At Joint Base Lewis-McChord's air show just outside of Tacoma, Washington, this past weekend, onlookers and families saw tactical military jets, high-performance sports cars and risqué models dancing on stage in skintight red,white and blue bikinis, part of what organizers described as a "way to thank the Puget Sound community."
Instagram was flooded with pictures and videos of the models alongside sports cars, on the runway posing in front of cargo planes and in front of hot rods parked inside a hangar. Two dancers were also featured wearing revealing flight suits while dancing on stage. It was all featured in the Air Force's air show event at the base, which was open to the public, with the dancers representing an entertainment company called Hot Import Nights.
In the midst of ongoing controversy over a Pentagon decision to limit drag shows on bases after some critics complained of alleged adult content, the models and the racy musical performances over the weekend raised questions from LGBTQ+ advocates about what criteria Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is using to stop some performances associated with the gay community while allowing other provocative acts.
Austin ordered two drag shows canceled in June during Pride Month, which is typically a time that the military celebrates LGBTQ+ diversity. The decisions were made after Austin was criticized during a congressional hearing in March over the military in rare instances allowing drag shows, which have become the political target of Republicans.
Following the canceled events, the Department of Defense has not yet clarified what entertainment is acceptable, and critics say it adds to the confusion of what shows should be prohibited for service members and their families.
Jennifer Dane, an LGBTQ+ advocate and an Air Force veteran who was one of the last to be investigated under the Pentagon's old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, told Military.com that allowing the models at Joint Base Lewis-McChord appears to point to a double standard.
"It just sends a message that that's OK, assuming that's heteronormative," Dane said. "But if it's homosexual-based or anything else, that's not OK."
Some GOP representatives have said that drag isn't acceptable or appropriate for children or military families. One lawmaker, Rep. Mark Alford, R-Mo., said during the House Armed Services Committee's June 21 markup of the National Defense Authorization Act that he didn't endorse any type of "oversexualized performance" on military bases.
"This is not anti-trans; this is not homophobic," Alford said. "If this were females in an oversexualized arena performing like this, I would be against it as well. Let's get the woke, let's get the sexual nature out, wherever it is. Whether it's performers in drag shows or women doing burlesque shows, it doesn't matter. That's not America."
Austin Higginbotham, a spokesman for Alford, did not return a request for comment asking whether the Missouri Republican condemned the risqué models present at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord air show.
Footage from the event over the weekend was shared on the popular Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page where service members often post insider news.
Joint Base Lewis McChord bussinPosted by Air Force amn/nco/snco on Sunday, July 16, 2023
Hot Import Nights, abbreviated as HIN, did not return an interview request sent to its Facebook page and through a form on its website. The Joint Base Lewis-McChord event was advertised for July 15 and 16 on its website and was marketed as the "HIN Most Wanted Series."
Rachel Branaman, the interim executive director for the Modern Military Association, a nonprofit group advocating for LGBTQ+ service members and their families, told Military.com in an interview that featuring the Hot Import Nights models at the event portrays an unclear standard for what entertainment is considered acceptable on bases.
"This is an example of the long history of morale boosting entertainment, that really utilizes exaggerated gendered performance standards," Branaman said. "Without clarified guidance on what is and isn't permissible regarding the drag ban, then we're going to continue to see unequal standards for entertainment moving forward."
Joe Kubistek, a spokesman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 62nd Airlift Wing, confirmed to Military.com that Hot Import Nights was a part of the air show and that it was open to the public. In a press release, the base said the purpose of the show was to "foster goodwill to educate and familiarize attendees with the people, mission and equipment of the Air Force, Army and other armed services while continuing to provide installation-wide mission support."
Joseph Piek, another spokesman for Joint Base Lewis McChord, told Military.com in a statement provided after this article was originally published that the base’s Directorate of Morale, Welfare and Recreation coordinated Hot Import Nights’ sponsorship and the entire air show was approved by the Joint Base Lewis McChord Garrison Commander.
Piek also said the base did not pay Hot Import Nights. The company was a commercial sponsor that also didn’t pay the military to participate in the event.
“We knew there would be models associated with the car show, but there was no intent for there to be any type of dance show,” Piek said.
Piek noted that “patrons did not have to walk through this area with their kids to access or enjoy the other aspects of the air show,” and said that the base would be reviewing the event and would be “more vigilant about what some of the other show participants are doing to prevent any misunderstanding.”
During a March hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., pressed Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley about drag shows hosted on military bases. Austin repeatedly told Gaetz that such events, which are typically sponsored by community groups, are "not something that the department supports or funds."
Drag, which dates back to the Elizabethan era and has become a popular form of entertainment among the LGBTQ+ community and its allies as a celebration of self-acceptance, is at the center of some conservative politicians’ criticism of America today. Several Republican-led states have moved to ban drag shows, including Tennessee and Florida.
In the military, drag dates back decades. The first official drag show after the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" prohibition on gay people serving openly is believed to have been held at Kadena Air Base, Japan, in 2014. But historical records indicate drag performances to entertain the troops happened as least as far back as World War II.
The canceled drag show sponsored by the Nellis LGBTQ+ Pride Council was marketed as a "family-friendly show to celebrate the legacy of Stonewall and contributions of drag to the LGBT+ community!"
The canceled event at Ramstein Air Base last month was scheduled to take place at a base pub called the Brit Bar and was restricted to people 18 years and older.
The Pentagon's policy banning drag shows remains unclear, and the standard for what entertainment is allowed on military bases continues to be inconsistent.
The Department of Defense previously told Military.com in reference to the drag show ban that, "per DoD Joint Ethics Regulation (JER), certain criteria must be met for persons or organizations acting in non-federal capacity to use DoD facilities and equipment."
Those standards have not been explained by the Pentagon. Department of Defense spokeswoman Sabrina Singh did not respond to a Military.com request for comment asking why the Hot Import Nights models would be allowed at the Washington air base under the Pentagon policy, but drag shows would not be.
Singh referred Military.com's questions to the Department of the Air Force, which also did not provide comment regarding the Joint Base Lewis-McChord event before publication.
Branaman told Military.com that one of Modern Military's goals is to push the Pentagon for more guidance on the drag show ban.
"Part of our legislative agenda is to have the DoD define what the drag show ban is," Branaman said. "Obviously, we want them to fully revoke it, but we need a full definition of what is permissible and not permissible."
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with comment provided by Joint Base Lewis McChord after publication.
-- Konstantin Toropin and Rebecca Kheel contributed to this report.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.