KATHY: What — what are we doing here? Where are we starting from? What’s happening?
TOBIN: Uh, okay. So, we are starting in a rental car.
TOBIN: Okay. Hello? Testing: one, two, three. We're recording. Cool.
TOBIN: This is from a couple months ago, when I took a trip out to Denver, Colorado.
TOBIN: I just gotta say, it is so gross in Denver today.
TOBIN: It’s about 6 at night and it’s snowing that kind of slush that’s like the worst part of snow and the worst part of rain combined. Uh, I’ve just parked my car on the side of the road.
TOBIN: I'm in the middle of sort of an industrial area, sitting outside of Mile High Comics.
TOBIN: It’s basically this huge comic book warehouse on the outskirts of town. And I’m here because of a special event that’s happening at the store — an event that’s gotten a lot of attention.
TOBIN: There's a line of people with rainbow parasols in front of Mile High Comics, sort of in a parking lot. And across the street from them, even in this slushy-ass snow, are protesters. One sign says, “Why are you exposing this to children?” [CAR DOOR OPENS] Here we go.
[CROWD SOUNDS, TRUMPETS, CAR BEEP]
TOBIN: Immediately, I see this sea of people: protesters who have lined up on one side of the street with bullhorns — they’re yelling and chanting — and across from them the rainbow parasol brigade stands in front of the store, and with them —
[A BAND PLAYS THE SONG “TEQUILA”]
TOBIN: — is a small band with trumpets and trombones. They’re clearing off the snow that’s collecting on their instruments and music stands. A man with a beard and a long coat sees me and motions for me to follow him.
TOBIN: Is it always this chaotic outside?
JOEL: Sure. [PAUSE] Technically, if you don’t have a badge on, you’re not supposed to get in past the wall.
TOBIN: Oh, okay.
TOBIN: I walk through a hallway lined with posters of superheroes, glass cases filled with figurines, and eventually I get into the main part of the warehouse, where there is a giant stage.
KATHY: Tobin, come on, move it along. What is happening here? [TOBIN LAUGHS]
TOBIN: Well, Kath, I have just entered the complicated and taffeta-covered world of kids who do drag!
KATHY: What is taffeta?
TOBIN: Oh, sweet, sweet Kathy.
KATHY: [INDIGNANT, BUT LAUGHING] What is it?
[NANCY THEME SONG PLAYS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy.
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS, WHISTLE}
KATHY: Okay, so, kids who do drag.
TOBIN: Yes, kids who do drag!
KATHY: Many questions.
KATHY: Top of my head. First question: when you say they quote-unquote “do drag,” what do you mean? Like, what does it mean for a kid to do drag?
TOBIN: Okay, well, I think maybe it might be helpful to start by talking about, maybe, the drag we’re used to seeing. Y’know, like, when adults do it.
[CLUBBY MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: Like, what do you think of when you think of drag, Kathy?
KATHY: So, let’s see. I’m used to seeing drag at a gay bar or some sort of queer space.
TOBIN: Mhm, mhm. And I would say there’s all kinds of drag performers, like, some are fashion queens, some are more, like, stand-up comedians.
KATHY: Some of them do death-defying death drops.
TOBIN: Oh, look at you, knowing the terminology!
KATHY: I know, right? I love seeing a crowd screaming in support of them, and giving the performers dollar-bill tips. It’s very fun.
KATHY: I think my other association with drag is that it can get pretty R-rated. Like, a little raunchy. A lot of the drag I’ve seen is meant to push against what’s considered “normal,” or “respectable.”
TOBIN: Yeah, totally. But, we should say, even with this sort of rebellious attitude, drag has still found itself in the mainstream through the popularity of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race.
TOBIN: So, more and more people are becoming fans of drag and wanting to try it for themselves, including kids. Which — okay, now we’re gonna get back to your question: what does it look like when a kid does drag?
[ROOM TONE PLAYS]
TOBIN: Yeah, how would you how would you describe what you're wearing right now?
SASSALINA: I'm going for a very Maleficent-y look.
TOBIN: This is Sassalina.
SASSALINA: I'm Sassalina Blue Child.
TOBIN: She is a six year-old drag kid who is performing tonight at Denver’s very own all-ages drag show. This is the reason I have come to Colorado, to check out this event that’s been going on every month for about a year now. It’s a couple days before Halloween, so everyone, including Sassalina, is appropriately spooky.
TOBIN: And then you have some horns that looks like maybe it's cardboard and duct tape — or, what's underneath the duct tape?
SASSALINA: No, it's actually, uh, cut pool noodles —
SASSALINA: — and duct tape.
TOBIN: Very clever, very clever! And I'm just noticing now, too, that your eyelashes — are they stars and lace?
SASSALINA: Yeah. They're like stars and swirls. And they were like three dollars at Target. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
TOBIN: The show is about to start, and kids in all sorts of DIY costumes run past me as they make their way backstage. Some have vampire makeup on, others have sparkly dresses and tutus. I take a seat at one of the many round tables set up in the audience, each one surrounded by parents and family. All around us in this giant warehouse are rows and rows of comic books and comic book merchandise. It’s kind of overwhelming. But all the attention is on this makeshift stage in front of us. A drag queen with pale white makeup and a short, pixie cut wig gets on a microphone.
