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The Pentagon’s ban on drag shows has upset both supporters and opponents

Republicans in Congress want to make the ban more official, while opponents of the ban say it is a break with tradition.
Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas
Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.L.E. Baskow / Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Defense Department’s recent cancellation of drag shows on military bases hasn’t proved popular with people on either side of the issue.

Supporters of what appears to be a de facto ban on such shows want the ban to become official and permanent, with Republican members of Congress asking for clarity and even proposing laws to forbid “adult cabaret.”

Opponents also want clarity. They say the ban reverses past policy, under which local commanders had authority to decide what was permissible and some facilities hosted drag shows. They want to know why Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has gotten personally involved in cancelling shows, and they warn that any policy that seems discriminatory could hurt already anemic recruiting.

NBC News was first to report that last week, Austin told base leadership at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to either cancel or move a drag show planned for June 1, the first day of Pride Month, arguing that the Pentagon won’t host drag events at U.S. military installations or facilities or spend Defense Department funds on drag events. Even though Nellis had held similar events in recent years without Pentagon interference, the event was canceled.

Defense officials familiar with details of several recent events that were canceled, including a drag show at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, said that in most cases the private groups paid for the events and even rented the venues and that no Defense Department funds were used. “This isn’t a DOD funding issue as far as we can see,” a defense official said. 

Sarah Streyder, the wife of a Space Force staff sergeant and the executive director of Secure Families Initiative, a nonpartisan group of military spouses and partners that advocates on national security issues, said in a statement that the canceled events “were organized to be family-friendly, non-partisan, and privately funded. Any characterizations to the contrary reflect either ignorance or maliciousness.”

Streyder called on the Biden administration to “immediately reverse” the newly enforced ban.

“This decision, at the beginning of Pride Month, sends a hurtful and exclusionary message. ... It also ignores the reality that drag has been an art form used in military events for over 100 years. We stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ members and call on Secretary Austin and the White House to immediately reverse this policy. It’s crucial that DoD issue clarified guidance so that Pride Month events can continue.”

Opponents of the ban note that there are photos of members of the military in drag at morale events dating back to the 1920s, and that the U.S. military has long hosted USO shows and other entertainment that includes scantily clad dancers and entertainers.

A spokesperson for GLAAD, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBTQ rights, asked why the drag events had been “singled out for rejection, given that no federal dollars are being used.”

“The significance of this federal ban can’t be overstated. Families across our military force are left to wonder whether their LGBTQ+ loved ones will actually be supported by the Pentagon — or whether Pride Month proclamations from defense leadership are merely empty gestures,” the spokesperson said.

Air Force veteran Jennifer Dane, who served as an intelligence analyst, was one of the last service members investigated for homosexuality under the defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The policy was repealed before the investigation finished, and she was honorably discharged several years later. Dane warns that policies like banning drag shows on military bases could hurt military recruiting, which is already suffering. 

“They are taking away from the brightest and the best, and with these policies that are very exclusive we just cut off our pipeline even more,” she said. “It’s really harmful to national security at large, and it’s signaling that you are not welcome in today’s military.”

The Pentagon press secretary, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, said Austin had canceled drag events after he became aware of them at a congressional hearing. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing March 29, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., questioned Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about drag queen story hours on bases around the world.

Drag queen story hours is not something that the department funds,” Austin told the committee. 

Asked what message Austin was sending by canceling the event at Nellis during Pride Month, Ryder said the Pentagon ban on drag shows on bases was actually “a long-standing policy,” adding, “DOD will not host drag events at U.S. military installations or facilities.”

Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said drag events on military installations are “not a suitable use of DOD resources.”

“As Secretary Austin has said, the DOD will not host drag events at U.S. military installations or facilities," Singh said. "Our service members are diverse and are allowed to have personal outlets.”

Making the ban official

Conservatives say the Pentagon has sent mixed messages about drag shows.

In May, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced a bill that would prohibit Pentagon funds or facilities from being used for drag performances. Assistant Air Force Secretary Alex Wagner had sent him a letter in April that defended the decision to host a drag show at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, in June 2021, saying that it was “planned and conducted by a private organization” and that “no taxpayer funds were spent to host or facilitate the event.”

After NBC News reported that the Pentagon directed Nellis base leadership to cancel or move the drag show, Daines wrote another letter Tuesday asking for clarification of the Pentagon’s policy, saying canceling the show because of Pentagon policy contradicts the letter from Wagner. 

“The Malmstrom AFB event was deemed appropriate to be held on a military installation. In contrast, the Nellis AFB event did not meet DoD standards for holding an event at a DoD facility. What differences between the two events made one acceptable while the other was not?” he wrote. 

“The U.S. military’s active engagement in, and support for, divisive political and ideologically driven issues weakens cohesion and morale and further degrades the recruitment and retention of the men and women serving our country in uniform. In doing so, these policies undermine the core mission of our military and constitute poor judgment by supportive military leaders,” Daines wrote.

Also Tuesday, Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., introduced a similar bill in the House that would ban “adult cabaret performances.” 

Rosendale’s office took credit for the cancellation of the Nellis drag show but said it wasn’t enough.

“After months of pressure from Congressman Rosendale and other Congressional Republicans, the Department of Defense announced on June 1st that they will enforce their longstanding policy of not allowing drag shows on military installations,” the office said in a statement. “While Congressman Rosendale is pleased by this development, the enforcement of this policy should not be contingent upon the whims of whatever woke policies the Biden Administration wants to promote on any given day. Rep. Rosendale’s bill ensures that military resources will not be used to fund such woke events.”