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Why the GOP is going to war over military drag queens

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(The Hill) — The GOP backlash to a former Navy digital ambassador who performs as a drag queen highlights a growing focus for Republican lawmakers overseeing the military.

Even before Joshua Kelley was hammered for making Instagram videos under the drag queen name Harpy Daniels, Republicans held hearings on diversity programs at the Pentagon and blasted drag shows and LGBTQ events on military bases and naval ships.

The attacks on the Pentagon have alarmed LGBTQ and transgender rights groups, who are locked in similar culture wars across the country.

Barbara Simon, the head of news and campaigns at GLAAD, said the criticism of LGBTQ representation in the military was “part of a pattern of attacking trans people as an opportunity to engage the base” and to “confuse people with this information about who trans people are.”

“This is not about anything other than targeting trans people,” Simon said. “And because it’s something that a lot of people don’t understand, they’re taking advantage and exploiting people’s relative unfamiliarity with trans people in general — but trans people have always served in the military.”

The clash over transgender inclusion in the military took center stage in 2019 when former President Trump banned service members with “gender dysphoria,” who were taking hormones or had undergone a gender transition, from serving. 

That policy was reversed within the first week of President Biden taking office, and his administration has advanced efforts to prohibit transgender service member discrimination and ensure access to gender-affirming care. For the first time in 2021, transgender service members were allowed to serve openly.

Under Biden’s watch, the Pentagon has also more aggressively pursued diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and the Defense Department outlined an equity action plan last year.

The more robust DEI efforts have angered GOP lawmakers, who say it negatively impacts military readiness and hurts recruitment as nearly every military branch struggles with getting new servicemembers.

At a March House Armed Services hearing on DEI programs, which saw testimony from top officials at the Army, Air Force and Navy, Rep. Mark Alford (R-Mo.) said the focus on diversity was dividing America and making the country weaker.

“Does a future Chinese soldier holding a gun — or a Russian or Iranian target-trained on Americans — do they care what color he or she is?” he asked. “Does the enemy care what pronoun we are using when he or she is pointing a weapon at us?”

Each of the officials told the congressman that diversity made the armed forces stronger.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) made the argument more succinctly in a tweet earlier this month. 

“Our military has only one purpose, the defense of our country,” she wrote. “Our military needs to train men for war, not turn men into fake women.”

Katherine Kuzminski, a senior fellow and program director of the Military, Veterans & Society program at the Center for New American Security, said it was “unfair” for the GOP to attack the military’s lethality and fighting capabilities over diversity promotion.

“If what we’re afraid of is [Russian President] Vladimir Putin thinking poorly of our military readiness because we enable pronouns,” she said, “all we have to do is look at the outcomes on the battlefield that the Russian army is facing right now.”

However, Kuzminski said the “crossfire” over transgender and LGBTQ inclusion is “affecting overall perceptions of military service” and impacting recruitment, even if the individual servicemembers and DEI programs are not.

An annual survey from the Ronald Reagan Institute released in December found public trust in the military dropped to 45 percent in 2022, down from 70 percent five years ago. And 50 percent of Americans cited “woke” practices undermining military effectiveness as a reason for losing trust either a great deal or some.

Kuzminski advised military leaders to highlight the achievements of transgender and LGBTQ members, but refrain from making political statements or promoting high-profile events that may become politicized.

“This is where it’s up to military leadership to have the wisdom to navigate what will make their servicemembers become a political football and take a step back from that,” Kuzminski said. 

While military hearings in the Senate and House have frequently seen Republicans attack DEI efforts, none has garnered as much attention as the fight centered around Kelley.

Kelley, a non-commissioned naval officer and popular drag queen on Instagram and TikTok, was invited last year to participate in the Navy’s “Digital Ambassador” pilot program aiming to bolster recruitment efforts online.

Republican senators, reacting to an article in The Daily Caller, sent a letter to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toros earlier this month questioning the “promotion of social media influencers who post behaviors or activities many Americans deem inappropriate.”

“Where does the Navy draw the line on promotion of the personal activities of its influencers?” the senators wrote. “Would the Navy enlist burlesque or exotic dancers to reach possible recruits? Such activity is not appropriate for promotion in a professional workplace or the United States military.”

In an interview with NewsNation this week, Kelley said the Navy had reached out to a number of candidates for the program in the goal to reach a wide range of demographics.

“The military itself is one of the largest, diverse and adaptable organizations,” Kelley said. “I simply see it as the diversity we have because it makes us stronger.”

Kelley also said LGBTQ members have been reaching out about enlisting and that engagement has skyrocketed following the media clashes. 

In a statement, the U.S. Navy said the program concluded as scheduled in March and it was reviewing the program, but did not respond to a request for comment on the GOP criticisms.

“The Navy Digital Ambassador Program was a pilot program designed to explore the digital environment to engage communities and demographics outside the Navy’s traditional sphere of influence,” a spokesperson said.

Republicans are also concerned about the promotion of certain events, recently attacking a nonbinary naval officer after the service member read a poem during an LGBTQ-themed event on a naval ship. 

On social media, the naval officer, Audrey Knutson, expressed joy in taking part in the event, but Republicans referred to Knutson as selfish and distracting from the military’s mission. 

GOP congressional members have repeatedly discussed drag shows on military bases  during hearings, on social media or other commentary.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) expressed outrage in an op-ed on Fox News this month over drag shows at military bases in Montana, Virginia and Nevada. The 2021 event at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana reportedly included a drag queen story hour for children, events that have provoked particular ire among conservatives across the nation.

“Radical activists and their allies in the Biden administration seek to stifle viewpoints that run contrary to their own — regardless of the cost,” the senator wrote. “They seem to define diversity as everybody looking very different, but forced to sing from the same woke hymnal. Their actions are actually extremely disrespectful toward Americans who volunteer to serve their country.”

Daines has introduced legislation to ban drag shows and “adult cabaret” performances on military bases, with co-sponsors from Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ted Budd (R-N.C.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla), though it stands little chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled upper chamber.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a House Armed Services hearing in March that drag shows are not something the Pentagon funds. 

Base commanders generally have the discretion to manage recreational activities on site and not all of them are directly organized and funded by the military. 

Drag shows, however, are nothing new and have been associated with the U.S. military going back to the 19th Century. 

In World War II, soldiers dressed up as females for performances to provide entertainment.

David Stacy, the government affairs director at LGBTQ-rights group Human Rights Campaign, said the “idea that drag performances are harmful has no basis in research and fact.”

“Nobody’s being forced to participate in these activities. This is something that people are voluntarily able to do,” Stacy said. “There’s all sorts of entertainment on a military base [and] all kinds of ideological viewpoints are represented in our military.”

“There’s not one viewpoint that servicemembers have,” Stacy continued. “They come from all walks of life.”

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