Navy Taps Drag Queen As ‘Digital Recruiting Ambassador’

The U.S. Navy, grappling with a significant recruiting shortfall, has turned to an unconventional approach to attract potential enlistees. As part of its “Digital Ambassador” initiative, the Navy enlisted active-duty drag queen Yeoman 2nd Class Joshua Kelley, known by the stage name “Harpy Daniels,” to be a voice for the branch on social media platforms.

The Digital Ambassador program, which operated from October 2022 to March 2023, aimed to explore various digital environments to reach a broader range of potential candidates for military recruitment. Kelley, who identifies as non-binary, was selected as the Navy’s first Digital Ambassador in November 2022. In an announcement on Instagram, Kelley emphasized his experience performing in drag for fellow sailors and his new role as an advocate and leader for those who have been oppressed in the service.

This move comes as the Navy, Air Force, and Army all face substantial recruitment shortfalls for the 2023 fiscal year. The Navy is projected to fall about 6,000 recruits short of its goal. At the same time, the Army and Air Force are expected to miss their targets by 10,000 and 3,400, respectively.

Since Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Defense Department has pushed military leadership to adopt diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) ideology. However, critics argue that this approach prioritizes characteristics like skin color and gender orientation over merit, disadvantaging individuals who are qualified for positions but do not meet the preferred identitarian standards.

In May 2021, then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Harker released a memo detailing an action plan to promote DEI within the Navy. This document instructed the Navy’s assistant secretary and chief diversity officer to oversee DEI efforts and develop strategies to advance DEI across the enterprise.

Despite the controversy surrounding DEI, the Navy remains committed to recruiting and retaining members by fostering an inclusive culture. According to recent policy updates, the Navy aims to ensure personnel feel included and connected to the mission and leaders at all levels.

The Digital Ambassador initiative is just one of several ways the Navy has attempted to reach different populations amid what a spokesperson called “the most challenging recruiting environment since the start of the all-volunteer force.” The Navy has increasingly turned to digital platforms to attract younger audiences, launching a series of ads tailored for Gen Z on platforms like Instagram and popular video streaming services.

Lt. Ian Clark and PO Third Class Kyle Atkinson of the U.S. Navy wrote in a January 2023 article for the U.S. Naval Institute journal, “An effort is, indeed, being made to connect recruiting to the interests and concerns of Gen-Z.”

It remains to be seen whether the Digital Ambassador program and the Navy’s other efforts to connect with Gen-Z will help them overcome the current recruiting crisis. Meanwhile, America’s defense readiness faces immediate challenges on an ever-increasingly threatening world stage.