JESSICA: Mile High Comics, how are we doing tonight? [CROWD CHEERS]
TOBIN: She’s the host of the event, a local drag queen named Jessica L’Whor. Do you get it, Kath? It’s spelled W-H-O-R …
KATHY: Okay. I got it, Tobin. It’s not that funny anymore if you … Yeah. Just continue. [TOBIN CHUCKLES]
TOBIN: Okay, fine. But for the all-ages drag show, she actually changes her name. She goes by a more age-appropriate —
JESSICA: Miss Jessica, everybody!
TOBIN: — Miss Jessica. She’s one of the founders of the event, along with the owner of the comic book store. And for the next two hours, she ushers kid after kid onto the stage to perform in drag.
KATHY: Oh my god, yes! Performances. What is a kid drag performance like?
TOBIN: So, everyone in the show performs a lip sync to a song of their choice. And unlike some of the adult drag performers I’m used to seeing, these kids are not super choreographed or polished. Because they’re, you know, kids. So, for a lot of them, this show is the first time they’re ever performing in drag. So, instead of trying to be word-perfect on their lip sync, or trying to do a super impressive dance, it was more like watching them do a skit to portray a feeling. Like, one performer wears a hoodie and sorta skulks around the stage lip syncing to —
[“BREAKEVEN” BY THE SCRIPT PLAYS]
TOBIN: That song Breakeven, the one all about being in your feelings because of heartbreak. And this performer is giving you full angsty teen. They’re, like, falling to their knees in frustration, there’s dramatic hand gestures. Another performer is dressed up like Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
[A CLIP from NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS PLAYS]
TOBIN: And they’re trying to embody this sort of creepy body language of a skeleton as they walk around the stage. Again, not really a dance, more of an acting out of a feeling. But, then, there is Sassalina. She’s done a couple of these shows, and it is apparent. She is word-perfect as she lip syncs, she’s wavering her arms around like she’s really Maleficent conjuring a spell. And at one point, she, like, uses her staff to support herself as she dramatically leans backwards into this, like, contorted pose.
[CROWD CHEERS AS A SONG PLAYS]
TOBIN: But no matter how new or experienced they are, these kids all have one thing in common, and that is parents who are losing their damn minds.
[CROWD CHEERS MORE]
TOBIN: Performer after performer gets showered with encouragement.
KATHY: Tobin, this has the feeling of, like, parents at a soccer game.
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Yeah. It is very much that energy. Like, there was a part of each kids’ routine where they did, y’know, what adult drag performers sometimes do, which is walk through the crowd collecting dollar bills as tips.
TOBIN: But in this case, they’re walking from excited parent to parent collecting money for a scholarship fund. [LAUGHS]
TOBIN: It feels like handing money to a Girl Scout collecting cash for charity.
KATHY: Shout-out to these parents for being so supportive!
TOBIN: Yeah, it is — it is kind of amazing. And, y’know, for some of these kids, drag is just a fun excuse to play dress up. But for others, it’s a real chance to explore some of the questions they may be having about their gender. So it’s lovely to see this crowd going wild for them.
KATHY: Yeah, it’s very cute, Tobin.
TOBIN: Uh, it is cute. But … [LONG PAUSE]
KATHY: Why? Why? Why does — why does there always have to be a “but”?
TOBIN: Yeah, I know, I know. There is a “but,” unfortunately. Um, and that is, as I was diving into this world, I found there’s another side to this. Because, as I mentioned before, just outside this all-ages drag show, there are protesters with signs saying that these kids are too young to be involved in drag. And they’re not alone in this argument.
[DARK MUSIC IN]
MILLIE WEAVER: You want to dress up in drag, you want to subscribe to this culture, that’s perfectly fine. But you cross the line when you start dragging children into the middle of it.
TOBIN: Folks have taken to YouTube to rant about how they think kids doing drag is wrong.
BLAIRE WHITE: I just feel like, even if it’s for a special event like a drag convention or a pageant, it’s — you know, there’s a time and a place to dress like a hooker — during your college years, and there’s a time and place to be a kid, when you’re a kid.
TOBIN: I’ve also read articles accusing the parents of abusing their kids.
LAUREN CHEN: Drag is not for children. A lot of drag performances and outfits are sexualized. So, no, it’s not appropriate for young children to watch — let alone participate in — drag.
TOBIN: “Not appropriate.” If I had to sum up the outrage, I’d say that’s the best way to put it. The critics say, “Drag is too adult. Wearing makeup and dresses sexualizes these kids. Y’know, there’s no way these kids are discovering and pursuing drag without someone forcing them to do it.”
And I have to admit that even I, the host of a queer podcast, had a moment of questioning as I was diving into this story. Because, as we said earlier, the drag we’re used to can be incredibly raunchy and dirty, and certainly not for kids.
So I found myself asking, “How is it that these kids find their way into drag?” And, like, “Is it possible that they are too young to do this?”
