Culture is fashion, and fashion is arbitrary; or, why a man isn't less of a man if he's wearing a dress.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Here’s a cute idea with a message of tolerance: Drag Queen Story Hour. It’s an organization that sends colorfully costumed drag performers to read books to kids in schools, libraries, bookstores and other community spaces in cities across the country. As their website says:

DQSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real.

Predictably, this has become the latest football in our perpetual culture war.

In San Francisco, a mob of thugs burst into a library where one was taking place, yelling slurs and threats. It seems not to have crossed their minds that they were the ones terrifying the children and parents they were supposedly there to protect.

Right here in Queens, in my backyard, city council member Vicky Paladino called the events “degeneracy” and “gender confusion”, and threatened to withhold funding from schools that hold similar events (this is not a power she actually has).

What strikes me is that all this appears to be sound and fury without much substance. The conservatives who object to Drag Queen Story Hour treat it as self-evident that it’s objectionable. However, I believe that few, if any, would be able to articulate what exactly their objection is.

When you boil it down, it’s just a colorfully costumed performer entertaining children. How is this any different, really, from hiring a mermaid or a princess for a kids’ party?

The most common objection, I’d bet, would be something along the lines of what Paladino said, that it will “confuse” children. But let’s be careful to clarify our terms. It will confuse them about what?

Will it sow confusion in their minds about what men and women are supposed to look like or what they’re supposed to wear? Well, who says what men or women are supposed to look like or wear?

It’s a serious question. Scottish men are known for wearing kilts on formal occasions. Ancient Roman men wore togas, and ancient Greek men wore chitons. In modern terminology, we might call these garments “skirts” and “dresses”.

Is this also inherently sexual, or dangerously confusing for children? If not, why not? If so, why aren’t the people who object to Drag Queen Story Hour also agitating to ban Scotland, Greece and Rome from history and geography classes?

Who makes the rules of culture?

A standard conservative reply to this question is that it doesn’t outrage decency when Scotsmen wear kilts or when Romans wore togas, because every culture has its own norms for gender. Those dress choices were and are accepted clothing for men in those cultures; whereas drag queens seek to transgress our culture’s gender norms, not conform to them.

This is fair enough, but it leads to another question: Who decides what the correct clothing is for men of a given culture? Who set down those rules, when, and why?

I’m not asking for specific names or dates. That would be unreasonable. But if these norms are of such grave importance, it’s fair to ask how they become established—and what causes them to change. Because they do change.

Who decides what the correct clothing is for men of a given culture? Who set down those rules, when, and why?

Roman men used to wear togas, but now Italian men wear pants. How did that happen? Did that change promote gender confusion or sexual degeneracy among Italian boys?

Medieval Europe used to have sumptuary laws restricting what fabrics and colors people could wear, depending on their social class. Did the repeal of those laws unleash chaos and anarchy?

Our own, God-ordained, Judeo-Christian culture isn’t static either. It used to be improper for men to go outside hatless, or for women not to wear corsets. Again, who or what caused those cultural norms to shift?

Culture is arbitrary, and that’s okay

The obvious answer, which I have no problem with but which conservative readers might dislike, is that culture is arbitrary. Culture is fashion.

It arises from a chaotic mix of imitation (do what the popular kids are doing), remix (take someone else’s idea and put your own spin on it), and nonconformity (shock the crowd by daring to be different). These different impulses push and pull on each other, blending into an unpredictable result.

Culture is specifically those customs and values which aren’t universal to humans and which could have been otherwise. For example, it’s not a cultural choice for Inuit or Alaska Native people to wear thick, warm clothing. It’s simply a necessity of survival for living in Arctic weather. However, the specific colors, patterns and styles of that clothing are cultural markers, because they can vary without impeding its function.

If this is the case, then there can’t be any harm in subverting, challenging, or playing with cultural norms that aren’t essential to survival. If these traditions are arbitrary fashion choices, then one set of them is as good as any other. Just as there’s no one objectively correct style of dance or painting or music, it follows that there’s no single, objectively correct way to act or look or dress in order to be a man or a woman.

