"We are just the scapegoat": Aleksa Manila speaks out against anti-drag legislation

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Aleksa Manila — Courtesy photo
Aleksa Manila — Courtesy photo

At this point in 2023, there are almost too many anti-drag bills in the United States to count them all. The ACLU is currently tracking over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills in the United States, many of which propose regulating or banning gender-affirmative care and drag performances.

Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation hitting close to home
In Washington state, two bills are currently awaiting committee hearings. The first, House Bill 1233, sponsored by five Republicans, seeks to prevent Trans inmates in Washington prisons from living in quarters that align with their gender identity.

The second, Senate Bill 5653, is sponsored by Sen. Phil Fortunato, a Republican from District 31 in southeast King County. This bill will not only force teachers and administrators to out Trans kids to their parents but also prevents any discussion of "sexual orientation including gender expression or identity" in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

Similar bills are being introduced and working their way through state legislatures across the country. As close as Idaho, bills have also advanced that will make it illegal for people to perform in drag outside of adult-only venues. Idaho House Bill 265 seeks to fine performers deemed "offensive to an average person" up to $10,000 at any venue where persons under 18 may be present.

The onslaught of homophobic legislation has caused a stir among the LGBTQ+ community and allies. Outraged people, from TikTok influencers to Academy Award—winning directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, have expressed their opposition to the array of bills.

Aleksa Manila speaks out
Recently, Seattle-based activist and influencer Aleksa Manila took to social media to amplify her voice.

"Keep your eyes and ears open! Hearts steadfast and minds clear! They're going after us one by one to weaken our allyships among the oppressed and marginalized!" Manila wrote online. "They're starting by politicizing gender (drag x trans*) weaponizing it as a distraction; soon it will be against cis women, Black, Indigenous, and POC! It's not about the children; if it was we would've taken care of gun violence immediately."

As a drag performer herself, Manila believes that the language surrounding conservative arguments against drag relies on fear-mongering. Currently, politicians are attempting to characterize it as obscene. Conservatives want to shift the connotation of the word "provocative" from "thought-provoking" toward "dangerous."

"Drag and cabaret, and as with many art expressions, are catalysts for sensitive issues but critical [ones] for discussion," Manila said to the SGN.

"Current legislation that erroneously adds the term 'adult' creates a salacious and malicious intent and a distraction from the real issues. It preys upon the general public, who have knee-jerk reactions to controversial terms," she added.

The language in many anti-LGBTQ+ bills is very intentional. Words such as "adult" or "offensive" evoke hasty judgments. The language of conservative conversations around drag leads many to form opinions on the topic before considering the purpose or history behind the art form. "This is a disservice and insult to the American people's intellect," Manila said.

The importance of art
Drag, like any other type of performance, is an expression of art. Like any other singer or dancer, each drag performer has their reasons for expressing themselves on stage. For Manila, drag is a way to explore gender identity and expression in a safe and celebratory environment.

"Drag has the power to draw attention, to capture people's hearts and minds. On the surface, it might seem purely for laughs, but there is an inherent sense of empowerment through its courageous visibility," she said.

"The purpose of drag is multifold. There is the individual's motivation and a collective purpose to bring forward the harsh reality of its history of condemnation of gender expression associated with the larger LGBTQ+ civil rights movement and the current role of art as a means of communication to advance education and entertainment."

Aleksa Manila — Photo by Joshua Huston  

This is only the beginning
As new laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community continue to pop up in every corner of the United States, Manila believes voters must remain vigilant. In Washington, people often feel a sense of safety and detachment from the issues of red states, but apathy can become dangerous quickly.

"This is a scary time and should give us a warning that this is only going to get worse," Manila warned. "This is not just about drag artists. We are just the scapegoat. Soon they will go after the LGBTQ+ community at large, and soon enough, all marginalized groups, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities."

Now threats to LGBTQ+ safety and expression are even looming over Washington.

"LGBTQ+ [people] and allies in our home state should be on the alert," Manila added. "This is a strategic move, it's a voting season ahead, and it inflames negative conservative views. This isn't just about drag queens reading to children — this is about all gender access and equity. This will lead to more sexist and racist policies and laws that will further perpetuate discrimination and make it legal to do so, not just in public, the workplace, schools, and church but in the comfort of our homes or living spaces."

They just don't get it
The greatest irony Manila sees in the drag debate is the fact that those who are most fervently against gender expression are those who haven't even attempted to understand it.

"Unfortunately, the most vocal about specific issues are people who have zero to minimal knowledge or understanding of the same issues they oppose," she said.

The basic understanding many conservatives have of drag is what they see on the surface: a celebration of overt femininity, a transgression of gender norms, a positive reaction to sexuality. "Because drag is such a visible form of expression that challenges social norms on gender, sexuality, body positivity, and freedom of choice, it scares conservative views," she said. "It doesn't require further analyses. This is about elevating womanhood, feminism, and gender fluidity. That scares people who do not uphold these truths."

When it feels like all the hatred in the world is concentrated into one specific group, going about daily life can feel impossible.

Manila is coping by taking everything one day at a time. She finds joy in her community. She is especially thankful to be living in Seattle. "I am grateful that I share a city that is generally safe for LGBTQ+ [people] and POC. I do not take this for granted. But I am constantly aware of my surroundings. I pay attention to where my community convenes — where we live, work, and thrive," she said.

Manila believes finding community and exercising self-care are the best ways to persevere. "Being a social worker and therapist, I feel lucky to learn about coping skills that I can adopt with my routine. Self-care is absolutely important. Truly being with the community, being part of events, drag shows, and Pride festivals are the ways I feel I am a part of. Thus, not feeling alone."

For anyone searching for community, resources, or a listening ear, feel free to reach out to Seattle's Gay City at https://www.gaycity.org/, the Lambert House (for LGBTQ youth) at https://www.lamberthouse.org/, or you can text "home" to the national LGBTQ+ crisis line at 741741.