[THE SOUND OF PEOPLE GREETING EACH OTHER IN THE BACKGROUND]
TOBIN: So while I was in Denver, I met up with two people who have been dealing with these questions head-on.
TOBIN: So, um, I guess the best place to start is, I’ll have you, um, — if you could introduce yourselves however you’re comfortable introducing yourself.
OPHELIA: Hi, I'm Ophelia Peaches, and I'm a 15 year-old drag queen.
Robin: Hi, I'm Ophelia Peaches’ mom, and I'm not gonna tell you how old I am. [LAUGHS]
TOBIN: Ophelia’s mom is named Robin.
And a quick pronouns note, Ophelia identifies as a boy outside of drag, but uses she/her pronouns while talking about her drag persona, so you’re gonna hear us switch back and forth.
Anyway, sitting across from them, I notice Robin and her son have about the same length of long brown hair. But on the day we meet, only Robin is wearing a dress. Her son is in jeans and a blazer. But you should see him in drag as Ophelia Peaches the drag queen. Ophelia has a huge personality, with huge, coiffed hair to match. Ophelia wears neon makeup, and looks like sort of a psychedelic Southern belle.
Ophelia asked that we only use the name Ophelia to refer to her in this story.
But Ophelia didn’t always have so much confidence.
Robin: Yeah. When he was little, he was super shy. He used to hide in my skirts when he was little.
TOBIN: He was actually so afraid of speaking up that —
ROBIN: — actually didn't pass third grade. Had to redo third grade. He was so incredibly shy that he wouldn't raise his hand.
TOBIN: But she started to notice there was one activity where her kid felt super uninhibited and comfortable.
OPHELIA: I have an older sister, so luckily she had princess clothing and we'd have tea parties and we dress our dogs in princess clothing as well. And there was one moment that I just remember — it’s one of my best memories — I had put on her little princess outfit and not the tiara, but that kind of cone hat with the veil on it. And I had a little fashion show going down our hallway. And that was the first time I was definitely more comfortable in that kind of not-masculine, not-feminine, a-little-bit-of-both kind of area. And I just walked down the hallway singing, “I'm the queen, I'm the queen.” So already I was … not your run-of-the-mill six year old.
TOBIN: But for as much as he loved dressing up, not everyone in their small Colorado town approved.
TOBIN: For you, what has been the pushback or the stuff that you've had to deal with as you found yourself in drag?
OPHELIA: [SIGHING] I dunno.
ROBIN: I know you're not wanting to talk about it — um, she’s had some pushback when she was little. And that was — it was family. She doesn't like to — to talk about it. And I don't blame her.
OPHELIA: It was just a lot of, just, kind of, put downs, just to stop me from being different.
It was a lot of, “You’re being a pussy. You're being raised to be gay. Grow a set.” It was, “You’re worthless.”
TOBIN: Robin eventually made a big decision. She decided to split away from that part of the family. She moved with her kids to the big, liberal city of Denver, where she hoped maybe her son could keep growing outward instead of sinking inward. So he started in a new school, and sometimes on the weekends, he joined his mom at fashion shoots — Robin is a photographer, and in Denver, every now and then, her assignment would include photographing drag queens.
OPHELIA: I began to see a lot more drag queens in person, and a lot more grandiose fashion. And it was definitely not daytime clothing. And I fell in love with it immediately. I was —
ROBIN: It was the big dress-up box!
[DRIVING MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: Ophelia ended up going to a middle school that had a strict dress code. The students were required to wear uniforms every single day — well, almost every day.
OPHELIA: Every first Friday of the month, we had Dress of Choice Day. So we could wear whatever we wanted that was within the dress code. So I was like, I'm going to take this literally.
ROBIN: The day before, he comes to me and says, “Mom, it's Dress of Choice Day tomorrow. I want to wear a dress.” And I went, “Oh, you are inviting some trouble, my little friend, ha. This — this could go badly. You have to realize that it could go really, really badly.”
TOBIN: And Robin realized she was faced with a really tough question. Like, “How do I best parent this kid? What is my role? Like, is it my job to protect this kid from a world that I have already seen be cruel? Or is it my job to be all-out supportive?” In essence, she was weighing, “What’s more importanTOBIN: safety or freedom?”
ROBIN: And I thought, “Okay, I have to let him experiment. I have to let him either — either fall or fly. And all I can do is give you all the tools you need to make your own choices here.”
TOBIN: It’s Dress of Choice Day. Ophelia wakes up a full two hours before school to get ready. She slips into the black Anne Klein sequined dress she found at Goodwill. She puts on the black boots she found to match. She even has a little blazer to wear over her outfit. She calls it her “I want to speak to the manager” outfit. She walks out of the house and gets into the car so her mom can drive her to school.
Robin is in the driver’s seat, acting the part of super supportive mom very convincingly. She had helped pick the outfit, she’s here driving Ophelia to school, so Ophelia has no idea that on the inside, her mom is filled with dread that this could go badly. She’s wondering, “Have I made a bad decision here? Am I leading my kid to slaughter?”