RELATED: The shape of prejudice

In the conservative worldview, a man is supposed to be a protector and provider for his family. Granting this for the sake of argument, it’s obvious that clothing has no effect on his ability to serve these roles.

Again, the ancient Scots, Romans and Greeks, who lived off the land and went to war often, had no problem doing these things in garb that our culture might consider feminine. If this didn’t impair their masculinity because those clothes were part of their culture… then that just goes to show that culture is arbitrary, that it can vary without affecting survival, and that gender isn’t determined by your outward appearance. A man isn’t any less of a man because he’s wearing a dress.

There’s one more point to address: that drag is inherently sexual, which makes it inappropriate for children. In response, I’d propose this simple logic: if it’s inherently sexual for men to wear these clothes, then it must also be inherently sexual for women to wear the same clothes. Sex is sex, after all.

So, should we outlaw ballgowns, high heels and makeup—or confine them to 18-and-up events, with bouncers at the door checking IDs? Should we pass new sumptuary laws forcing everyone to wear shapeless gray smocks in public, to protect our impressionable kids?

If you were living through a cultural shift, how would you know?

We’ve established that gender roles and other cultural norms are arbitrary fashions, that they vary across cultures, and that they can change within a culture over time. Now the third and most important question: If one of these changes was happening around you, how would you be able to tell? What would it look like?

Does cultural change happen smoothly, uncontroversially, and only when everyone agrees on it? Obviously not. Those conditions have never been met in any culture across history.

A more realistic view is that cultural change is turbulent. It often begins with the young, who are more rebellious and less tradition-bound. And it always arouses indignation from stodgy elders. Flappers, beatniks, punks: all these cultural movements and others met with resistance, scorn, and sometimes outright hate. (And, please note, all of them were also political as well as aesthetic.)

This pattern is repeating in our time. Among Millennials, 1 in 10 people self-identify as LGBTQ, and among Gen Z, it’s 1 in 5. Clearly, younger generations are more willing to question the old assumptions of sex and gender, or to reject them entirely.

Knee-jerk morality is no morality at all.

Drag Queen Story Hour and other events like it are what it looks like for this ethic to play out. They’re the leading edge of a cultural shift which holds that it’s OK to be gay or transgender or non-binary or queer, that diversity is a good and desirable thing, and that overly rigid gender roles and expectations serve no one.

The counter-reaction to this change is the same as the counter-reaction to every cultural change: the old guard tries to double down and reassert that the ways they’re used to are best. What this is, at its core, is a reflexive fear of difference. It assumes that if a tradition has existed for a long time, it must be a good one. That may be true for some traditions, but surely not all of them—and the only way to sort the useful ones from the harmful ones is to challenge them. Which is what’s happening.

Natural-born categorizers

Humans are natural-born categorizers. We like to fit everything into neat little boxes. It’s a shortcut to understanding that our brains take whenever possible. But an ugly side effect is that a sight which transgresses our categories triggers the part of our brain that fears outsiders and enemies.

It’s this knee-jerk sense of revulsion—this is wrong because they’re breaking the rules I’m used to!—that’s really behind most of the opposition to Drag Queen Story Hour. It’s a powerful emotional response, not a rational one, which is why so few of the outraged conservatives can state in clear words what’s making them upset.

But knee-jerk morality is no morality at all. What we find normal, versus what we find shocking or transgressive, is only a matter of culture. And as we’ve established, culture is fashion, and fashion is arbitrary. The shifting tides of fashion can’t be the basis of a moral stance.

We would all be better off if more of us could get past knee-jerk reactions of unfamiliarity and dislike and ask why it’s a problem for people to do what they like with their own bodies. Our ethical principles need to be built on rational principles consistently applied, not conjured from the rumblings of the gut. If your values are built on a solid foundation—if they’re robust enough to withstand a challenge—then you shouldn’t fear exposure to different ideas. It’s only the house built on sand that collapses at the first stiff breeze.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...