There are tinges of culture-war polarisation in the internet battle over a drag act during pride week at a children’s event in Valletta. There’s blessing in disagreements but intolerance is a curse.
Hard right conservatives – who are far more in number than their extremism might suggest – express concern that children seeing a man in a dress ‘confuses’ them. When politeness makes way for a less nuanced expression of their feelings, conservatives seem to think that seeing gay makes you gay, that this, being gay, is a perversion or disease that is contagious, and children are particularly vulnerable to it.
Like all forms of deep prejudice, the ‘concern’ is entirely free of logic.
If it was possible to prevent anyone from “becoming” gay by banning the public wearing of another gender’s clothes, the “disease” would have been eradicated by now. Men and women have been made to suffer all manner of injustices and cruel punishment for wearing clothes that did not satisfy the expectation of social conservatives for centuries. And yet here we are.
Also, children are less impressionable than some might think. I was exposed from a very young age to spectacular physical violence represented on crucifixes and pictures of the tortured body of Christ. Whatever confusion I may have felt none of that has made me a violent person or even a masochist recipient of violence.
The only things children seeing a drag act may risk being impressed by is what a good dancer or singer the performer is. Drag acts have been a part of our culture for centuries. Generations have been “exposed” to them and been delighted by them. The “exposure” has convinced them that a man in drag does not eat children and is unlikely to make demands on them to conform to some expectation of sexual preference, orientation, or even indifference.
That is entirely the opposite of what conservatives keen to tie children to a very deterministic set of norms and to rescue them from any deviation from those norms no matter where their hearts take them, would do.
Generalisation is unfair and what follows is one. People who say children should not be allowed to watch a drag act to avoid their children being “confused”, may well insist children are not “exposed” to Islamic culture. They will see both as deviations from their rigid, white, strictly, heterosexual, male-dominated uniformity that they consider as inherently superior and pure.
This prejudice cannot be blamed on Catholicism or old-fashioned cultural values that are inherent to this country. With all its deeply held prejudices and orthodoxy, this society is borrowing an entirely new and grotesquely violent rhetoric from American hard right conservatism. That’s a conservatism that has little to do with the tradition of the Republican Party or conservative parties in Europe, or even Christian parties on the Continent.
This is a breed of intolerance that seems to be taking hold of people who are mobilising their vague insecurities into bouts of frantic panic. In this frenzy, a man dressed as a woman who dances in the presence of children becomes the harbinger of Armageddon, the seventh trumpet before the end of the world.
It’s that panicked hysteria that I worry about children being exposed to. I worry children might be infected by the pretend shock and horror at the sight of even the slightest difference in others because as children they do not know the shock is made up.
These self-proclaimed conservatives claim they worry that when children see a homosexual being a homosexual (because the subtleties of distinction escape the prejudiced entirely in any case), they – the children – will become homosexual on the misguided assumption they would make that being homosexual is “normal”. The self-proclaimed conservatives do not think homosexuality is “normal”, so they think it’s “abnormal” which is modern for pervert.
Please, to follow the next argument, understand that children do not choose to become gay at 18 like they choose which car to buy. Let’s at least share a basic understanding of humanity before screaming at ranges of differences within it. So, children who are gay, may indeed recognise themselves in the example of gay people who express their identity without shame. With pride, as it were.
If conservatives resent that fact and want to prevent it, they must therefore admit they consider being gay as a perversion which people must be kept from indulging. Some Maltese fascists call it gejjaġni which is a word structured to represent pestilence, something devoutly to be avoided. There’s little dialogue to have with such an intolerant attitude. It’s like people who might say that it is ok to own slaves if they are black. What can you say to that?
Now people who profess tolerance, who premise their objections to a drag act in the presence of children with claims that they respect people who are gay but want them to “stay away from children”, might claim to worry about the impact of the example of openly gay people on children who are not gay. They seem to worry that children who are not gay would inevitably become so because of the confusion caused by a man dressed in women’s clothes.
As a child I have seen men dressed as priests and as doctors and as airline pilots, and I have become none of those things. “Exposure” to them has taught me not to be afraid of them. Being “exposed” to a drag act doesn’t make you a drag queen, though it does teach you to have no fear of a drag queen because drag queens don’t rape children any more than a heterosexual man in a van or force them into sexual depravity any more than a man in a cassock.
This is the tragedy. A debate about whether Joan of Arc should be burnt at the stake for cutting her hair short and wearing men’s clothes is older than gay pride parades down Republic Street. What makes this like an American culture war is the fact that it is only people who agreed with my thinking before they started reading this have come down as far as reading this 999th word of this article. The people who disagreed with me to begin with have stopped reading the moment they realised I’m a “lily-livered, bleeding-heart, liberal, egghead communist,” or “woke” as the term goes today.
There’s one thing a drag act can teach us. That drag queens are not prejudiced against men who dress as men. If only our children could take a page out of that book where basic respect for difference is written. They’d be better than us.