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Texas Parents Are Flipping Out Over Cross-Gender Casting in Children’s Theatre Production

A row of young actors sit on the edge of a stage in various costumes, seen from the waist down.

For the better part of history, theatre has been lewd and gay. Shakespeare himself was a fan of cross-dressing and the singular they pronoun. Nevertheless, ignorant people will continue to attempt to straight-wash theatre, and theatre will put on a play making fun of them for it. It’s why theatre exists, as an outpouring of rebellious, challenging, and often queer ideas.

Apparently that ain’t gonna fly in Texas .

A Texas school district recently canceled a scheduled class field trip after parents found out that the play featured cross-gendered casting. According to the Houston Chronicle, the district deemed the play to not be “age appropriate”, despite being a production for children. If you don’t know the plot of James and the Giant Peach, I mourn your squandered childhood. The Roald Dahl book (which was adapted into a film in 1996 and later into a stage musical) is essentially a story about a young boy named James who crawls inside a giant peach and befriends some polite anthropomorphized insects that have made a cozy home inside the fruit. Besides featuring a triumph of interior decoration, there is nothing gay about this play. The complaint that these parents have is that the 19 characters that are featured in this play will be played by seven actors, and some of those actors will need to play a gender opposite their own for the production to work.

Their complaint comes amid a floodtide of anti-trans rhetoric that this is flowing across the United States. Many states have passed laws that ban drag performances outright in public spaces, and opponents of these bills fear that this legislation will be used to unfairly criminalize trans people.

Apparently one of the actors in James in the Giant Peach is also—separate from this production—a drag performer. As you might guess, these parents are handling that news in a less than totally chill and normal way. (Among their multiple roles spanning various genders, that same actor also plays a glowworm. Why is no one freaking out about that?)

A series of Instagram posts by an account laughably calling itself “Houston Kids First” condemned the play, and featured quotes from outraged (and grammatically confused) parents. One screenshot shows texts reading “We (along with many) are keeping our son home tomorrow but a lot of parents are asking me about the drag queens [sic] role in the show. I understand he is in every show and is a main character but do you know is he playing a guy or a girl? Like is he in drag for thr [sic] performance?!”

The account then went on to accuse the theater company of grooming children in another post. The account owner wrote “The theatre can’t define what a drag is and says he’s not in drag at the show. Then why is he dressing as a woman? That’s drag to me.” Dear account owner, if you’re looking for the definition of what “drag” is, it’s you. You’re a drag.

Main Street Theater, the organization staging the production, was quick to defend the play in a statement to The Guardian. “At Main Street Theater, we have produced plays for adults for 48 years and plays for children, families and school groups based on children’s literature for over 43 years. James and the Giant Peach (which we have performed several times over the years) is no different from any other production we’ve done over the years. We are true to the script which is true to the book on which it is based.”

“In our productions, as in theater across the world (and especially in plays based on books), there are sometimes so many characters that we regularly have actors playing multiple roles … So actors play all kinds of roles on a regular basis: male, female, insects, animals, and more. Again, this has been done since the creation of the art form of theater, and this is how theater remains to this day”.

What is baffling to me of course, is that conservative Americans have been fooled into thinking that drag is not an American pastime. It is. Remember when Johnny Cash and Elton John swapped outfits during their appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1982? If a Texan and devout Christian like The Man In Black can do it, why can’t this theater company? Or what about American soldiers? They’ve been doing drag shows since the 1800s. If the troops can do it, why not this theater company? Or what about the Texas Republican Senator Bill Lee who dressed in drag alongside his entire high school? If our politicians can do it, why not this theater company?

Because Republicans want to scare people into voting for them, and they’ve decided queer people are the perfect target for that fear.

(featured image: Adam Taylor/Getty Images)

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Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels in crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.