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Smithsonian Institution Cracks Down on Drag Shows

They’ve gone on for years under the current leader’s tenure. Then House Republicans started asking questions.

Lonnie G. Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for National Archives Foundation
Lonnie G. Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian, at the National Archives Museum on December 4, 2023

The Smithsonian Institution is conducting an internal crackdown on drag events after Lonnie Bunch, the institution’s leader, told the House Administration Committee on December 12 that he would “look into” the performances that have been a popular part of museum programming for years.

Bunch’s statement came in response to questioning from Representative Stephanie Bice, an Oklahoma Republican, who asked at the House hearing last December how drag events advance the Smithsonian’s mission. “I think it’s not appropriate to expose children to drag shows,” Bunch replied. “I’m surprised, and I will look into that.”

What has followed internally, according to interviews with Smithsonian workers who declined to be named for this article for fear of retribution from their employer, has been a “drag audit,” in which popular performances from previous years have been cataloged and, in effect, banned for 2024.

“They want to pretend like this is some sort of review and not a ban, but the fact that these performers are suddenly excluded from all Smithsonian programming amounts to censorship by Lonnie Bunch and his team,” said a museum worker who has attended drag performances for years at the institution’s facilities that the source said were popular and well attended.

A spokesperson for the Smithsonian wouldn’t comment on Bunch’s testimony or say if drag events will be added to the events calendar for this year. If not, this June will be the first Pride Month during Bunch’s five-year secretariat without drag performances at the Smithsonian.

A spokesperson for Pattie Gonia, a drag queen and environmental activist visiting the Capitol on Tuesday, told The New Republic that the performer had been working on an event with the Smithsonian since December until the project was suddenly canceled. Gonia declined to comment on the specific project but said that “every organization needs to be inclusive, and there are a lot of organizations that are not being.”

No drag events are currently on the 2024 calendar for any of the 20 museums and galleries under Bunch’s supervision, 11 of which are located on the National Mall. Bunch, who has worked for the Smithsonian since the 1980s, served as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture before being elected as the institution’s secretary in 2019. He is the first Black person to lead the Smithsonian in the institution’s 173-year history.

Five Years of Drag Under Bunch

Bunch’s crackdown on drag performances this year marks a sudden departure from programming long supported by the Smithsonian Pride Alliance, an influential group of queer museum workers and supporters formed in 1988 in response to the AIDS crisis.

A review by The New Republic found the Smithsonian has hosted at least eight drag performances during Bunch’s tenure, which will begin its fifth year in May. None of the events were marketed to children, while most were held in conjunction with Pride Week in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The last time a drag event was hosted by a Smithsonian facility was a free show on June 23, 2023, at the Diker Pavilion, a New York City facility of the National Museum of the American Indian. The event was held in conjunction with NYC Pride Week under the theme “Strength in Solidarity” and featured drag performances by Landa Lakes, Lady Shug, Sage Chanell, and Papi Churro—four Indigenous drag artists representing Chickasaw, Diné (Navajo), Shawnee, Ponca, Otoe, Lakota Sioux, Nahua, and Coahuiltecan ancestry, according to the event web page.

A 2021 Smithsonian magazine article featured drag artist Geo Soctomah Neptune discussing the intersection of nonbinary (“two-spirit”) Americans and Indigenous culture. The magazine also featured at least two dozen images of drag performers from Appalachia to Tel Aviv in its nineteenth annual photography contest last year.

Several drag events were held at the Smithsonian during the Trump administration, including a happy hour at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York featuring Horchata, a co-founder of the annual Brooklyn drag festival; a performance in conjunction with the Smithsonian Latino Museum featuring Big Freedia, a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a popular television show in drag culture; and a ball at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden hosted by Pussy Noir, a “local icon” of D.C. drag culture, according to the Smithsonian website.

Another Baseless Republican Culture War

Bice’s questioning of Bunch is part of a broader Republican culture war on queer Americans. Drag, a performance art that goes back centuries, has emerged in recent decades as a celebration synonymous with fluid expressions of gender. Shows often include dances by performers in elaborate outfits engaging audiences at events as diverse as boozy neighborhood brunches to black-tie galas at elite venues like the Smithsonian.

Republicans have used drag events to stoke resentment against queer people by framing the performances as harmful to children. This year, at least 15 state legislatures have considered legislation to ban “Drag Queen Story Hour” events in which performers read to children, often at public libraries. Drag events “show the things that kids and drag queens have in common—like a love of drama, sass, and sparkle,” according to a 2017 blog on the Smithsonian website.

While there is no credible evidence that family-friendly drag events are harmful to children or that the Smithsonian Institution has hosted drag event events for children, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from targeting these performances at the museums as part of the ongoing culture war.

Beyond the Smithsonian, drag brunches have been targeted by right-wing extremists from Jacksonville to Nashville, Texas to North Carolina. “Our governor is more focused on weaponizing state law enforcement to crack down on a specific drag show tour that was going on in Florida than he is on gun violence or people being evicted from their homes,” freshman Florida Democratic Representative Maxwell Frost told The New Republic last January of the state’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis. “We know what that’s about. It’s about homophobia and transphobia and building it into our institutions of government.”

“We’re at a point where we have to be defending ourselves, like with weapons,” drag performer Kiba Walker told USA Today in December 2022, when armed brunch allies turned up to defend a drag event at the Anderson Distillery in Roanoke, Texas.