ROBIN: I was totally prepared. We had backup clothes. I actually went to a coffee shop nearby instead of going home and saying —
ROBIN: Yeah, because I was afraid they were gonna call me within the first half an hour and say, “Come pick up your kid.” I just — It was that moment as a parent where you're [PAUSE] proud of your child for doing something brave, but at the same time, you're afraid for your child for doing something that could put them in jeopardy. And I thought, “Oh, wow, this” [BIG INHALE] “— this could — could change a lot of things for you.” I was — I just wanted to make sure I could protect you.
TOBIN: So Robin sits there, a couple blocks from the school, phone in hand, waiting to get a call saying something bad happened, or that she needs to come pick up her kid. The morning passes. No call. Then lunchtime goes by. Still no call. Her phone also doesn’t ring all afternoon. Maybe it had gone okay?
OPHELIA: I walked into my first class and I was like, “This is my dress of choice.” And they just got up and were like, [CLAPPING, THEN IN A FAUX EMOTIONAL VOICE] “I love you, man.” And I was like, “I love you!”
[A LITTLE KEYBOARD MUSIC PLAYS]
OPHELIA: It was just so validating that people didn't, like, judge me. They were just so happy for me that I was being myself.
TOBIN: Robin’s bet had paid off. The Denver middle schoolers were totally unfazed by a little gender creativity. So Ophelia came home beaming.
ROBIN: I was really proud of you. I really was. I was proud of you for being yourself and — and believing in yourself.
TOBIN: And soon, fueled by an obsession with RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ophelia had her eye on bigger goals — and bigger hair.
OPHELIA: My 13th birthday, I told my mom that I wanted to have a drag-themed birthday.
TOBIN: So Robin was like, “Alright. Let’s do this.” They kept it small — just Ophelia, Robin, and a couple of friends. The itinerary included dinner at the local Hamburger Mary’s, and tickets to a drag show. But it all started with an appointment with professional makeup artists.
OPHELIA: So I sit down. They put on Burlesque —
[CHER SINGS A LITTLE BIT FROM THE MOVIE]
OPHELIA: — the Cher movie. So, of course, it was already pretty incredible. I didn't know what was happening, so it took, like, an hour of me just being like, “I know someone's doing my makeup, but I don't know how it looks yet,” because they would not let me look.
TOBIN: But finally, an hour, and many false eyelashes later…
OPHELIA: They turned me around to look into the mirror, and they were like, “How’s your makeup?” And I just — I leaned into the mirror. And I just immediately started, like, feeling my face, because it wasn't my normal chubby-cheeks face. I had contour on! I was like, “She’s a woman!”
OPHELIA: I felt beautiful, and the most myself I had.
ROBIN: I thought you were going to cry.
OPHELIA: Yeah! I mean, I couldn't mess up the makeup.
[CHER SINGS, “WELCOME TO BURLESQUE!”]
TOBIN: If I had any remaining worry that maybe kids could be too young for drag, they were fully resolved by Ophelia and Robin. Because to hear Ophelia tell it, drag wasn’t this weird game of dress-up that forced her to act more adult, or as some funhouse-mirror version of herself. Drag was how she found out who she really was.
KATHY: I mean, like, you can’t — you can’t argue with that. And, in my experience, if a kid wants to do something, or be a certain way there is nothing you can do to stop them, if they really want it.
[MARIMBA MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Right. But the fact is, there’s a lot of people who do try to stop them. And Robin had a nagging fear of what that could mean.
ROBIN: After all of that, I, as a parent, went home and went, “Okay, I — I have a problem now. I have a child who wants to be gender creative. I have a child that wants to do drag. Where in the heck are you going to take a child to do drag?”
TOBIN: And even more scary — how do you keep your kid safe when the world is trying to take them down?
More on that after the break.
[MIDROLL MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: And we’re back!
TOBIN: We are back. Uh, before the break, we met Ophelia and mom Robin, and they were at this crossroads where Ophelia had tried drag for the first time, wanted to do more, and Robin was kind of stuck. Because having a little one-time drag birthday party was one thing. But what would happen if this became more of a thing? Would she have to worry even more about what the world would have to say about her kid? And here’s where I got a little bummed out, honestly. Because in some very big ways, she had every right to be scared. The best example I can give you is what happened to Desmond is Amazing.
[MIDROLL MUSIC OUT, BUMPMING MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: If you’ve heard of kid drag queens, you’ve heard of Desmond is Amazing.
STRAHAN: Please welcome Desmond Napoles, AKA Desmond is Amazing!
KATHY: Oh yeah, I know Desmond. Desmond’s one of those — like, tens of thousands of Instagram followers. Has made TV appearances. Super famous.
GOOD MORNING AMERICA HOST: You are watching the very first drag kid to go mainstream, Desmond Napoles, better known as Desmond is Amazing.
TOBIN: Totally. And if you haven’t seen Desmond in drag before, just go to Instagram. The looks are almost like cosplay. Like, Desmond’s dressed up in, like, a David Bowie kind of outfit. I’ve seen them wear a dress that looked like a Venus flytrap. And it’s all so well put-together and, you know — amazing! They’ve even caught the attention of RuPaul.
