Drag kids: How their parents protect them from the haters

Parents deal with inappropriate comments — both on- and off-line — heckling and even physical altercations Nina Dragicevic

They’re just like any other group of parents, sharing tips, trading stories, quoting their children’s outlandish quips and laughing together. They mend costumes, survive tantrums, and drive all over to compete in various contests and shows, all while helping their children follow their dreams.

But these parents are different in one important way: their kids love drag.

The CBC Docs POV documentary Drag Kids profiles four young performers and their shared passion for the art of drag. Nemis, Bracken, Jason and Stephan — a.k.a. Queen Lactatia, Bracken Gvasalia, Suzan Bee Anthony and Laddy GaGa — perform, pose and strut down catwalks in costumes and personas of their own creation.

Dealing with hate and criticism online

The documentary peeks into the high-drama, high-fantasy world the kids love. But this form of expression attracts judgment and negativity, particularly from strangers and especially online.

One of the most common accusations levelled against the parents is that they are pushing their children into drag, sexualizing them and damaging their mental health.

“A lot of people talk about how much our kids are being abused,” says Nemis’s mother, Jessica Melancon. “And the truth is, they are being abused — but it’s not by us.” The parents say their children are often victimized by haters and trolls online.

Slurs used against people in the LGBTQ community or sex workers are common (the latter type directed at Bracken, the lone girl in the group), as are remarks from “creepers,” individuals who make inappropriate comments about the children. Public figures also weigh in on the families’ lives.

“We’ve been trolled by Alex Jones on Infowars a few times and [American actor] James Woods, too,” Melancon adds. “I didn’t even know who James Woods was — I had to google him.”

Parents need to take steps to protect their kids

The parents find themselves scouring every comment on social media before their children can see them. And there are a few more rules they follow to protect their kids: never engage with a troll, and use social media tools to filter, delete and block certain words or users.

Bracken’s mother, Dominique Hanke, says some of the online commenters tell the parents they should forbid their children from performing in drag, viewing it as an unhealthy pursuit for kids. But she says the opposite is true: restricting their children is what would harm their mental health.

“All those kids that are living in those households, suppressing who they are, they’re the ones at risk,” Hanke says. “There’s a huge suicide problem and self-harm problem with queer youth specifically.

“These kids are meeting in places so they can express who they are in a community where they know they are a part of something. If you watch the documentary, these kids are so happy and so secure. I love seeing these kids be true to who they are — and knowing they’re safe.”

Facing hate in the off-line world

Inappropriate comments and insults spill into the off-line world as well. Gabrielle Hirst, Stephan’s mother, describes heckling and even physical altercations when her son sang karaoke at a bar the family had owned.

In one instance, “one of the ladies put [her] hands on Stephan’s shoulder and said, ‘You know what your mum’s doing to you is abuse, don’t you?’” Hirst recalls. As she explains in the documentary, her son does not wear drag in public — she says it would invite unpleasant incidents.

Greg Kerr, Jason’s father, says that in their home state of Missouri, insults are often hurled from passing cars and hecklers regularly attend Pride events. A religious street preacher once told his son that he was going to hell, Kerr says.

“Jason popped right back and said, ‘Excuse me, I’m going to heaven,’” he says with evident pride, quoting his son with a you-can’t-get-me-down voice.

Drag kids also have many online fans

All of the parents can recall bullying stories, including those involving teachers and administrators who refused to help their kids. While they talk about these incidents with a mix of shock and resignation, the parents are also surprised by their children’s resilience — how they’re seemingly unfazed by hostile strangers and critics. And their kids have a lot of fans, too.

“It is 20 per cent hate and 80 per cent love,” Melancon says.

“I think the kids are all aware that there is negativity there, [though] we shield them from the exact content of it,” Hanke says. “But they know the love, and they also know that they are supporting other kids just by being themselves.”

Finding companionship has been important for everyone. The documentary shows the children’s joy in having like-minded peers, and the camaraderie extends to the parents as well. Melancon is credited with contacting other drag families, extending support and establishing even more friendships.

“I like to connect. I like to find them,” she says. “We’re a crew now.”

“And it was good to find another drag dad,” Kerr adds with a laugh.

Watch Drag Kids on CBC Docs POV.