If you pay attention to the news, you know there’s a disturbing trend in American politics right now: anti-drag and trans legislation. Bills in Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia are threatening to either prohibit or profoundly affect drag performances—where and if they can take place—in a coordinated effort looking to falsely define non-traditional gender expression as harmful and dangerous. The measures are all direct attacks on the LGBTQ community, but they’re also likely to affect theatre fans and professionals alike.
Though much of this legislation seems to aim directly at banning drag performances, commentary from lawmakers has made it clear that the real target are the trans and non-binary communities—anyone who expresses their gender in a so-called “non-traditional” way.
Theatre is indelibly linked to queer people and has been for most of its existence. For decades, queer people have found safety, home, and community in the theatre, whether as a worker in the industry or even just as a theatre fan. Queer stories, characters, and writers have made some of the most popular plays and musicals in the canon, to not even mention non-queer shows with drag characters like Hairspray, Chicago, and Matilda. But many theatre artists have cautioned that the bans on drag performances that have been made law in Tennessee and Texas, and is currently being considered in other state houses, could prevent theatres from doing certain shows at all.
It’s currently unclear just how—or if—these pieces of legislation will affect queer theatre artists. Tennessee’s law was recently blocked by a federal judge, indicating there may be hope that courts will successfully show these bills are discriminatory and unconstitutional. But at least in the short-term, it seems likely this legislative wave will hurt almost everyone who makes and enjoys theatre. Even beyond enacting laws, the rhetoric fans the flames of anti-queer bigotry.
One of the organizations working hard to address this growing problem within the realm of theatre is actor and stage manager union Actors’ Equity Association. Leading the fight is the org’s Diversity and Equity Strategist Danee Conley, who (perhaps surprisingly as a representative for a labor union) says that focusing on the labor aspect of the issue is missing the point.
Conley says she’s seen a certain amount of discourse online from theatre fans that are seeing this legislative wave and are concerned about their ability to see shows like Rent and Hairspray, both of which include gender non-confirming characters, at their local theatres. “I totally understand that these laws will impact the actual theatre that's being made, but people need to recognize that this is a huge safety concern for members who are trans and non-binary,” emphasizes Conley.
As for what that means in terms of Equity’s work to protect its members, Conley says that right now, it’s usually a case-by-case situation that relies on members reporting problems and producers being willing to provide safety measures that might not already be in the standard acting contracts. That has led to Equity setting up measures like special transportation or establishing buddy systems within companies so members are never on their own in a location in which they might be vulnerable.
But Conley hopes the union’s systemic, big-picture work on the issue will help take the pressure off of the performers themselves. “We try to focus on not putting the onus on vulnerable populations, to not require people to put their vulnerability on display,” says Conley. That has led to moves like filing an amicus brief in the Western District of Tennessee in opposition to the anti-drag law, which was part of the successful fight to get the measure blocked.
The union also continually works to get EDI provisions written into all of their contracts. That last bit could be especially important in light of today’s Supreme Court ruling, which will allow businesses the right to refuse service to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Equity’s contractual provisions supersede even the Supreme Court for the producers and theatres that agree to their terms.
As Conley shares, “the goal is that folks should be able to show up to work and feel safe, and not have to put in extra labor in order to just exist in the same way that other folks do.”
Put another way, being a queer performer shouldn’t necessitate being an activist willing to be on the front lines.
But Conley says the union is very aware that activism is what is currently being asked of some performers right now, and that they’re proud and grateful for the actors who have stepped up to fight the fight. One of those brave actors is Jade McLeod, currently starring as Jo in the national tour of Jagged Little Pill. The gig puts McLeod just about as close to the front line as one can get. They’re non-binary themselves, and playing a queer character who’s also gender non-conforming. When we talked to McLeod a few weeks ago, they were preparing to take the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical to Florida, one of the most states that is most actively leading this anti-LGBTQIA+ legislative wave. Not only has Florida passed a law banning minor attending any show in which a drag queen is present, Governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law five other bills targeting the LGBTQIA+ community.
