Joshua Kelley, shown here in June 2020 as a yeoman 2nd class, joined the Navy in 2016.

Joshua Kelley, shown here in June 2020 as a yeoman 2nd class, joined the Navy in 2016. (U.S. Navy)

This story has been corrected.

WASHINGTON — The Navy’s appointment of an active-duty drag queen to boost recruitment is drawing backlash from some Republican senators who contend the sailor promoted the use of Chinese-owned social media and inappropriately represented the service.

Joshua Kelley, a 2nd class petty officer who also performs as the drag queen “Harpy Daniels,” served as one of five ambassadors in the Navy’s Digital Ambassador Pilot Program from the fall until March. The program was launched to diversify and expand the Navy’s candidate pool amid a recruiting crisis across the military.

Kelley identifies as nonbinary and self-describes as an advocate for the LGBTQ community in the military. In announcing the ambassadorship, Kelley said it would be an opportunity to share personal experiences in the Navy with the sailor's social media followers, including on the popular TikTok video sharing app.

The Republican senators have zeroed in on Kelley’s use of the app, which lawmakers argue China uses to push misinformation and endanger national security. President Joe Biden signed a law last year banning TikTok from devices used by the Defense Department and all other federal agencies.

“Given China’s compromise of the personal information of 21 million federal employees, the [Chinese Communist Party] could even use the same micro-targeting techniques used in recruiting to target the cleared [Navy] workforce, their families and close contacts,” a group of Republican senators wrote in a letter this week to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro. “The bottom line is that the Navy should not be promoting use of TikTok, an app banned on department devices, on the personal devices of service members or its ‘ambassadors.’”

The senators are also asking Del Toro to justify why the Navy partnered with a social media influencer who posts “behaviors and activities many Americans deem inappropriate.” They note the service’s social media policy cautions sailors to assume any content that they post might affect their careers and the reputation of the Navy.

“This begs the question whether the Navy endorses the personal posts of its influencers and ‘ambassadors.’ If so, does the Navy endorse drag shows? Where does the Navy draw the line on promotion of the personal activities of its influencers? Would the Navy enlist burlesque dancers or exotic dancers to reach possible recruits?” the senators wrote. “Such activity is not appropriate for promotion in a professional workplace or the United States military.”

The Navy did not respond Thursday to a request for comment. The service only met its active-duty enlistment goal last year by heavily dipping into its delayed entry pool and failed to reach the desired recruitment for active duty and Reserve officers.

Kelley's social media biographies state the sailor’s opinions are not endorsed by the Defense Department or the Navy. Kelley has pushed back against a wave of criticism from conservatives in recent days.

“Queer ppl were oppressed in the military for years only until 2011 and trans people since 2021. You only want to support the military when it benefits you and doesn't involve queer people,” Kelley wrote Wednesday on the Instagram page for Harpy Daniels. “Yet the military is the largest diverse, and adaptable organization in the US.”

Kelley began performing under the Harpy Daniels persona years before joining the Navy in 2016. Kelley continued to entertain while stationed on the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan, performing as Harpy Daniels in events staged by the Navy’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation department.

“I want a young person to see me and think, ‘You’re serving your country, and still doing what you love,” Kelley said in an interview with NBC News in 2018.

Republicans have seized on drag queen events on military bases as evidence of a “woke” agenda infiltrating the military. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., helped lead a successful push last year to cancel a “Drag Queen Story Time” at Ramstein Air Base in Germany over fears of exposing young children to “sexually charged content.”

Rubio is among 14 Republican senators who are demanding answers from Del Toro about Kelley and the Navy’s ambassador program.

“At a time when our nation’s military is facing a recruiting crisis, it is as important as ever to reach broader swaths of the eligible population — but not at the cost of privacy, security, or professionalism,” they wrote.


Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro’s first name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this story.
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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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