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Princeton writing seminar explores queer visibility amid anti-drag legislation

New South is a hub for many of Princeton’s writing seminars.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

With a number of of anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation passed by state governments, one class offered by the University’s writing program puts a focus on drag culture.

Anti-drag bills have been the latest to make their way through the legislative process, with at least twelve states having proposed some form of anti-drag legislation. Tennessee became the first state to ban drag performances in public spaces in early April citing the performances as “adult-oriented” and unfit for children. 


“WRI 163/164: And the Rest is Drag” is a writing seminar that has been offered for the last two years, aimed at exposing students to the history of drag through urban studies, medicine, sociology, visual studies, literary analysis, and law, analyzing where society draws the line between what is “deviant” and “normal.” Writing seminars are courses that all students take during their freshman year, aimed at introducing students to academic writing.   

The course’s instructor, Dr. Tyler Baldor, a sociologist whose research focuses on queer nightlife, began teaching the course two years ago to remind students that the fight for queer rights is still ongoing.

Due to the influx of recent anti-drag legislation, the course has drawn parallels between institutional attacks on drag of the early 20th century to modern day.  

For example, Baldor explains that the course’s examination of historian George Chauncey’s work on the Pansy Craze reveals “a really troubling parallel” to today. The movement, which occurred in the 1920s and 30s, was characterized by widespread visibility of gender non-conforming and drag artists in the media. Drag queens surged in popularity against the backdrop of the Roaring 20s, especially in major cities, where gay and trans people often found community and greater space to explore queer identity. The Craze ended abruptly with total censorship.

To Baldor, this connection highlights that “visibility does not always mean greater acceptance or tolerance.” 

He says that although a progress narrative creates the idea that queer people are “constantly getting more accepted” this is not accurate and, instead, we are seeing hate “creep further as [the wave of legislation] is not just anti-drag but anti-trans, anti-gender non-conforming.” 


Dr. Baldor hopes that his class is part of an amplified effort by the University to make queer people and issues more visible.

“I think that having classrooms as safe spaces to explore gender and sexuality are really important and ever more important… Especially if campus is not as tolerant as we would like it to be” says Dr. Baldor. “Some of the best course evaluation feedback that I get each semester revolves around students saying that this class helped them think about their identity in new ways or that they were able to explore identities, and I think that's a really important part of my pedagogy.” 

Recently, the University has affirmed its dedication to “ensuring equal access to health care services for trans and nonbinary individuals,” regardless of someone’s home state and its policies surrounding gender-affirming care, in an email to the ‘Prince’.  

Dr. Baldor hopes that the new political focus on drag will draw students to the class, adding that he plans to make the current political climate a more central part of the class.

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“This semester versus last semester, way more students are wanting to write about anti-drag legislation or anti-trans legislation,” he said. “Students are seeing it as a pressing interest which I think is great”. 

Anha Khan ’26, a student in the class this semester, says they really wanted to take the class because they saw anti-drag emerging as a political movement while their own perception of drag was that it is a “really fun way of expressing entertainment.” This contradiction led her to want to learn more. 

Lucia Armengol ’26 says her understanding of drag has increased since joining the class, now conceptualizing how social constructs have politicized identity to oppress people. She says having a historical context, granting her the knowledge to “address the issue and create something different in the future.”

According to Baldor, the course focuses on exploring how drag has meaning deeper than simply dressing as the other gender and developing hypotheses for why its popularity is feared amongst those in power. 

“Drag illuminates how we embody gender through imitation, repetition, and external pressures to conform” says Baldor, “I encourage students to think about drag as not only an identity art rooted in queer cultures but also as an analytic to interrogate their own identities and social worlds … if social constructs such as gender can be warped and dismantled.”

“The status quo begins to erode,” he continued. 

Students noted how the class hinges on both the unique artistry of drag and its distinct form of social rebellion. Armengol noted that while it is a “rejection of arbitrary gender roles,” she thinks its “fun and playfulness” should be an example for other social movements. 

Alex Kirk ’26 emphasizes how the idea of social rebellion taught in class has translated into his own educational inquiry, saying he now looks at drag from a sociological, anthropological, and political lens to understand how “different parts of our history and of modern day culture affects drag and the people it celebrates,” especially systematically. 

Because the course views the subject of drag through multiple academic lenses, and because of the current political context, it also aims to explain  the harmful consequences legislation targeting marginalized groups generate. 

Kirk notes how he learned about how the wording of the anti-drag legislation is often vague. For example, the definition of drag in the anti-drag legislation of states such as Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, is simply someone performing as a gender identity different from the performer’s sex assigned at birth, an ambiguous definition many fear will affect trans people. 

“Often, vague [legislation] allows for increased enforcement, especially on trans people… which can be really dangerous, something the class has opened my eyes to,” Kirk said.

Armenhol, Khan, and Kirk all stated  that the course has taught them the importance of free self-expression, leading them to worry about the mental health implications of banning drag.

After exploring various medical scholarship on the psychological benefits of free expression in the class, Khan fears that in not “taking into account what affirming people’s identities can do for them” politicians ignore its benefits — like reduced suicide rates.

This fear is rooted in recent trends of suicidal ideation amongst LGBTQ+ youth. Those who had at least one accepting adult in their life, however, were 40% less likely to attempt suicide.  

“As legislators, their job is to help improve the lives of citizens,” says Armengol, “and drag is something that's doing that. So it's quite counterintuitive.”

Addressing those who may not view drag as “too niche” or “unimportant,” Dr. Baldor poses the question, “Then why are politicians and commentators so adamant about its censorship?”

He notes that students do not always associate popular culture with serious study but insists that “interrogating popular culture is a critical window into understanding our social, political, and economic worlds” as well as “who we are, what we value, and what we desire.”

Bridget O’Neill is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

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