Drag show ban complicates Pride celebrations at US bases in Japan
Stars and Stripes June 9, 2023
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Canceling drag shows on U.S. military bases constitutes discrimination and misinterprets an art form that’s been part of the military for more than 100 years, according to event organizers at installations in Japan.
President Joe Biden’s administration banned drag shows on U.S. military bases on June 1, the start of Pride Month, following criticism from Republican lawmakers amid a general campaign against LGBTQ+ events, The Associated Press reported.
Hosting drag shows is inconsistent with regulations governing the use of Defense Department resources, according to a statement from Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh on June 1.
“Enacting this policy on the first day of Pride Month truly added insult to injury,” said Xander Ready, president of Out in Oki, a private organization registered with the 18th Force Support Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
“Speaking for myself alone, denying the LGBTQ+ community access to host our largest cultural showcase event at base facilities, while allowing other community and religious groups full access to the same, is discriminatory,” Ready told Stars and Stripes on Thursday via Facebook Messenger.
Out in Oki moved Kadena Pride Drag to an off-base venue after the event — originally approved and scheduled for June 24 at the base Officers’ Club — was canceled, Ready said. The move entailed logistical hurdles and some difficulties due to language and cultural barriers in Japan, he said.
“Drag shows are extremely popular on Kadena,” said Ready, a transgender military spouse from San Rafael, Calif. “Last year was the first time we were able to hold one, post-COVID restrictions, and not only did tickets sell out, they did so within hours, before we even had a chance to officially advertise they were available.”
Other events at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and Ramstein Air Base, Germany, were canceled, according to the AP, along with one at Yokota, the U.S. airlift hub in western Tokyo.
The Legends, Stars and Statements Experience Pride Ball was approved by Yokota’s 374th Force Support Squadron and scheduled for June 24 at the Enlisted Club, said Airman 1st Class Edgar Saint-vil on Thursday.
“When I heard about the drag ban, I felt very scared because the nature of drag is so open to interpretation,” Saint-vil, a client systems technician for the 374th Communications Squadron and vice president of Yokota LGBTQ + Family, said during an interview.
“Our identities as LGBTQ people puts us at risk for whoever has power or motive to say, to whoever we are, whatever we're doing is drag,” he said.
A drag queen brunch at Yokota’s Enlisted Club on May 7 completely sold out and drew 70 attendees. Drag queens from Tokyo performed, said Saint-vil, of New York, N.Y. Some attendees came in drag.
“We actually encourage people to come and dress up, because drag is such an open form of expression,” he said. “We really had a good time and I myself came my first time in drag.”
Yokota’s Pride ball was rescheduled for June 24 and rebilled as Disco Pride without the drag component to comply with DOD regulations, Staff Sgt. Jessica Avallone, a spokeswoman for the 374 Airlift Wing, told Stars and Stripes by email Friday.
“Team Yokota recognizes the diversity of our community and honors the service, commitment, and sacrifice of our LGBTQ+ service members and personnel we work alongside here at Yokota Air Base,” she said.
Neither Yokota’s drag queen brunch nor Kadena Pride Drag drew on taxpayer funds, according to Ready and Saint-vil. The money to produce the events is raised through donations and fundraising events, they said.
“In forcing this event off base, leadership is not just canceling a show; it is denying us our biggest community building, fundraising and outreach opportunity of the year,” Ready said. “Not only that but doing so clearly makes the statement that our art and self-expression are inappropriate and deviant, and I fully reject that framing.”
Kadena’s 18th Wing did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Wednesday.
Drag performances have a long history in the military and date to the late 1800s, according to the National WWII Museum’s website.
Theater performances by all-male casts during World War II were common, according to the City University of New York. “During these performances, select soldiers dressed in drag to impersonate women. These performances helped to boost morale across the army, providing entertainment in an atmosphere of conflict and stress,” according to the CUNY website.
Actor and comedian Bob Hope, a famous USO tour entertainer, performed in television specials in drag and aboard the USS Lexington for his 83rd birthday celebration.
“I think drag is so important because it represents being able to express yourself however you want,” Saint-vil said. “For a lot of people that present themselves in one way in everyday life, in drag they can present themselves in a completely different way, and they get in touch with another part of themselves.”