Last week, a video posted by “LibsofTikTok” went viral, putting the sleepy mountain town of Hazard, Kentucky in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The video depicted female students wearing Hooters uniforms while male students, dressed in wigs and lingerie, performed a mock striptease for teachers before giving several of them lap dances. “Inappropriate” does not begin to cover it.
Like any decent person, I was both horrified and infuriated by these images. The girls and boys in these images are just that: girls and boys. Children. That an event like this — they call it a “Man Pageant” and apparently, it’s a tradition — would be allowed to happen is indication of serious cultural and institutional rot in Hazard schools, and it has been rightly condemned across social media.
I know Hazard very well. I grew up in the next county over. Hazard offered the nearest McDonald’s, cinema, and access to medical care. In high school, we’d spend hours cruising downtown or playing hide-and-seek in the clothes racks of the Walmart. One thing we never did, though, was give lap dances to teachers.
This is clearly a case of adults exploiting, sexualizing, and objectifying minors. It is morally repugnant and ethically unforgivable. What it is not is an example of the left coming for your kids, no matter how much the right insists. Quite the opposite. The point of the “Man Pageant” is not to indoctrinate children into homosexuality or progressivism, but to buttress patriarchy and reinforce traditional gender roles while mocking same-sex attraction.
LibsofTikTok — the user that first disseminated these images — lamented that “[t]hese schools aren’t even trying to hide their agenda anymore.” Just what that agenda is was made clear by others on the right. Trumpian gadfly Dinesh D’Souza falsely claimed the assembly was a “drag pageant.” Far-right website Townhall, however, made it even clearer. “Support Townhall in the fight against the progressive, anti-American, woke agenda,” they implored readers in an editor’s note affixed to their coverage of the story.
Nothing about the Hazard I know is “progressive” or “woke.” Earlier this year I wrote about my own experiences as a gay student in the area. “High school was a daily crucible of homophobia,” I reflected. “Every time I walked down the hallway, slurs like ‘f*g’ were hurled at me.”
I experienced the worst of American homophobia walking the halls of Hazard’s rival, Leslie County High School. While I hope things have gotten marginally better for gay kids in Eastern Kentucky, I have no reason to believe that the extremely conservative community I left behind is now “woke.” More than 75 percent of Perry County, of which Hazard is the seat, voted for Donald Trump in 2020.
I bring this up because it is disingenuous at best for folks like D’Souza and whoever is behind the LibsofTikTok account to claim what happened at Hazard High School is the woke left run amok. There is nothing woke nor left about Hazard, Kentucky. Rather, what I saw in those images was conservative to its core.
The supposed humor of the “Man Pageant” derives from homophobia and misogyny. If you listen to the videos, you’ll hear the rip-roarious laughter of the crowd as the “feminized” boys gyrate and spank the male teachers. The joke here is that these boys are, firstly, performing a hypersexual, submissive role conservative patriarchy assigns to women (reinforced by the girls in the Hooters uniforms) and, secondly, simulating same-sex attraction.
By temporarily upending gender norms and mocking homosexuality as a joke, the “Man Pageant” reinforces the notion that men who step outside what sociologist Paul Kivel calls the “act like a man box” are weak and emasculated. The joke lies in the belief that being sexually objectified, wearing revealing clothing, and performing for the pleasure of men is a woman’s role.
Men, patriarchy holds, cannot be objectified or exploited unless they allow themselves to be. Any man who might choose to do so — say, a gay man who is by definition attracted to other men so must also be sexually accessible to men — is worth of derision and not to be taken seriously. Gender non-conforming men, especially gay men, are objects of ridicule. The “Man Pageant” serves to reinforce this.
Had I expressed myself by wearing a dress — not lingerie, as these boys did, but just a simple long, modest dress — I would have been beaten up and sent home from school. My own principal blamed me for the bullying I received because I did not keep my “sexual preference” to myself. Simply existing as an openly gay man was enough to make my life a living hell.
I stepped outside the “act like a man box,” and the same culture that now defends the “Man Pageant” made sure I paid the price for it. But the price paid by some boys is even higher. One in six men have been sexually abused or assaulted. The “Man Pageant” further stigmatizes these men by making sexual exploitation of boys into a joke, something to be laughed at and mocked.
These vulnerable boys — and I cannot stress that enough; they are boys, just children — are taught through events like this that their abuse is something they chose, or at the very least something they should be ashamed of. By dressing these boys up in stereotypically feminine attire, the “Man Pageant” reinforces the patriarchal belief that no “real man” allows himself to be sexually exploited. Only “sissies” do that.
As for women, well, the “Man Pageant” simultaneously serves as a reminder that under patriarchy, women are to be sexually available to men. They are objects for male sexual gratification. It is why the stereotypically female attire is chosen: no such provocative equivalent exists for men, not even jock straps or Speedos which, though revealing, are not viewed as sexual by mainstream society. The girls were dressed as Hooters servers, reminding everyone of the patriarchal view that women are meant to serve men.
All of this is important to consider when encountering arguments from the right that what happened in Hazard is a product of an out of control “woke” mob coming for your kids. Aside from the fact that, according to locals defending the “Man Pageant”, this is a tradition (meaning it likely predates the current conservative classroom culture war), it is a fundamentally conservative, homophobic, and misogynist event.
Most importantly, though, it is an example of vulnerable boys and girls being exploited by adults in a position of authority. Whether, as the school claims, the students organized the event themselves or not is irrelevant. No one put a stop to it once it began, and that is a massive red flag. These adults stood by and allowed for the exploitation of children. Regardless of politics, that is abhorrent.