RUPAUL: Now, Desmond, you are the future of America.
TOBIN: Desmond’s been doing drag for a couple of years. Started when they were 7.
GOOD MORNING AMERICA HOST: Now at 12 years old, Desmond’s life is full of performances, magazine shoots, fashions shows, TV shows and more!
TOBIN: They’ve already walked in New York Fashion Week, appeared in the New York Times, made the Out 100 —
KATHY: And to be fair, so did we! We did that.
TOBIN: That’s true. Shout out to us! We made it, too.
KATHY: Yeah. It was years ago, but it’s fine. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
TOBIN: Anyway, the point is that Desmond is the top of the field when it comes to drag kids. Which has also means that when it comes to people who have a problem with drag kids, Desmond is the one they go after. Like, in 2018, they did a performance that got a lot of attention — which, okay. We’re actually going to take a pause right now and watch this video together.
[NO DOUBT’S “I’M JUST A GIRL” PLAYS FOR A BEAT]
TOBIN: Okay, so, this is a performance where Desmond lip synced to the No Doubt song “I’m Just A Girl,” uh, and this is at a place called The Oasis in San Francisco. Just to describe it, there’s, like, a small stage, and a standing room-only audience.
KATHY: And it kinda looks like they’re dressed as Gwen Stefani?
TOBIN: Yes. Actually, could you describe sort of what Desmond is wearing?
KATHY: Sure. Desmond’s wearing a white dress that comes down to their knees. It kinda looks like track pants underneath, maybe? And they’re wearing a white wig that’s pulled up into a ponytail.
TOBIN: Right. Yeah.
KATHY: Okay, so — so they just took off the dress, and underneath they’re wearing, like, an athletic tank top and — yes, yes, track pants, I was right.
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Yes. And how would you describe their dancing?
KATHY: Um, I mean, it kinda reminds me of what you said about those kids in Denver. Like, this seems more like Desmond is acting out the song than doing a choreographed dance. But Desmond is confident. Like, the way they’re strutting around with no hesitation!
TOBIN: I know, right? What a seasoned performer.
KATHY: Seasoned! Performer! [TOBIN LAUGHS] And people in the audience are handing dollar bills — are those dollar bills?
TOBIN: Yeah, so everyone in the audience is tipping the way you’d see a lot of drag performers getting tipped. [KATHY MAKES A NOISE OF UNDERSTANDING] But I think it’s important maybe that we describe how it’s happening.
KATHY: Yeah, so, like, they’re holding out dollar bills and Desmond takes them and puts it in a giant pile on the stage.
TOBIN: Right. But there’s no, like, tucking the dollars into Desmond’s clothing, or handing it suggestively?
KATHY: No, definitely not. Like, the crowd seems like they’re just dancing along and cheering.
[A LITTLE MORE OF THE SONG PLAYS]
TOBIN: So, yeah, it’s not that different than, say, what I saw kids doing at the Denver drag show. The difference is that Desmond is very well-known, and people on the internet saw this video on YouTube and had opinions.
TOBIN: Someone in the comments asks how it’s okay for a kid to perform in a gay bar. Desmond’s dad responded saying that New York law says it’s okay as long as a parent or guardian is there, and the kid only stays backstage until they perform. They stuck to both of those rules. But then Breitbart posted the video to their website, and suddenly you start seeing comments popping up about how Desmond’s parents should lose custody. There became this whole swirl of backlash to Desmond’s performances: people saying Desmond was stripping for dollars in a gay bar, that the parents were forcing this whole thing to happen.
[MUSIC OUT, LITTLE CHIME MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: What's your favorite memory of performing in drag?
DESMOND: The time I wore the bubble, bubble, bubble. The bubble — um, what’s it called?
TOBIN: I got a chance to talk to Desmond is Amazing, and they brought along their mom, Wendy. While both parents are supportive, Wendy tends to go with Desmond to more of their appearances.
WENDY: Bubble wrap?
DESMOND: Yeah, the bubble wrap outfit where I was singing to Diana Ross.
WENDY: Oh god. Oh, that was a long time ago.
DESMOND: This was at my house when I was like 6 or 7, or 5. I dunno.
WENDY: Yeah. He's always creating outfits — like things would disappear and I would find them in his room, like, I'd be looking for my favorite T-shirt or shoes, and they would be in his room.
TOBIN: I just wanna quickly jump in here to say that this interview was recorded a couple months ago, when Desmond was using he/him pronouns. Desmond recently shared that they now use they/them pronouns, so that’s what I’ll use. But since this was taped a while back, you’ll still hear Wendy use he/him. Anyway, back to Desmond.
DESMOND: I was a trash queen back then. [BOTH TOBIN AND WENDY LAUGH] I was a trashy queen.
WENDY: The original trash queen.
DESMOND: I was a trashy queen, girl. [TOBIN LAUGHS] I was on a drag on a dime.
TOBIN: Desmond does this a lot — pulling out catchphrases and quippy lines. They’re kind of an old pro. Which means they’ve also gotten used to the negative attention that comes their way.
