EXCLUSIVE: GOP Rep Presses Pentagon On Sailor’s ‘Explicit’ Performances After Austin Denied Supporting Drag Shows

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana pressed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to clarify comments that the Pentagon does not “support” drag shows in a letter obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • The Navy selected Yeoman 2nd Class Joshua Kelley, who operates a drag queen social media account and has performed on board Navy ships, to participate as its first “Digital Ambassador.”
  • “Do you believe that TikTok videos of sailors dressed in and performing in drag is the best use of the Navy’s recruitment efforts?” Banks asked in the letter.

Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana questioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for saying the Department of Defense (DOD) does not support drag shows in a letter obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation after the Navy brought on a drag performer to expand the Navy’s social media reach.

Austin said DOD does not “support or fund” drag shows at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 29, around the time the Digital Ambassador Program trial run was wrapping up, according to a Navy spokesperson. As part of the initiative aimed at expanding the Navy’s use of digital platforms, Yeoman 2nd Class Joshua Kelley said he was “hand selected” as the first ambassador, raising questions from Banks in the letter regarding Austin’s seemingly “contradictory” message.

“If [Austin] was testifying honestly then he has an obligation to discipline the officials who decided that sexually explicit content should be featured in the Navy’s Digital Ambassador program,” Banks told the DCNF. (RELATED: Marine Corps To Deactivate Female-Only Unit Amid Pressure From Congress To Speed Up Gender Integration)

Kelley, who goes by the stage name Harpy Daniels, said in a Nov. 29, 2022 social media post the Navy had chosen him to become its first digital ambassador. A Navy spokesperson confirmed to the DCNF that the ambassador program began in October 2022 and ran until March 2023.

Five active-duty personnel participated in the program on a volunteer basis, and no promotional or recruiting materials exist, the Navy spokesperson previously told the DCNF.

Kelley’s TikTok biography notes that his opinions “are not endorsed by USN (U.S. Navy) or DOD.”

Drag shows are not something that the Department of Defense supports or funds,” Austin told Congress during a line of questioning from Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz regarding reports of DOD-sponsored drag queen story hours at military bases.

Kelley was performing on board ships at least since 2017, when he brought his gear on board the USS Ronald Reagan stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, and competed in one of the Navy’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) official lip-syncing events, according to NBC News. It’s unclear how many times Kelley has performed on board since, or whether he always did so in a personal capacity.

“My biggest performances here are the lip sync competitions we hold to build up morale,” Kelley told NBC News in August 2018.

Responding to a December 2022 question from a TikTok user whether Kelley’s command was aware of his performances, Kelley posted a video of himself dressed in drag at “what appears to be an official Navy holiday party,” Banks said in the letter.

Kelley, who identifies as non-binary, has also expressed appreciation for his leaders’ support in social media posts amid online and in-person bullying from “haters” for “doing drag and serving.”

Banks asked Austin, given his allegedly “contradictory testimony,” to affirm whether he knew of the Navy’s Digital Ambassador program when he testified about DOD endorsement of drag shows, if the Navy could name the highest ranking officers in charge of appointing ambassadors and why Kelley was selected.

“Do you believe that TikTok videos of sailors dressed in and performing in drag is the best use of the Navy’s recruitment efforts?” Banks asked in the letter. “Do you believe that TikTok videos of sailors dressed in and performing in drag ultimately increases or decreases the Navy’s overall recruitment?”

Navy leaders predict the service could fall about 6,000 recruits short of its goal for 2023 after draining its pool of delayed-entry applicants to meet recruiting targets the year before, Military Times reported.

“There’s no doubt that Biden appointees are behind the Pentagon’s hard-left turn and Republicans on the Armed Services Committee will continue to question Sec. Austin about the divisive and woke insanity that’s helped drive recruitment to a historic low,” Banks told the DCNF.

@harpydaniels Was Hand Selected as one of four Navy Digital Ambassadors! Follow now to join me on this journey! #fyp #Navy #lgbt #military ♬ original sound – A Dose of Deandra

In a separate letter to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, dated May 3, Republican senators demanded transparency on the Digital Ambassador program and asked the Navy whether it approves of sexually explicit performances.

“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,” Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and 11 others said in the letter.

Rear Adm. Michael Donnelly, who commanded the USS Ronald Reagan when Kelley served on board, is up for promotion this year. However, Tuberville is holding up Senate confirmation of Donnelly and other flag officers in protest to Austin’s recent policy allowing the military to fund travel for abortions.

The Pentagon did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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