Navy Used Drag Performer in ‘Digital Ambassador’ Recruiting Program

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
May 3, 2023Politics
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Navy Used Drag Performer in ‘Digital Ambassador’ Recruiting Program
The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius,center , center, conduct a photo exercise with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters/Released)

The U.S. Navy hired a drag performer as part of a now-concluded pilot program designed to boost service recruiting.

Yeoman 2nd Class Joshua Kelley, the drag performer who goes by the stage name “Harpy Daniels,” claimed in a November 2022 Instagram post that the service had invited him to become a “digital ambassador.” In an emailed statement to NTD News on Wednesday, a Navy spokeswoman confirmed that Kelley was employed in the service’s pilot program.

“The Navy Digital Ambassador Program was a pilot initiative designed to explore the digital environment to reach a wide range of potential candidates as the Navy navigates the most challenging recruiting environment it has faced since the start of the all-volunteer force,” said a Navy spokeswoman. “The pilot has concluded; we are evaluating the program and how it will exist in the future.”

The U.S. military struggled to meet its recruiting goals last fiscal year. The U.S. Navy hit its recruiting goal for active-duty enlisted personnel but missed its goals for recruiting new active and reserve officers, and reserve enlisted personnel. The U.S. Marine Corps was one of the few military services that hit all of its recruiting goals for 2022, while the U.S. Army missed its goal for new active duty enlisted troops by 25 percent—a 15,000-recruit shortfall.

The Navy spokeswoman said Kelley was not compensated for participating in the “digital ambassador” program.

The Navy provided few additional details about how the digital ambassador program worked and how it assessed the recruiting performance of its ambassadors.

Critics Tie ‘Wokeness’ to Recruiting Woes

Some Republican and conservative critics tied the recruiting shortfalls to politicizing the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and an embrace of socially “woke” ideology in particular. Those critics noted (pdf) several programs highlighting and promoting racial and LGBT identity, including officially sanctioned drag performances.

“Wokeness at the DoD has harmed recruitment, retention, and morale, wasted service members’ time and taxpayer’s dollars, and undermined the apolitical character of the military, which is a major threat to democracy and the American way of life,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said in a February statement regarding the Army’s recruitment shortcomings.

While conservative critics linked drag performance to the “woke” ideology they believed hurt military recruiting in 2022, the Navy evidently saw drag performance as a way to appeal to potential recruits. The pilot digital ambassador program ran from the start of the new fiscal year in October 2022 until March 2023.

Kelley rebuffed these conservative critics in a 2022 interview with the USS Constitution Museum’s website. During the interview, Kelley discussed the controversy surrounding an event where he was scheduled to perform at Langley Joint Air Force Base, saying: “I was advertised as a drag performer at the event, and it caused an uproar to many conservatives and Christian extremists. Even Fox News host Tucker Carlson had something to say just to stir many right-wing minds.”

Kelley again noted Carlson’s criticism of his performance in his November 2022 Instagram post announcing he had been invited to participate in the “digital ambassador” program, presenting the ambassadorship as a rebuke of the criticisms he has received over the years.

While conservative lawmakers have pointed to drag performances as one example of the “woke” politicization that they believe has harmed the military’s recruiting, proponents of the military’s current diversity practices have argued they’ve helped service members feel more comfortable in the military.

In his interview for the USS Constitution Museum website, Kelley said a sailor who had watched one of his drag performances on board a ship during a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation event had been convinced not to commit suicide.

“I found out I saved someone’s life,” Kelley told the interviewer. “This person was gay and felt lost and alone, ready to jump ship. But after getting to view my performance, they felt empowered to be themselves and see that our struggles and low morale are temporary. They personally thanked me and said they forgot what life was like for a moment,” Kelley added.

Though drag proponents like Kelley have hoped the performances will increase LGBT acceptance in the military, some Pentagon leaders have signaled opposition to funding or officially sanctioning such events.

During a congressional hearing last month, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) asked whether taxpayer funding had gone toward any of several drag performances on military installations. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, the top-uniformed military leader, replied, “I’d like to take a look at those myself, actually, and find out what actually is going on there, because that’s the first I’m hearing about that kind of stuff … I’d like to take a look at those because I don’t agree with those. I think those things shouldn’t be happening.”

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