DESMOND: And mommy, why don’t you tell them about what happened the other day?
WENDY: On Thursday?
WENDY: Yeah, last Thursday we got —
DESMOND: Go in-depth, mom.
WENDY: Okay. Well, Desmond had a — like, a small part in this small movie and he had to be in drag for the movie part, and we didn't really feel like changing back to his T-shirt and jeans after we were done. We just kind of wanted to get home.
TOBIN: They get off the subway at Union Square to transfer trains. But as they’re walking on the platform, Wendy realizes a man is following them. He follows them as they walk through the station. He follows them as they get onto the elevator that they will take them to their next train.
WENDY: He was trying to, like, push through the crowd in the elevator to get to us.
TOBIN: And then came the yelling. The guy starts calling Desmond names. Telling Wendy she’s a bad parent.
WENDY: Just looking at his body language, and I could see, like, he was balling up his fists so, y’know, I was worried it was going to escalate to something violent, or a physical altercation, so …
TOBIN: I mean, Desmond, how did — how did you feel as that was happening, as you were on the subway platform?
DESMOND: Well, I didn't want to speak because I don't want to interfere. But my mom, she was, like, a hero. She was like, “I don't care.”
WENDY: [LAUGHS] I was defending us. And I like trying to shield Desmond’s body from him because I — y’know, someone bunches up their fists, that’s, like, body language that they want to get physical. So I was just, like, shielding Desmond and yelling at him.
TOBIN: Even though it was horrible to have to deal with this guy yelling at them, Wendy says it wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was that so many people watched it happen.
WENDY: Nobody, like, spoke up and said, “Hey, man, I — I don’t think you, as an adult, should be saying these things to a kid.”
TOBIN: It was one of those situations where silence can feel like endorsement. Like, maybe in saying nothing, a part of them agreed that Wendy and Desmond were in the wrong.
Desmond leaves the studio for a bit to go get a snack and some water, and I get a chance to talk to Wendy about what it’s been like for her. Because I get the sense that, yes, Desmond is aware of the so-called haters. But they also still seem to think of them as a problem to be brushed off. But for Wendy, it’s a daily battle to try to let her kid be a kid. It’s like she’s trying to create a little forcefield around them.
Every day, she gets on Instagram to delete negative comments on Desmond’s account, hoping she’ll get to it before Desmond sees. And every day, she deals with accusations that she’s manipulating her child. In fact, after Breitbart posted about Desmond, people started calling Child Protective Services on the family. To this date, they’ve had over 100 complaints filed against them.
WENDY: In the very beginning, when this became a thing to call CPS on us, sometimes we'd be talking to a worker and another worker would come strolling up to our house, like, they were overlapping. And we began to feel a little bit like we were prisoners in our own home because we kind of had to stick around when we knew there were gonna be CPS workers coming. And sometimes they came unannounced and sometimes they would come in the middle of the night — even on a school night — just to make sure he’s in his bed.
You know, there's this idea that Desmond's out every single night at 3 AM performing at gay bars. Oh no, excuse me — stripping at gay bars is what the — what these people believe.
TOBIN: All because of the Gwen Stefani appearance. Y’know, the one where Desmond danced to “I’m Just a Girl,” the one where they made sure they obeyed the child labor laws, made sure Desmond didn’t leave backstage except to perform. They had to repeat the facts each time, for each complaint. They had to prove they weren’t out of the house late at night.
WENDY: And so, you know, we'd be like, “Well, here he is in bed. But now you’ve woken him up and he has to go to school tomorrow.” And then they would also go to his school and pull him out of class to talk to him. And they were doing that all day long and his grades start to suffer.
TOBIN: After that experience, Desmond didn’t want to perform as much anymore. They still loved drag and making appearances and whatnot. Just, wanted less lip syncing in front of a crowd. So Wendy made another parenting choice: listen to the kid. Desmond doesn’t want to do as many performances? That’s okay, we can focus on other things, like costumes they wants to make and music. Forcefield still intact.
But on top of all of that, are the comments that feel truly wrong. Because in this symphony of opinions about Desmond doing drag is an advocate that no one wants. A couple months ago, a man who defends the rights of pedophiles — yes, this exists — wrote an article in support of Desmond’s drag. He said that Desmond’s performances prove that kids can be — and I know this is fucked up — sexy. Which, you know, is just wrong.
And I want to be clear here, Desmond’s drag is not sexual. They’re often wearing full-length dresses or athletic wear that, say, a girl at the same age would wear. And the dancing is not sexual either. But Wendy still had to take to Desmond’s Instagram page to address this “Pedophile Rights” guy head-on, saying, quote, “We do not know him or associate with him or any other pedophiles or sex offenders.” End quote. Because if she didn’t say something, there’s a whole bunch of people who would accuse her of inviting the support.
WENDY: These people make me really mad, who say that Desmond attracts pedophiles because that’s, like — it's almost like when you say that rape victims attract, y’know, rapists.
TOBIN: It strikes me as deeply unfair that the conversation seems to be happening simply because people see a boy in a dress and immediately tack on a sexual connotation. And it feels even more unfair that Wendy has to even have the argument.
