22 May 2024
0 11 mins 1 mth

The Smithsonian Institution has canceled events featuring a drag performer and conducted an “audit” of past drag programming, following a December congressional hearing in which Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III told representatives that he didn’t think it was appropriate to “expose children to drag shows.”

Proposed collaborations between the Smithsonian and environmentalist and drag artist Pattie Gonia were canceled or postponed three times, in December, January and March, according to Gonia and emails reviewed by The Washington Post. A Smithsonian spokesperson said that this was a result of “budgetary constraints and other resource issues.”

The Smithsonian had three events involving drag in 2023, the institution said, and museums are still developing programming for this year’s National Pride Month in June. Drag artists have routinely been involved in the institution’s Pride programs since Bunch assumed the role of secretary in 2019.

Internal emails obtained by The Post show some employees concerned over potential censorship, and an institution sometimes drawn into public controversies despite its best efforts to avoid them. Some Smithsonian staff said Bunch’s comments, responding to questions from Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), left them fearful of future removal of LGBTQ+ voices and programming at the organization, according to the emails and interviews with current employees.

“I, along with all senior leaders, take seriously the concerns expressed by staff and will continue to do so,” said Bunch in a statement. “As we have reiterated, LGBTQ+ content is welcome at the Smithsonian.”

Since Bunch’s congressional appearance, two employee groups have emailed him expressing fears about the future of such programming. Bunch said he planned to meet with leaders of one of the groups, the Smithsonian Pride Alliance, in an email to them on Friday.

On Jan. 2, Bunch told the Pride Alliance leadership team that Bice’s line of questioning in the hearing was “asked in a suggestive way,” and his response was “to immediately stress that the Smithsonian does not expose children to inappropriate content.” He added that he was “committed to coming together to find understanding and bring hope through our work.”

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Bunch commended the team’s “courageous outreach” and wrote that he has “always stood as an ally to the LGBTQIA+ communities.”

“Unfortunately, as you can imagine, a hearing setting does not give you ample time to expand,” Bunch wrote. “If so, it would have given me the opportunity to speak more broadly about the merits and goals of our programming and content development and how we equip parents to make choices about what content their children experience.”

“Above all, the comments hurt staff,” the four-person team wrote back on Jan. 5. “It hurt the staff who work hard on these programs and the staff who feel as though our bit of culture is being left out of the American story, despite contributing so very much to it.”

The group said that attacks on drag often feel like a “thinly veiled” attack on the larger LGBTQ+ community.

The Smithsonian Institution is staffed by federal employees, has congressional oversight and receives more than $1 billion in federal money annually, but is not a government agency. The nonprofit institution spans 21 museums, research facilities and the National Zoo, and describes itself as the world’s largest “museum, education, and research complex.”

The cancellation of drag events after the hearing was first reported by the New Republic. Despite its mission to be bipartisan, the Smithsonian Institution is sometimes pulled into political debate — and occasionally has changed course amid external pressure.

Perhaps most controversially, then–Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough in 2010 removed a video by artist David Wojnarowicz — which contained a scene of ants crawling over a crucifix — from an art exhibition after Republican politicians threatened to cut the institution’s budget. More recently, in March, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino settled a lawsuit from a conservative activist over its internship program.

Last year, shortly before the Smithsonian’s Asian American Literature Festival was unexpectedly canceled, staff had flagged four programs that might be controversial, including two with LGBTQ+ themes (the Smithsonian said the content review was not related to the festival’s cancellation).

Now, the institution has been drawn into a raging partisan debate on drag events.

At the hearing on Dec. 12, Bice asked Bunch about the institution’s events that included performers in drag.

Bice told Bunch that the Smithsonian hosted six drag events over the past three years — citing Pride Month events including a virtual storytelling and a virtual art bingo night as open to children — before asking him, in “what culture is exposing children to overly sexual material appropriate?”

“I think it’s not appropriate to expose children to drag shows,” Bunch said. “I’m surprised and I will look into that.”

