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U.S. Navy Used Drag Queen Influencer to Attract a ‘Wide Range’ of New Troops as Recruitment Plummets

The Navy brought on a drag queen, who is an active duty sailor, to a “digital ambassador” program aimed at targeting a wider array of potential recruits through digital platforms like Instagram, a spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Screenshot / Harpy Daniels / TikTok
Screenshot / Harpy Daniels / TikTok

By: Micaela Burrow, Daily Caller News Foundation

The Navy brought on an active-duty drag queen to participate in a pilot program aimed at reaching a wider audience through popular social media platforms as the military faces severe recruiting woes, a Navy spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Yeoman 2nd Class Joshua Kelley, stage name Harpy Daniels, announced the Navy invited him to become the first “Navy Digital Ambassador” in a November 2022 social media post, highlighting his journey from performing on deck in 2018 to becoming a “leader” and “advocate” of people who “were oppressed for years in the service.” The Digital Ambassador initiative in which Kelley participated ran from October 2022 to March 2023 and was “designed to explore the digital environment to reach a wide range of potential candidates,” the Navy spokesperson said.

The Digital Ambassador initiative concluded in April, and the Navy is now evaluating the program to consider what form it will take in the future, the spokesperson told the DCNF.

“The Navy did not compensate YN2 Kelley or any others for being Navy Digital Ambassadors,” the spokesperson said. Five active duty personnel participated, and no promotional or recruiting materials exist.

Kelley said he was “hand selected as one of four Navy Digital Ambassadors” in a social media post.

When reached for comment, Kelley referred the DCNF to his recruiter and the Navy’s ambassador program administrator.

Kelley, who identifies as non-binary, previously said he began dressing in drag and performing in shows long before joining the Navy, according to an interview conducted with Carl Herzog of the USS Constitution Museum in August.

He first started performing on ships after a sanctioned MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) lip syncing competition in 2017 while deployed on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, Herzog wrote. Kelley “continues to slay in performances that boost morale and show support for LGBTQ+ service members.”

He frequently posts videos on his Instagram and TikTok accounts, writing about how he found acceptance in the Navy and highlighting his shows.

Kelley said he faced harassment from outside the military after he was scheduled to perform at a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) event at Langley Joint Air Force Base in the summer of 2022 that “caused an uproar to many conservatives and Christian extremists.”

“I’m an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and being able to do drag is not just for me, but a tribute to many service members who were kicked out, harassed, bullied or worse for being openly gay during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It shows representation, and that is truly needed for a culture and organization that has shunned us for so long,” he told the USS Constitution Museum.

The Navy committed to recruit and retain soldiers through fostering an inclusive culture and ensuring personnel feel “included and connected to mission and leaders at all levels,” according to the latest DEI policy updates. A 2020 pamphlet on Inclusion and Diversity goals included the objective to develop “strategies using data to understand and eliminate barriers and ensure outreach to all segments of society.”

The Navy is seeking to boost its size to 347,000 officers and enlisted sailors in 2024, up from the current 341,736 serving in fiscal year 2023, according to Navy Times.

While the service squeaked by its recruiting targets in fiscal year 2022, it did so by delving deep into the delayed-entry pool, a program that allows people to accept contracts but remain on hold before shipping off to boot camp, according to a Navy press release. The Navy is projected to fall 16%, or 6,000, recruits short of its fiscal year 2023 goal for enlisted sailors, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti told the House Armed Services Committee on April 19, while her written testimony puts the number at 8,000 recruits.

“To attract the most talented and diverse workforce, the Navy continues to evaluate its compensation package and admission requirements, and how it reaches potential recruits through advertising and career events,” the Navy’s budget proposal for 2024 states.

Lt. Alexis Travis also purports to be a Navy Digital Ambassador whose specialties include military leadership, DEI and mental health, according to a Reddit post she made in early 2023 and her Instagram profile.

“I’m hopeful that as time passes and we show how valuable it is, we can make it a real collateral or provide some other career recognition for the effort,” Travis said of the ambassador program in the Reddit post. “Then we’ll be able to attract a larger and more representative group.”

The ambassador program is just one of several ways the Navy is seeking to reach different populations to overcome what the spokesperson called “the most challenging recruiting environment since the start of the all-volunteer force.” And, it’s increasingly turning to digital platforms to attract younger audiences.

The Navy launched a series of ads tailored for Gen Z that ran on social media platforms like Instagram, as well as TV and video streaming services popular with young people, U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) News reported.

Only 2% of the youth population meets the requirements to join the Navy and are also open to serving, a spokesperson for the ad agency VMLY&R told USNI News.

“An effort is, indeed, being made to connect recruiting to the interests and concerns of Gen-Z,” Lt. Ian Clark and PO Third Class Kyle Atkinson, U.S. Navy wrote for the USNI journal in January 2023, citing a prominent Diversity and Inclusion section that appeared on the Navy recruiting website’s front page at the time.

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