But Wendy says the thing that keeps her going is Desmond’s want to be in this world of drag. Their never-ending desire to make bigger, funner, crazier costumes and show them to everyone. And she’s had to learn how to let that desire be her guide, not the voices of people who might have a problem with it.
WENDY: I think everybody gets it in their head, like, “What are others going to think? Oh my god, like, he can’t go out like that. What are others — what are other people going to think? He's going to want to go outside in this skirt and dress, and maybe I'll just keep it at home because I wouldn't want anyone to know.” And you just get all these crazy thoughts in your head. And it’s just, like, a process of, like, balancing out if I'm going to believe those thoughts, or if I'm going to let my kid be happy and, you know — eventually had to let all of that go. I guess it still is a process because I still worry, you know, to some degree. Like, when I hear people criticize him, it just — you just never let go. I guess you just never let go of it. I don't know. I'm not a perfect mom.
TOBIN: All Wendy seems to really know for sure is that she wants to give her kid a fighting chance at being happy. So she continues to delete the Instagram comments. She continues to explain to Child Protection Services that, “No, Desmond is not being used.” And she continues to tell her kid that none of it is their fault. And you know what? I think it’s working. Because talking to Desmond, they’re not so concerned about what other people have to say.
TOBIN: How do you how do you deal with the haters? Do you have a strategy?
DESMOND: I just [SINGING A LITTLE] pay them no mind, um, because they're never as fierce as you and I. That's a song. That's a lyric for a song. It’s not — um, it’s gonna be released — hopefully soon.
TOBIN: Wait, you have a song coming out?
DESMOND: Hopefully soon.
WENDY: Why don’t you sing some of it, Des?
DESMOND: Alright, mom. [SINGING] I am amazing! You are amazing. We are amazing. We are all amazing.
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] I'm wondering when you are — when you're feeling scared or unsure about something, who do you go to talk to?
DESMOND: My mom. ‘Cause she always has the best advice.
TOBIN: And Wendy’s not alone in fighting this fight. Remember Robin, the mom we met earlier, whose kid Ophelia had the drag thirteenth birthday party? Well, as Robin was wrestling with these big questions about letting her child do drag, she found her way to Wendy, who was able to offer her advice.
ROBIN: We have a — a chat group that we're in. And people just post silly things, and they, um, post scary things. They post day-to-day stuff. They post, you know, successes, awards their kids get. They post, you know, tough days. And I think Wendy has taken the brunt of the tough days. And I respect the hell out of her.
TOBIN: Robin also took it upon herself to seek out other parents in Denver who might be going through something similar, trying to create their own little forcefields around their kids while they figured everything out.
ROBIN: Alright, if your kid plays soccer, you're gonna be friends with the other parents of the kids that play soccer. Your kid's gonna be part of a team with the other kids and they have something in common. And I had this kid that needed a team, needed other kids that would understand what they were going through. I needed other parents that — that would understand what my child was going through. And. um, days like, for instance, when my kid went to school dressed in a dress, it — it would have been so great to have that that village, to support me as a parent.
TOBIN: Robin ended up organizing an event called “Dragutante.” It’s kind of like a debutante ball for drag kids. It’s not really competitive — everyone gets prizes. And Ophelia emcees the entire thing. It goes with her persona as a drag queen, shepherding all these new drag queens into their debut, advocating for their ability to just be themselves.
OPHELIA: I like advocating more than I do performing because I can't split. I can't death drop. I don't cartwheel.
TOBIN: So she offers guidance, because she knows what it’s like to be so shy that you fail the third grade, but then to find yourself in a dress and heels and feel like you can suddenly save the world.
TOBIN: Do you have ideas that you haven’t been able to do yet for your drag?
DESMOND: Today I just thought of Thanksgiving, I should be an oven, and then open — and then you can open it and a turkey pops out.
WENDY: A drag oven?
TOBIN: Amazing. [WENDY AND TOBIN LAUGH]
[MUSIC PLAYS UNDERNEATH]
TOBIN: To hear Desmond talk about, y’know, becoming a drag oven, or to hear Ophelia talk about hosting a debutante ball in heels — it’s amazing to me how natural it feels, how much it just seems to make sense where they’ve ended up. And then I think about their parents, and how not-obvious it was that this was the right path. That there were many signs that pointed to danger, or perhaps a more careful route.
But I keep going back to something Robin said to me, back when I first called her to tell her I was coming to Colorado. I was asking her about the turning point for her, when it felt okay to let Ophelia really get into drag. And she told me that she really believes that as a parent, if your kid tells you they want to go to the moon, you don’t just take them there. You give them the tools to get to the moon, and then you see if they make it. And it seems to me that that’s what these parents are doing. Letting their kids tell them where they want to go, and then opening up the possibility that they’ll get there.
TOBIN: I want to go back to that snowy day in Colorado, to the end of the all-ages drag show. At this point, it’s been two hours packed with kids emoting and dancing and lip syncing their faces off. And on deck for the very last performance of the night is someone making their debut. Their drag name is Zion, and their mom Bianca is sitting right next to me in the audience.