She shifted her focus to a June 2023 event for New York Pride that featured four Indigenous drag artists. Bunch said the event was not geared toward children. “Even if it’s not to children,” she said, “why are we talking about that issue?”

“That is a small part of whatever we do, and the reality is that the Smithsonian is trying to make sure that it embraces the totality of who we are as Americans,” Bunch said, “but this is not a major part of what we do at all.”

In 2023, the country saw a wave of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ Americans, including more anti-trans bills introduced in a four-month period than in the past four years combined. The ACLU has tracked 21 bills in the 2024 state legislative session that it says are aimed at drag performance.

Gonia was initially invited to be featured in an Orchid Festival at the National Portrait Gallery and a complimentary environmental study day. On Dec. 21, she was told by staff that the Orchid Festival had been canceled after a major partner dropped out.

In a January email, Smithsonian staff wrote they had canceled the study day because staff “didn’t have the time or resources to put together a program that met our standards.”

In March, Gonia was told a proposed social media collaboration with the institution was being put on hold.

Gonia, known offstage as Wyn Wiley, is a climate activist and one of the founders of the Outdoorist Oath, an educational climate nonprofit, and in 2021 was a guest at the Smithsonian’s “Futures Remixed” festival, appearing onstage next to Bunch, actor Kal Penn and ballroom pioneer Jack Mizrahi.

“Bunch’s testimony does wrong by all of Smithsonian’s queer employees, current and future queer partners,” Gonia told The Post. “People dream of working for the Smithsonian and it’s been a safe space and place for joy for so many queer employees.”

Ruth Allen Ginsburg, a drag performer from Southern Maryland, partnered with the Smithsonian for storytelling events between 2020 and 2022. She wasn’t surprised to hear that Smithsonian drag events had been called into question, but she was surprised to hear her name mentioned by Bice.

“Congratulations, you are officially in the congressional record,” a friend texted her.

Ginsburg, 28, said that she had always loved working with the Smithsonian but that the testimony was “disheartening.”

Overall, she urged “grace” for Bunch, the Smithsonian and anyone trying to have a “real conversation.” Ginsburg said she doesn’t “harbor hate” for any of drag’s critics, and hopes “no one else does either.”

“All I want to give them is an open door to say like, welcome to our world,” she said.

On Jan. 22, Undersecretary Kevin Gover’s executive assistant emailed museum directors asking for information on their drag show programming over the past three years.

Following the “recent visit to the hill” by the secretary, the Smithsonian had been asked follow-up questions, known as questions for the record, and to provide context to the institution’s Office of Government Relations, his assistant wrote. Gover was posing the same questions the institution received to Smithsonian leaders, in order to provide a complete response.

Some employees began calling Gover’s request a “drag audit,” and again sent concerned emails to Smithsonian leadership. Leading the discussion was the Smithsonian Pride Alliance, which describes itself as the oldest LGBTQ+ resource group in the federal government, having formed in 1988 during the AIDS epidemic. The Smithsonian’s Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, Inclusion (DEAI) Collective also emailed the secretary in April supporting the Pride Alliance’s concerns.

Representatives for the Smithsonian Pride Alliance and DEAI Collective reached for this article declined to comment.

One member of the Smithsonian Pride Alliance, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation by the institution, said that they viewed the cancellation of drag events as “censorship” directly resulting from the hearing.

“Queer employees and allies don’t know how to proceed. Drag is an integral part of the LGBTQ story,” said the employee, who has worked at the Smithsonian for nearly a decade. “Staff don’t know what to do.”

Again, I take seriously concerns expressed by staff and will continue to do so,” Bunch said in a statement to The Post. “I am committed to ensuring that all staff can thrive in a safe, welcoming, and equitable environment.”

In 2025, Washington will host WorldPride, to mark the 50th anniversary of Pride celebrations in the capital.

DEAI Collective leaders noted the significance of WorldPride, and the upcoming celebration of the country’s 250th anniversary, in an email to Bunch.

“As we prepare for the 250th, we have an opportunity to educate the nation on the range of human expression in the pursuit of happiness,” they wrote, signing the email “yours in Smithsonian solidarity.”

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

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