Straight male rockers are donning frocks to protest anti-drag bills: 'If my job is to wear a dress to help, then I'll wear a dress all day.'
Guster, Yo La Tengo and Vandoliers have all recently worn dresses onstage, in a show of support for drag queens and queer people being targeted by conservative lawmakers.
Country-punk band sextet Vandoliers were on tour in late February when they read about a controversial new Tennessee bill criminalizing public drag shows as “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” The Dallas band’s multi-instrumentalist, Cory Graves, tells Yahoo Entertainment that he knew exactly what he and his bandmates needed to do before their gig that week at biker bar the Shed Smokehouse & Juke Joint in Maryville, Tenn.
They sprang into action. They went dress-shopping.
“We had just seen that the law was maybe going to be signed around the time that we were going to be in Tennessee,” Graves recalls. “I was looking at our calendar and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, we're going to be in Tennessee in two days. I'm going to get a dress and do this, because I believe in it.’ It's like a middle finger, and just a show of support to a class of people that's getting shit on for no reason. … And so, we all went to some vintage stores and had the shop ladies help us find dresses. They were trying to show us what would look good on our broad-shouldered bodies or whatever.”
“Cory is very smart and had a really great way of harmlessly telling somebody to f*** themselves,” frontman Joshua Fleming chuckles. “And I thought that this was just such a really respectful way for a bunch of smelly straight dudes to [protest] without being violent, being a problem, or offending a bunch of people — just an act of kindness to a small community of people in rural Tennessee, maybe change a couple of country-bumpkin minds and move on. And it turned into our voice being out there.”
On March 2, the day of Vandoliers' Shed show, the anti-drag bill was signed into law by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. As the six-piece strutted onto the stage that night decked out in their new feminine finery, with Shania Twain's “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” blasting over the PA as their entrance music, Fleming was admittedly “really nervous — because it was at a Harley shop! At first we were like, ‘This is gonna be good! We're gonna get in there, stick it to some rural people, give 'em a dash of their own medicine!’ But then it was like, ‘Um, let’s just try not to get our asses kicked.’”
However, the Shed’s audience reaction ended up being “overwhelmingly positive,” says Graves. “People really saw the entertainment and the harmlessness in it, saw the joy in it.” A social media post of the hairy rocker dudes proudly modeling their thrift-store couture, captioned with “F*** a drag bill,” went viral soon thereafter, with the band later auctioning off their dresses for LGBTQ+ charities in Tennessee.
“The [auction] total was like $2,277.69, I believe. It was definitely 69 cents, for sure,” Fleming laughs.
Since that Vandoliers gig, other straight, cis, male rock bands have staged their own drag protests. On March 13, the two male members of veteran indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo, Ira Kaplan and James McNew, played their encore at Nashville’s Basement East in drag. While no one in Yo La Tengo overtly addressed the anti-drag law during their set, the band later released the following statement through their label, Matador Records: “What we did last night couldn’t have been clearer, and requires no further comment.”
Ira and James playing in drag yesterday in Tennessee, in response to the anti-drag bill that passed just some weeks ago.
Yo La Tengo for president, someone said at Yellowjackets, and I agree.
[Photo by Chris Conrad, via FB] pic.twitter.com/Za6LTr2Jie
— Ethel Baraona Pohl (@ethel_baraona) March 14, 2023
yo la tengo protesting anti-drag laws tonight in tennessee, courtesy @JohnQBoxler. pic.twitter.com/kB6IvqUeZX
— jesse jarnow (@firstname.lastname@example.org) (@bourgwick) March 14, 2023
Then, this week, pop-rock band Guster also donned dresses for their encore at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in response to a similar new Florida bill arguing that drag shows are a “serious danger to public health and safety” for children.
“Never played an encore in drag before but we did just that in Ponte Vedra FL tonight. Wouldn’t have thought to do it but all the attention from Florida politicians convinced us to try. Kinda liked it. Thanks for the idea Ron DeSantis!” Guster drummer Brian Rosenworcel tweeted that evening, March 26, with a photo of Guster singer Ryan Miller rocking a floral frock, winged Winehouse eyeliner, and platinum wig. “We’re not usually very political onstage but if you try to squash creative expression you’ll only summon more of it. Keep fighting, Florida.”
“After spending a week playing shows in Florida, we wanted to show solidarity with our many friends in the state that are fighting for equality,” Miller later told Yahoo Entertainment via an emailed statement.
Never played an encore in drag before but we did just that in Ponte Vedra FL tonight.
Wouldn’t have thought to do it but all the attention from Florida politicians convinced us to try.
