What a Drag

I was surprised to learn in yesterday’s morning paper that Madison East High School had to cancel its drag show. My surprise stems from not knowing that Madison East had a drag show.

But, sure enough, somebody at East thought this made sense. The response was what you’d expect. Conservative talk show hosts and commentators, like former Gov. Scott Walker, saw an opening to exploit the culture wars and exploited away. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, as it always does, saw a chance for a press release and joined in on the feeding frenzy. These folks got the hard-right base all fired up and somebody apparently made unhinged threats. The school district thought the threats were credible enough that they cancelled and will reschedule the show.

All of that is on Walker, WILL and their pals on the hard-right. But I’m also not so sure that a drag show, apparently sponsored at a public high school. was such a hot idea in the first place.

While it’s not my thing, I don’t have a problem with drag shows. And even if I did, you shouldn’t care. It’s a free country. Girls will be boys and boys will be girls. It’s a mixed up world. And I even think I might understand the good motivations behind this. It has to do with acceptance of different identities. I’m down with that too. And attendance was not mandatory. If you’re not into it, don’t go.

Once on the fringes, for some reason, drag shows are a pop culture thing right now. Taco Bell has a drag brunch. Taco Bell! And one of my favorite Netflix shows, Emily in Paris, features a drag show as a recurring venue. That’s fine with me too.

Actress Ashley Park appears in drag in Emily in Paris. Fine by me.

But this is a public high school and at some point somebody’s got to ask the strategic political question: How is this going to play in the whole community? Are we getting too far out front? And, for a district that is all about cultural sensitivity, what about sensitivity to politically, culturally or religiously conservative families? Drag still offends and shocks some people. Why go out of your way to offend and shock some parents and taxpayers?

Moreover, why was this necessary? People can access drag shows in other places in the city. If a student group wanted to put one on they could have done that at a venue outside of the school. But as it is it comes off — and maybe it is — an officially sanctioned event.

Sometimes public schools get thrust onto the front lines of social change as they did in Little Rock in 1957. But that’s the exception to the rule. Far better to let social and cultural changes happen outside of the schools. Let schools focus on reading and writing. They should equip students with the tools to be life long learners and to think critically, so they can decide for themselves to be social activists, conservatives or — like most of us — something in between. But there is actually a school of thought in public education that it’s public schools’ role to create social activists. Maybe this was an example of that kind of philosophy.

In any event, blame hard-right screamers for the threats that resulted in rescheduling the show. But don’t discount the real concerns that socially conservative parents and taxpayers have about this.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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