A group of 14 Republican senators has questions for the U.S. Navy after the military branch brought on a drag-performing sailor for its pilot “digital ambassador” program in hopes of boosting recruiting.
This week, the Navy confirmed that it had invited Yeoman 2nd Class Joshua Kelley, the drag performer who goes by the stage name “Harpy Daniels,” to participate in the service’s “digital ambassador” program. The program ran from October 2022 to March of this year.
The revelation stirred questions from Sens. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Roger Marshall (R-Kans.).
The 14 senators sent a letter to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro on Wednesday, asking him to provide more details about the “digital ambassador” program.
“Does the Navy endorse drag shows? Where does the Navy draw the line on promotion of the personal activities of its influencers? Would the Navy enlist burlesque or exotic dancers to reach possible recruits?” the senators wrote. “Such activity is not appropriate for promotion in a professional workplace or the United States military.”
The Republican lawmakers specifically asked Del Toro to turn over details about how much Navy funding went toward the “digital ambassador” program. A Navy spokeswoman told NTD that members of the pilot program were not compensated for their participation.
The lawmakers also asked the Navy to share any data it has on the impact of the “digital ambassador” program, which the Navy said was meant to help reach potential new recruits.
Questions About TikTok
The Republican senators also focused on Kelley’s prominence on the popular social media app TikTok. The app, developed by the Chinese firm ByteDance, has come under increased scrutiny over how it collects and potentially shares user data with the Chinese regime.
The Navy banned TikTok on government-issued devices in 2019, and military officials have continued to warn that the app may be used to harvest data and channel disinformation to influence American users.
“While we understand the importance of social media for modern recruiting, we are concerned about both the promotion of a banned app and behavior that many deem inappropriate in a professional workplace,” the senators wrote. “At a time when our nation’s military is facing a recruiting crisis, it is as important as ever to reach broader swaths of the eligible population—but not at the cost of privacy, security, or professionalism.”
‘Wokeness’ and a Politicized Military
Some Republican and conservative critics have tied recent recruiting shortfalls to a perceived politicization of the military 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 military’s recruitment shortcomings.
The U.S. Navy hit its recruiting goal for active-duty enlisted personnel in fiscal year 2022 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.
While conservative critics linked drag performances to the “woke” ideology they believed hurt military recruiting in 2022, the Navy evidently saw Kelley’s drag performance as a positive asset to the force and a potential source of new recruiting appeal.
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.”
Though critics have pointed to drag performances as one example of the “woke” politicization that they believe has undermined the military, proponents have argued that it’s helped a more diverse group of service members feel more comfortable and accepted 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.
Still, some Pentagon leaders have been wary of the 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 because I don’t agree with those. I think those things shouldn’t be happening.”
The 14 Republican senators concluded their letter to the Navy secretary by emphasizing past successful military recruiting campaigns “promoting patriotism, valor, and the myriad of benefits of serving.”