Michigan’s Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel said she was joking when she said in a June speech that there should be “a drag queen for every school.”
During the speech, Nessel talked about her frustration with politicians who focus on “wedge issues” that “divide us,” such as whether children should attend events with drag performers.
But a TV ad from a super PAC supporting Republican Tudor Dixon is using a version of Nessel’s quote out of context in a misleading attack against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who Dixon is challenging in the state’s gubernatorial election.
“Under Gretchen Whitmer, the radicals want a drag queen in every classroom, indoctrinating our children,” says the narrator of the ad, which began airing Sept. 27, according to Kantar Media. However, that is not a proposal being pushed by Whitmer, and Nessel has said that she was not being serious when she made her statement earlier this year.
The ad from Michigan Families United also claims that Whitmer “stands with radical activists pushing sex and gender theory,” while a graphic says that Whitmer is “allowing boys to compete with girls” — referring to transgender female student-athletes as “boys.” Whitmer is opposed to legislation she considers to be “anti-trans,” including a bill Republican state senators introduced in 2021 to restrict a student’s participation in team sports based on the sex they were assigned at birth.
Years prior to Whitmer taking office, the Michigan Board of Education recommended that school districts statewide allow students “to participate in interscholastic sports in accordance with their gender identity.” Also, for years, the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which counts over 1,500 secondary schools as members, has permitted transgender girls to compete in sports for females on a “case-by-case basis.”
Drag Queens Joke
To support the claim that “radicals” in the state “want a drag queen in every classroom,” the commercial, which uses images of Whitmer and Nessel, cites the Detroit News. The ad’s citation refers to a June 15 article that carried a headline that said Nessel was joking about putting drag queens in schools.
“AG Dana Nessel jokes ‘a drag queen for every school,’ attacks ‘fake issues,’” the headline reads. The newspaper reported that Nessel, who is openly gay, made those remarks at a Michigan Department of Civil Rights summit.
“I am so tired of having prominent members of our state government create wedge issues that don’t help us, that don’t heal us but divide us, and that’s all they do,” she said, according to an audio clip of part of her speech. “You know what’s not a problem for kids who are seeking a good education? Drag queens, okay.”
Republican lawmakers in Michigan and other states have put forward bills that seek to bar children from attending drag shows and prohibit drag performers from participating in activities, such as Drag Queen Story Hour, where people in drag read to kids.
“Let me say this, drag queens, not only are they not hurting our kids, drag queens make everything better,” Nessel continued, drawing laughs from people in attendance. “Drag queens are fun. Drag queens are entertaining.”
“And you know what I’ll say that was totally not poll tested, I say this: A drag queen for every school,” she said, evoking more laughter from the audience. “That is what would be fine for kids, and lift them up when they are having emotional issues. But I am just so sick and tired of having marginalized minority members of our community and our state be used as target practice.”
Dixon, who was not amused, responded to Nessel’s speech on Twitter.
“Attorney General Dana Nessel ‘proudly’ announced she is coming for our kids,” Dixon wrote in a June 15 post on the social media platform. “When I am governor, schools will answer to local parents, not progressive activists, drag queens, and trans-supremacists. The days of radical activist politicians sexualizing our kids are over.”
In a tweet responding to Dixon’s critique, Nessel said that the GOP nominee for governor had missed the joke.
“This is the most humorless take imaginable on a comment made in jest,” Nessel wrote. “I expect more from the star of Buddy BeBop vs the Living Dead,” a reference to a 2009 comedy-horror film in which Dixon appeared.
Michigan Families United argued that the state attorney general was not joking.
“Full context of Nessel’s statements make it clear she wasn’t joking about drag queens in the classroom,” Ryan Smith, a spokesperson for the group, said in an email to FactCheck.org. Smith said that Nessel also said in her June remarks that the staffer who wrote the speech asked her not to mention drag queens. That “indicat[es] this is a policy Nessel has seriously considered with her staff,” Smith said.
But Nessel’s remarks are not evidence it was discussed by her office as an actual policy.
In an interview with MLive in July, Nessel again said she was not proposing to have drag queens in all schools.
“I think it speaks to how little they have in the way of their own policies and how little they have to come at me with, if they’re going to use something that was clearly intended as a joke and was obviously not some sort of a policy declaration,” the news outlet quoted her saying. “To present that to the public as though it is, I think that’s misinformation and it’s disinformation.”
So Whitmer has no proposal to have “a drag queen in every classroom,” and Nessel, who did say something along those lines, has said that her comment was intended only to be humorous.
In the ad, both Dixon and the narrator also say that Whitmer “stands with radical activists pushing sex and gender theory” on children. A graphic shown on screen says that Whitmer is “allowing boys to compete with girls” — with “boys” being a reference to transgender girls. The ad also features an image of Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who swam for the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s team.
Whitmer’s office has issued an LGBTQ+ policy document that says she opposes and intends to veto “any anti-trans legislation” that reaches her desk, including Senate Bill 218, which Republican state lawmakers in Michigan introduced last year to prohibit transgender girls and boys from participating in team sports designated for biological girls and boys, respectively.
Even before Whitmer was governor, some Michigan schools allowed transgender girls to compete against girls and transgender boys to compete against boys.
In September 2016, over two years before Whitmer took office in January 2019, the Michigan Board of Education voted to approve voluntary guidelines recommending that school districts statewide generally allow students “to participate in interscholastic sports in accordance with their gender identity,” meaning that individual’s own sense of their gender.
Members of the board are elected at large and serve 8-year terms.
In addition, the Michigan High School Athletic Association has an almost 10-year-old policy that considers eligibility for transgender female athletes on a “case-by-case basis.”
The MHSAA is a private, nonprofit corporation that develops rules and requirements for athletic competition. Its policies apply to its voluntary members, including more than 1,500 of the state’s public and private high schools, junior high schools and middle schools.
“The MHSAA does not prohibit girls from participating on boys teams,” says the eligibility policy that MHSAA’s communications director, Geoff Kimmerly, emailed to FactCheck.org. “Therefore, the MHSAA will not be involved in matters involving trans male (female to male) student-athletes.”
Transgender girls receive more scrutiny.
“When questions arise involving trans female (male to female) student-athletes, the MHSAA executive director will determine eligibility for MHSAA tournaments on a case-by-case basis,” according to the policy, which Kimmerly said has been in place since 2012.
The determination process involves a review of the student’s gender identification on school and medical records. It also factors in whether the student has undergone testosterone suppression therapy or gender reassignment surgery.
“We’ve said all along that there is no need to legislate this,” Kimmerly told us in a phone interview, in which he explained the MHSAA’s opposition to bills such as SB 218. “Our policy works for our schools and they’re happy with it,” he said.
Over the last five years, the MHSAA received 11 requests from transgender females who wanted to play on female sports teams, Kimmerly told us. He said it was just seven students who made the requests, since some students made requests for multiple school years.
In all cases, the requests were granted, he said.