“It’s incredible demoralizing,” says McLeod. “It’s scary to know a lot of people in power there think I shouldn’t exist. It’s terrifying to head into that and to be doing a show where I am so visible as a queer and non-binary person.”
Within the first five minutes of the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical, the characters quip about Fox News’ biases, and McLeod’s character holds a sign reading, “Being gay is like glitter. It never goes away.” According to McLeod, having this material right at the top of the performance makes it clear what the audience is in for right from the jump.
“In some cities, responses have been tentative, but it lights a fire under my butt to work that much harder and be that much better, more charming and likeable,” says McLeod. “I need these people that have maybe never knowingly met a non-binary person in their life or shared space with them or loved them—I need them to see me as a person and I need them to fall in love with me, so that they can see other trans and non-binary people as people.”
McLeod is getting at the tricky paradox they find themselves in. The most effective tool to combat the dehumanization of a marginalized community is by showing that humanity. Theatre is uniquely equipped to do that, but that also means McLeod is touring into areas that put them in real danger. Luckily, in this case, McLeod is surrounded by their entire Jagged Little Pill family, and they report always feeling safe. In fact, when the show was in Washington, D.C., the entire company traveled to the Capital to protest anti-trans legislation—McLeod held up a sign that said “trans rights are human rights.”
McLeod says it's also worthwhile traveling to these places because it allows the show to meet the most vulnerable population of all: the trans and non-binary communities that live where these pieces of legislation are being enacted. “That’s been the best part, especially the young people that I meet that are trans and non-binary, or still figuring it out,” shares McLeod of their stage door experiences on tour. “On social media, there’s been a lot of people that reached out and are saying things like, ‘I’m not out yet to my family, but you’ve inspired me to come out to my best friend,’ or their sister, and so on and so forth.”
Visibility is a powerful tool. Growing up any flavor of queer can be incredibly isolating and lonely—bigots work hard to ensure that. Discovering happy, successful, vibrant queer communities is a kind of liberation that’s difficult to even fathom for people who aren’t queer. McLeod cites figures like Demi Lovato, Sam Smith, and Billy Porter as particularly influential in their own journey towards being openly non-binary—before they even knew they were non-binary. “They were brave enough and free enough to express themselves as they are,” reflects McLeod. “That resonated so strongly with me. And then I had a come-to-Jesus moment and realized it resonated because I also felt that way.”
As a theatre fan, you may be wondering what you can do to help—to slow and reverse the spread of this dangerous legislation. “Don’t be shy about talking about these things,” McLeod urges. “Use your voice, especially if you’re in a state that has these hateful people that are making these laws. Vote. But also let them know you don’t support what they’re doing.”
For an easy way to contact your state governor, visit USA.gov/State-Governor. Experts suggest introducing yourself and immediately indicating that you are a constituent, and then explain why you’re calling, highlighting a personal experience to strengthen your argument. Be ready with the title or number of the specific legislation you’re calling to oppose, which you can find at websites like TransLegislation.com. Following @Nationwide_ACLU on Instagram is another way to keep current on quickly changing action plans. Needless to say, money is always helpful too. The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund is an excellent organization to consider supporting, along with the Transgender Law Center, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Lambda Legal, all of which work to provide legal services for low or no cost to the trans and non-binary communities.
Conley and her team at Actors’ Equity included these and several other tools in this handy list of resources that offers lots of actionable options for those looking to help.
But equally important is directly supporting the people these laws affect the most. “Let those people know that they’re safe with you, and that you love them. That they’re loved,” McLeod suggests.
And they have their own message for trans and non-binary kids in these states: “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfect as you are. Go forth and embrace it. If and when you’re in a position where you can come out safely, know that this side of that is beautiful. The more you can embrace your own truth, the easier your life is gonna get, the more loved you will feel.”
As for those “hateful people,” McLeod knows what they’d say to them too. “I would tell them about my dog,” says McLeod. “And I would tell them about my mom, and the friends that I grew up with. I would try and make them laugh as much as I could. I would do my darndest to listen to them, ask stories about their life, relate to them and show them that I’m a person. I’m a human. I’m not the enemy. I’m not trying to hurt them or anybody that they care about.”