Kinda liked it.
Thanks for the idea Ron DeSantis! pic.twitter.com/37Uca4ALhy
— Brian Rosenworcel (@Bowl_of_Worcel) March 27, 2023
I love the support for drag queens and the LGBTQ community from @guster during tonight’s concert in Florida. 🌈 pic.twitter.com/q6BQffroQ7
— Travis Akers (@travisakers) March 27, 2023
As Graves points out, “In the rock world, men have been wearing dresses for a long time. Like, Nirvana did it on TV.” However, Vandoliers — who have one booted (or high-heeled) foot in the rock world and one in the country world, having toured with everyone from Celtic party band Flogging Molly to bluegrass legend Marty Stuart to Fleming’s good friend, trans punk singer Laura Jane Grace — acknowledge that subversive cross-dressing is much less common in country music. That’s why it was especially important to them to “only to stick up for queer people, but to stick up for country musicians that are queer, because that's a genre that doesn't accept them as much as it should,” explains Graves.
It’s likely that other bands, of various musical genres, will stage drag protests in the near future, because Florida and Tennessee are hardly the only U.S. states with anti-LGBTQ+ bills moving through the legislature. In fact, just this week in Vandoliers’ home state of Texas, State Rep. Steve Toth filed a bill that defines “drag” as being a performed by someone who “exhibits a gender that is different from the performer’s gender recorded at birth … and sings, lip-syncs, dances, or otherwise performs in a lascivious manner before an audience.” Toth’s bill even allows minors in attendance to sue that supposedly offending performer. (Opponents have decried it as a “drag bounty hunter bill.”)
“I think there's a ton of laws coming out in lots of states, and this is just the tip of the iceberg and they're just going to go down the slippery slope — see what they can get away with, and then make bigger and bigger strides towards harming this class of people,” sighs Graves. “This [Tennessee] law in particular, that was passed the night we [played the Shed], was worded so vaguely. They're like, ‘We're going to protect the children!’ But if it says you can't be onstage in front of children dressed in a clothing that's not like your ‘birth gender’ or whatever, does that mean that a regular transgender country musician will get in trouble if there's a child in their audience? And who's to say someone’s not in the ‘right’ clothes, anyway? What makes it a ‘man’s clothes’ or a ‘woman's clothes’? That I've never understood, because for the past 20 years, I've mostly worn clothes that I bought in the women's section of stores. And I think once I buy it, it's not ‘women's clothes’ anymore. It's my clothes.”
“I don't like f***ing bullies. It bothers me. And everything about these laws just seems like a bully tactic,” adds Fleming, getting riled up as he lets what he describes as “the Angry American in me” do the talking. “It’s unsettling for me, especially for it to be pushed into other states. I really do see this as a blow to gay rights, and there's no other way to look at it. ... I don't want this to happen in my state; I'm very fearful about it. I have a daughter, and like, I don't even know if she's gay yet — you know, she's 2. But she has a whole life ahead of her, and this will affect her in some way.”
Fleming stresses that — like the members of Guster and Yo La Tengo — Vandoliers “didn’t do this to be a voice for the trans community, although if we're in the mix and our voices are being heard, great.” But even though they’ve already sold their Shed dresses for charity, Vandoliers say their protest was not a one-off. “I think that some point we'll probably do something, whether it's some sort of event or whatever,” says Graves, adding that while he’d love to see more rock bands make pro-drag and pro-queer statements of their own, Vandoliers want to “have actual drag queens involved in next time, not just straight white dudes pretending. Let’s get some actual help from people that are experts in the art form.”
“We really don't want it to be a gimmick. That's not our place,” says Fleming. “But I've also said this before: If my job is to wear a dress to help, then I'll wear a dress all day.”
“And I just want to say, it's very obvious to me that it's not the drag queens out there that are hurting people. It's not drag queens who are doing school shootings or these pastor rapings or whatever,” Graves notes. Less seriously, he adds, “And it was never more apparent to me than when I was loading a keyboard down the stairs in a dress, realizing how difficult that was: You couldn't hurt anybody in a dress.”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
Drag star Ginger Minj on why she chooses to stay in Florida amid anti-LGBTQ laws: ‘This is my home, too'
Laura Jane Grace on playing first concert to take place at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, that 'most hallowed of political and mulching grounds'
'Maren Morris to 'Drag Race' cast on behalf of country music community: 'I just want to say I'm sorry'
RuPaul talks punk, politics and Pulse: ‘Most people are still living in the Dark Ages’
The future of anti-drag movements looks even more violent than we thought