My conservative grandmother at a drag queen pageant


By Paul Karrer

First, I have to confess I have attended many drag queen performances. More on that later. Currently, the question which needs to be asked is which does more damage: the anti-drag law or drag performances? A bill passed in Tennessee effective April 1 (but it’s no joke) making “adult cabaret performances” in public or in the presence of children illegal, and bans them from occurring within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, or places of worship.

Those found violating the anti-drag law face misdemeanor charges in the first instance, punishable by a fine up to $2,500 and/or up to a year in jail. Those found for subsequent violations face a felony charge, punishable by up to six years in jail.

As of a month ago, at least 9 GOP-led state legislatures were pushing similar anti-drag bills.

For five years, my wife and I taught in Samoa and American Samoa. And every year we attended Samoas’ third-gender beauty pageants. Samoan culture is very (mostly) accepting of their Fa’afafines, or third-gender citizens. Fa’afafines means the way (fashion) of a woman. There are also Fa’afatamas – individuals who are born female but identify as males. It is a social and communal gender-fluid based status within the Samoan cultural context. Fa’afafines and Fa’afatamas, are not all transgender. Some Fa’afafines live their lives out as women, whereas others may choose to live as men with feminine attributes. Being Fa’afafine does not necessarily mean a person is gay, they consider themselves instead to be a third-gender. About 1-5% of Samoa’s 222,000 people identifies as Fa’afafine or Fa’afatama.

Every year in American Samoa, exceedingly close to the police station, a Fa’afafine beauty pageant took place. The same thing occurred in their major hotels in independent Samoa just over 130 miles away. I taught in both places; neither event was ever to be missed.

These pageants were regarded as major social events. Events which were advertised months ahead. Tickets were difficult to come by. Friends, family members, cousins, offspring, chieftains, priests, ministers and politicians attended. Each attendee came to support an individual or individuals. In my case, my school staff members supported our school librarian. She would have been at home as a linebacker, but she needed to be in the show. Also, far more entertaining, one year my 68-year-old white-haired grandmother visited.

A few words about my sweet grandmother. Grandma was a hard case to the max. The family whispered that she might have been a genetic cross between a pit bull and a brown recluse spider. Of course, this was whispered while glancing over one’s shoulders to make absolutely certain she did not hear the comment. She was rough-and-tumble, and few sentences were completed without profanity. I will not forget her favorite saying, “I’m too old of a dog to get screwed by a puppy.” Only she didn’t use screwed. To my shock, she said this to a tire salesman one time.

Due to my grandmother’s age we were given a front-row seat at the pageant. And better yet, my grandmother was chosen as an audience judge, one of three.

The contestants had to wear: a bathing suit, traditional Samoan clothing, western clothing and perform a traditional Samoan dance. My grandmother sat mouth agape, her fingers on both hands splayed over her wide-open eyes. “Oh, my goodness. My goodness, my goodness!” she declared as she watched everything from between those open fingers.

The contestants completed required tests and we enjoyed it. Highlight was when a Fa’afafine’s traditional skirt dropped to the stage floor. That revealed the contestant in a super tight pantyhose. It also revealed that the contestant was an exceedingly healthy male genetically. The place echoed with screams of delight, laughter, joy. People pounded the tables crying, some smashed their bottles on the floor. My grandmother kept on saying, “I’m gonna pee. I’m gonna pee.” She was not the only one.

We made lots of lifetime friends that night. Our school librarian did not win nor did the contestant who lost her skirt. Although my grandmother did cast her ballot for her. I have to say in the end those pageants were wonderful and healthy for all who attended.

To answer my initial question. I think the Tennessee law is an overreaction to something long accepted the world over. Transgender people are well represented in Thailand, all of Polynesia, and Native American communities to mention merely a few places. In our own Revolutionary War Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army disguised as a man using the alias Robert Shurtleff. She fought in several battles, including the siege of Yorktown, and was wounded multiple times.

I don’t think my poison-blooded grandmother’s opinions were much altered by this judging the pageant. But she had exposure – in more ways than one – to an entirely different way of life. And besides, she loved it. So, in the end for me, the law does far more damage than a dropped skirt does.

Paul Karrer taught in Samoa, Korea, England, Connecticut and California. He podcasts at Amazon Music and Spotify

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About Paul Karrer

A retired elementary school teacher, Paul Karrer’s writing has appeared in San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Monterey Herald. His podcast, “Teacher Tails,”  can be found at