I Took My Toddler To DragCon And It Destroyed The Fabric Of Society. Just Kidding, It Was Awesome.
"Hey, do you have a child leash I could borrow?"
With that simple text to a friend, I began my odyssey to RuPaul's DragCon L.A.
Since launching in 2015, the event has become a juggernaut of performance, promotion, cosplay and gender-bending queer culture. I'm a huge fan of RuPaul's Drag Race (and especially of a certain shirtless dancer), but I had never taken that fandom outside of my home, or even off of my couch.
This would be my first Drag Race event and I decided I wasn't going alone. I was going to bring my toddler.
I'm lucky. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter happens to have a ton of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. She uses all of that to charm people while creating havoc, like at the Post Office where the staffers spent 15 minutes trying to take her passport picture as she squirmed and giggled and made goofy faces.
From a purely objective standpoint, my child is the Most Wonderful Baby On Earth. She is also a runner. I am not. Hence, the child leash.
If you don't have kids and you're balking at the phrase "child leash," you can shove that hot take back into your fanny pack. Once upon a time, I would've felt the same way as you. The child leash is a cute little backpack (ours looks like a bumblebee) with a nylon strap that clips onto the back.
As a friend quipped, DragCon is probably the only venue where you'll find child leashes and adult leashes in equal measure. My daughter was going to fit right in.
Despite the racier elements of drag queen culture, drag has become a remarkably family friendly event. There are drag brunches, Drag Queen Story Hours at public libraries and a growing number of children's books that reinforce the idea that it's fine if little Stevie wants to dress up like a princess.
Although I had the cutest child at DragCon (again, totally objective), I was hardly the only parent with a toddler in tow.
Nick Williams, a first grade teacher in Berkeley, brought his three-year-old son to the convention. He and his husband are huge fans of Drag Race and run a fantasy league for the show. They came with another couple, who has a three-year-old daughter, all six of them caravanning down from Northern California to L.A. for a weekend of glitter and gag-worthy looks.
"We haven't really taken our kid to something like this before," Williams says. "I think it's going to be fun to take our kid to a place where there are a bunch of people expressing themselves in all different kinds of ways."
Williams made plans, while here, to meet up with Giovanna Federico, a mother of two who lives in Eagle Rock. She and her husband also brought both of her children, a four-and-a-half-year-old and a six-month-old, to DragCon this past weekend.
"I never want my two boys to have any sort of bias against any kind of different families," says Federico, who grew up in San Francisco, steeped in gay culture. "I didn't realize that all over the country and all over the world, it's not like that. I want [my boys] to know that it's okay to wear a dress if you want to. It's okay to wear whatever you want, be however you want."
She also appreciates the self-esteem mantra that the Mother of Drag Queens relentlessly advocates.
"I think the world would be a better place if we all had the kind of philosophy that RuPaul has. If you can't love yourself, you aren't going to love anybody else. So have that self esteem and just love one another," Federico says.
But how much does the rest of the drag community love the presence of children in what has historically been a transgressive and often highly sexual art form?
A while back, L.A.-based drag queen Kylie Sonique Love posted a message on her Instagram that read: "I don't care how cool of a mom or dad you are...I do not want to see your child in the night club. I don't care if they are in drag or not. Half the stuff that goes on in places like that aren't even good for adults."
The post seems to have been taken down, but it sparked a heated discussion on Reddit. Multi-season Drag Race contestant Shangela (one of my personal favorites) chimed in, "There was a 5-year-old in the front row when I went to Werk the World. Detox did a super sexual number and at the end she mouthed "I'm sorry" to the child's mother and looked mortified. Like don't be sorry, we should all know better than to bring a child to a show that Detox is in."
I get that. There are some places you probably shouldn't bring a child. Nighctlubs. Bars. The Chernobyl exclusion zone. An American Girl store.
What about tamer events and venues, where drag bumps up against the fringes of normcore society? With the strap attached to my daughter's backpack wound tightly around my wrist, I figured we'd find out.
We made our way through the crowds, deftly sidestepping stilettos that could crush little baby toes and avoiding booths where sticky toddler hands might ruin lucrative merch.
Some people avoided us. Others cooed at my bébé's cuteness. A few people gave me a thumbs up for the child leash. But most of the drag queens and attendees who witnessed the frenetic two-and-a-half-year-old realness my daughter was serving smiled or ignored us and went about their business. Both were perfect responses.
I led my daughter to the Kid Zone, located in a corner of the convention hall, where we joined other families at low tables stocked with crafting supplies. There's plenty of common ground between drag queens and toddlers, including a shared passion for glitter that sticks to everything forever. I made a crown for my daughter's tiny head as she colored, sometimes even on paper. At least a dozen times, she climbed in and out of the bouncey house, something she'd found overwhelming a year ago. Now, she couldn't get enough of it. We listened as drag queens read gay-friendly children's books, including the classic Heather Has Two Mommies.
How much do young children understand about gender? How much do they clock about what is and isn't "normal"?
"I think kids get used to whatever we get them used to," said Cali Farley. She and her wife, Jamie, who live in New Jersey, have attended multiple New York DragCons with their two children, four-year-old Rider and two-year-old Birdie.
For past conventions, Farley and her wife have dressed both of their children in drag queen cosplay (Monét X Change last year and Sasha Velour and Shea Couleé the year before) -- although they only let the kids watch select clips from the show, usually the lip syncs, because they think the rest of it is too racy.
"I think if kids are exposed to different expressions of gender early in their lives, they don't end up recognizing that that is odd or weird behavior," Farley says. "Maybe they think it's different and maybe they respect that different can just be different and not less than."
Williams echoes the notion that gender expression doesn't need to adhere to tradition.
"My boy is 100% boy," Williams says. "But at the same time, he's got a lot of girl friends with their dress-up clothes and sometimes he'll like playing, putting on some fairy wings or putting on a skirt for a pretend game. I want him to be able to explore and have fun wearing whatever he wants to wear because he's a kid. That's what kids should be able to do."
In the process, these families might be helping to raise a generation with far less rigid notions about what gender is and how it should be presented.
"I'm a pretty major optimist when it comes to how people view gender in the future," Farley says. "I hope that by the time my kids are in middle school or high school, that this is more of a conversation, that we talk about gender versus sex and that gender expression doesn't necessarily have to fall in line with some of our societal stereotypes."
Or as Williams says, "As an out and proud gay man, I grew up with so much shame for who I am, and I just don't want that for my child."