Reactions and Redirected Efforts: Non-Metropolitan Drag Activism in the Wake of Marriage Equality

Mainstream LGBTQ activism in the United States has been subjected to the critique that its work operates as a reactionary force, more than a movement driven by the desires of its members. Activist efforts such as the fight for lesbian and gay marriage, or the push to understand that sexual minorities were “born this way,” can be best understood, scholars have argued, as responses to pressures from the religious right on LGBTQ communities (see, for example: Fetner 2008). This interplay between the religious right and activist choices affects not only those who advocate for LGBTQ issues on the national stage, but also those who do work on the community level. This may be particularly pronounced in non-metropolitan communities, where, as rural queer studies scholars have argued, religion organizes LGBTQ life in significant ways and where religious objection to LGBTQ lifestyles, identities, and issues is differently visible.

This paper considers how the activist work of non-metropolitan drag performers evolves in response to current events. Drawing on interviews with rural drag kings, auto ethnography, and several years of participant observation, I argue that that the trajectory of drag-based activist work, as well as subsequent assessments of that work’s success, are shaped by the political landscape in ways that are unique to non-metropolitan spaces. In particular, this paper looks at the ways drag activists have responded to public critiques of marriage equality, and redirected their activist efforts to respond to those attacks.

Shortly after Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage, took effect, Kim Davis gained national attention for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis, a county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, made an argument rooted in religious freedom, and claimed that being forced to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples infringed on her civil liberties. This paper will consider the attention that Davis received on the national stage (which largely consisted of various forms of mockery from those with liberal political commitments) as well as the impacts of her behavior on communities in and around Kentucky. I consider the ways in which place was called up in discourses surrounding Davis’ refusal, and suggest that the effects of her decision were differently felt in nearby non-metropolitan spaces. I will discuss how the drag activist communities I work with and participate in chose to redirect their activist energies away from their chosen issues (such as HIV advocacy and prevention), to instead focused on crafting responses to Davis’ very public disdain for LGBTQ marriage. Ultimately, I suggest that we ought to read the shift in rural drag activist priorities as a consequence of the fight for marriage equality, and argue that the dangers of such shifts open up new ways to consider the limits of fights for marriage equality in rural places.