GOP senators question drag queens in Navy outreach effort

Fourteen Republican senators are asking the U.S. Navy to respond to questions concerning reports that it used a TikTok drag queen to help reach potential recruits on social media.

“While we understand the importance of social media for modern recruiting, we are concerned about both the promotion of a banned app and behavior that many deem inappropriate in a professional workplace,” the senators wrote Wednesday in a letter addressed to U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

Wednesday’s letter was sent in response to recent reporting from conservative news site The Daily Caller that Joshua Kelley, a non-commissioned naval officer and drag queen, was invited to participate in the Navy’s “Digital Ambassador” pilot program last year to reach a broader audience amid recruitment challenges.

The pilot program, “designed to explore the digital environment to reach a wide range of potential candidates,” according to The Daily Caller, ran from October to March.

Kelley, better known by their stage name Harpy Daniels, announced their acceptance to the program in a video posted to TikTok and Instagram in November.

“From joining [in] 2016 and being able to share my drag experience on my off time with my fellow sailors has been a blessing,” Kelley wrote of their time in the Navy in the video’s Instagram caption. “This experience has brought me so much strength, courage and ambition to continue being an advocate and representation of queer sailors!”

Senators in Wednesday’s letter wrote that while they understand the need to reach broadly across the eligible population to improve recruiting outcomes, “we question promotion of social media influencers who post behaviors or activities many Americans deem inappropriate.”

The letter references a passage in the Navy’s 2019 social media handbook, which instructs sailors to “assume any content they post may affect their personal careers and the reputation of the Navy more broadly.”

“This begs the question whether the Navy endorses the personal posts of its influencers and ‘ambassadors,’” the senators wrote. “If so, does the Navy endorse drag shows?”

“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.”

Senators in Wednesday’s letter wrote that it is their “responsibility to conduct oversight and to determine potential legislative responses to the Navy’s recruiting crisis and its Digital Ambassador program.”

The letter asks for information related to the status of the pilot program, as well as the amount of federal funding spent on it and whether participants were compensated or offered special incentives. 

Senators also question whether Navy Digital Ambassadors or public affairs officers have been using TikTok on their personal devices in order to get around a congressionally mandated ban of TikTok on Defense Department devices.

“At a time when our nation’s military is facing a recruiting crisis, it is as important as ever to reach broader swaths of the eligible population — but not at the cost of privacy, security, or professionalism,” the senators wrote.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said the Navy’s Digital Ambassador pilot program was an outreach initiative, not a recruiting effort.

Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures across the country this year have targeted drag shows and performers with rhetoric characterizing them as being sexually explicit and inappropriate for young people. In a campaign ad last year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the signatories of Wednesday’s letter to Del Toro, accused the “radical left” of indoctrinating children over footage of a drag queen story hour at a California library.

Drag events across the country this year have faced increased protests and threats of violence, often by individuals affiliated with right-wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys. At least 166 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeted against drag events have been recorded since early last year by GLAAD, a national LGBTQ media advocacy organization.

In Ohio last month, a member of a pro-Nazi group was charged with arson after he threw Molotov cocktails at a church planning to host a drag event “in an attempt to burn the church to the ground,” according to the Justice Department.

This year has also included a record-high amount of legislation targeting drag shows and LGBTQ rights, with dozens of state bills introduced by Republican lawmakers seeking to crack down on performances.

In March, Tennessee became the first state to enact a law restricting drag shows, criminalizing certain performances that take place in public or where they could be seen by a minor. A federal judge last month temporarily blocked the law from taking effect.

Tags Carlos Del Toro drag shows Marco Rubio Navy

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