important: friends, family, and enjoying life!”
On the other side of the continent, New York drag kid Desmond Napoles has been creating looks since they could walk. Now, at age 12, they described their drag as an artist describes their craft: “Each look has been a moment in my life, and it shows what I was feeling at that time.”
Their mother, Wendy Napoles, explained, “Drag has taught Desmond to be self-confident, accepting, and tolerant. Exposure to drag, in an age-appropriate context, is an excellent and positive learning experience for children. It teaches diversity, inclusivity, exploration, and creativity. Most importantly, it teaches children to look beyond society’s expectations placed on the gender they were born in regards to how a child should act, dress, or play.”
“Be yourself– not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” – Henry David Thoreau
Wendy is one of the trailblazers for youth drag from the past decade and firmly believes this natural exploration of self is an important part of a child’s development. She elaborated, “All children engage in dress-up play. All children instinctively use art as a way to say, ‘I am here, and this is my perspective of my world.’ For many children, art is therapeutic and can become a coping skill for emotions or feelings that a child may not be able to express in another form. Drag is an art form in itself.”
She continued, “To suppress a child’s ambition to express themselves and explore their identity through dress up and makeup (as ‘drag’) sends a damaging message that what the child values and enjoys is wrong and doesn’t matter. This message can lead some children to believe that there is something wrong with who they are. It is my belief that simply allowing your child to develop naturally into the person they want to become, while providing positive guidance and boundaries, is most beneficial to the child’s mental health.”
As it turns out, doing drag can be extremely beneficial to young minds working through the usual angsts and anxieties of life. Children instinctively use dramatic play to express and resolve internal conflict, release pent-up feelings, and explore hopes and fears, which is central to any child’s development. And don’t forget that this generation sees the world from an entirely different perspective. These youngsters are essentially using a stage to connect their voices with others across the globe, as well as connecting more introspectively with themselves.
Photos provided by Dragutante