BIANCA: I’m nervous — I’m nervous for her because she’s nervous. But she’s totally got it, so I’m so excited.
JESSICA: It’s their first time here at the Drag for All Ages stage. Make some noise for Zion!
TOBIN: Zion has, like, full-on Día de los Muertos skeleton makeup and a sort of tattered prom dress. They lip sync to the song “Ghost Town” by Shiny Toy Guns. And Zion did not seem shy at all — they were so into the song. And the whole time, Bianca is just, like, screaming her head off.
[MUSIC PLAYS, BIANCA SCREAMS]
TOBIN: After the show, Zion comes running up to her mom and gives them a big hug.
BIANCA: Come give me a momma bear hug!
BIANCA: I am so proud of you.
TOBIN: Great job out there.
ZION: Thank you.
TOBIN: Um, I hear this was your first time.
ZION: Oh, definitely. It was my first time. Ehh. I've been here for the two — last two shows as a member of the audience. And I saw how fun they were having, like — how much fun they were doing. And it was just like, “I want to do that!” [ZION CONTINUES TO TALK UNDER NARRATION]
TOBIN: Zion and her mom might have some of the same questions that Robin and Ophelia and Wendy and Desmond have already started to tackle. But for tonight, it’s all celebration.
BIANCA: This is a child who is an introvert and a bookworm and sits by herself at home, doing her homework and reading her books. And then to see her open up and show this other side of herself, it’s like watching the rarest flower that only blooms once kind of start to open up.
[GENTLE, SWEET MUSIC PLAYS]
BIANCA: And to see that as a parent, it just — it melts my heart.
[A BRIEF PAUSE FOR MUSIC]
TOBIN: Outside, the world is what it is. It is shitty, and snowing, and mean, and it will tell you what you’re doing is wrong. But in here, even for just a couple hours, it’s warm. A place where you could imagine things would grow and flourish.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
TOBIN: Before we go —
TOBIN: — I think we should give the people what they want.
KATHY: And what is that?
TOBIN: Well, you know, we’re back, and that’s super exciting — and we have all these stories and episodes that we’re excited about.
KATHY: Mhm, mhm. I see where you’re going with this.
TOBIN: I think we give the people a little preview of what’s coming up from team Nancy.
KATHY: Play the tape!
[OLD-TIMEY MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: How do you describe what it is that you do?
VOICE 1: I always just tell people I do bug sex. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
[CLIP 1 ENDS, CLIP 2 BEGINS]
VOICE 2: To this day — I’m a 55 year-old man, and my momma still tells her friends in Alabama that I’m married to a woman here in Canada.
[CLIP 2 ENDS, CLIP 3 BEGINS]
VOICE 3: I used to be sorted into Gryffindor all the time, and then when I came out as trans, I was never sorted into Gryffindor again. [KATHY LAUGHS] So, like, my true self is, like, a Slytherin, I guess.
[CLIP 3 ENDS, CLIP 4 BEGINS]
VOICE 4: You can’t have a glory hole without a wall!
KATHY: [LAUGHING] No!
[CLIP 4 ENDS, CLIP 5 BEGINS]
VOICE 5: And if I told you in 2004, there was a country called the Gay Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands.
[CLIP 5 ENDS, CLIP 6 BEGINS]
VOICE 6: He ended up [LAUGHING] failing that semester and moving back home, because he spent all of his time sucking cock.
TOBIN: So, maybe I should’ve said “Gaybraham Lincoln!” [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH]
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
KATHY: Oh my god. I can’t wait for people to hear everything!
TOBIN: Hard same.
KATHY: And Tobin.
KATHY: Can I tell them about the other thing?
TOBIN: Oh, please do.
KATHY: So, Nancy listeners, if you are just as pumped as we are that Nancy is back, there’s something you can do with all of that excitement. We are asking for a super-easy, super-simple favor. And here it is: tell three to five of your friends or family or random strangers on the street to listen to Nancy.
KATHY: That’s it! Recommend the show to three to five people.
TOBIN: And if you do, we will send you a highly-coveted, basically priceless, new Nancy patch!
TOBIN: A beautiful, brand-spanking-new Nancy patch that you can put on a backpack — a fanny pack — a jean jacket, even!
KATHY: So tell three to five people about Nancy, and go to NancyPodcast.org, click on that “Share Nancy” link to get that patch!
TOBIN: Three to five people, NancyPodcast.org, “Share Nancy” link.
KATHY: You can do this. We believe in you.
TOBIN: Alright, I think that is enough of us for this week. I am sick of us.
[NANCY CREDITS MUCH PLAYS]
TOBIN: Producers —
KATHY: Zakiya Gibbons and B.A. Parker!
TOBIN: Editors —
KATHY: Lulu Miller and Stephanie Foo!
TOBIN: Sound Designer —
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Executive Producer —
KATHY: Suzie Lechtenberg!
TOBIN: Special thanks this week to Stephanie Wolf and House of Pod in Denver, Colorado.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
KATHY: My parents were never supportive. [TOBIN LAUGHS]