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GOP lawmakers aim to criminalize drag shows where children could be present

By Stephen Elliott, Stateline.org
Published: December 26, 2022, 6:00am

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was trivia night at Tribe, an LGBTQ club in Nashville, and drag queen Tracey Ottomey was quizzing the crowd on pop music, Christmas movies and Queen Victoria. At the same time, pop music videos — widely available on YouTube and other platforms — played on screens around the bar.

One audience member couldn’t help comparing the two forms of entertainment on offer: The music videos were “much more sexual” than the drag trivia night, he said.

Minors aren’t allowed in bars, but Republicans in multiple states are deeming drag shows as inherently sexual or obscene, pushing measures that would make it a crime to perform them anywhere children might be present.

Supporters say enacting such restrictions is just common sense, a way to ensure that kids are not exposed to material that isn’t appropriate for them. “My bill just says you can’t do sexually suggestive or explicit entertainment where kids are going to be present,” said Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Republican and one of the most powerful elected officials in the state. “It boggles my mind that we’re even having to have this conversation.”

But LGBTQ advocates say attacks on drag shows are the latest salvo in a yearslong effort by GOP legislators to marginalize them. They point to recent bans on transgender girls playing on sports teams; restrictions on classroom discussions of gender; and prohibitions on gender-confirming health care for minors, among other examples.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the push in Tennessee and elsewhere is an effort to “put us behind closed doors.”

“They can say that we are inherently adult entertainment, so we should not be viewed by the general public, that there is a corrupting influence,” he said. “There may be electoral gains out of that, but there’s also social control.”

David Trowbridge, an assistant political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University who has studied debates over LGBTQ rights, said the politicians targeting drag shows could be inspired by sincerely held beliefs, a desire for electoral advantage, or some mix of the two. But he predicted the moves would alienate many voters even as it motivates others.

“A lot of these issues contain the same rhetoric and argument, with a slightly different spin in the context,” Trowbridge said. “It would seem to me that the attack on drag shows is one more attempt in a long line of attempts of ‘othering’ LGBTQ people in order to gain electoral advantages.”

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an advocacy group commonly known as GLAAD, says legislators in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Montana and Texas have filed or publicly discussed plans to propose drag show legislation. The group also tracks an increasing number of significant threats, including armed protests, against drag performances.

In Florida, Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, has threatened to appear at a Jacksonville drag brunch this weekend unless organizers change the event to adults-only.

Johnson in Tennessee filed his bill the day after the midterm elections. His legislation would define drag shows as an “adult cabaret performance,” classifying them with topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers. It would prohibit “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or [a] similar entertainer” from performing on public property or where it “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”

Johnson said he filed his bill after seeing videos of drag performances in Tennessee. He cited “five or six” videos that recently have appeared on social media, describing the content as “something that I think any reasonable person would consider to be explicit or inappropriate for kids.”

In one video from a Pride event in Chattanooga, a child is seen touching the tail of a performer’s Little Mermaid costume. Pride organizers later said the performer was a biological female, and that the organization had received death threats in the wake of the video. In another video, from Tennessee Tech University, a performer sheds religious clothing in what one conservative activist said was “a dance clearly meant to mock Christians.”

Johnson added that filing the bill on the first day he was able to has “nothing to do with the degree of priority,” but he does consider a public drag ban “a very important issue.”

In Texas, some Republicans recoiled in June when videos of a Dallas event described as a family-friendly drag performance surfaced on social media. In one clip, a performer dancing to a Diana Ross song accepts cash from children sitting with their parents or guardians. Critics also noted a neon sign that says, “It’s not going to lick itself!”

Republican state Rep. Bryan Slaton said the videos from the Dallas “Drag Your Kids to Pride” event prompted his pledge to file legislation in the upcoming session that would ban drag shows when minors are present. Through a spokesperson, Slaton said his bill would “protect young children from this sexualization.”

Another Texas bill would place new restrictions on drag performances by labeling any commercial enterprise that hosts one as a “sexually oriented business.” The bill defines a drag show as “a performance in which a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.”

In Arizona, a to-be-filed proposal from Republican state Sen. Vince Leach would bar minors from attending any drag performance. In Michigan, House Republicans announced a plan to give parents the power to sue public schools that host drag shows, despite being unable to identify an instance where that had happened.

Idaho Republicans reportedly have a draft bill that would ban drag performances in public places ready to file in January. And a pre-filed Montana bill is titled “prohibit minors from attending drag shows,” though no other details are available.

Mac Huffington has been performing in and producing drag pageants and events in Nashville and around the country for more than two decades. She has seen drag grow in popularity during that time, including via the television competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race and weekend drag brunches.

And Drag Story Hour, founded in 2015 in San Francisco, now organizes events around the country that feature “storytellers using the art of drag to read books to kids in libraries, schools and bookstores.”

Huffington said the Tennessee bill restricting drag “would be devastating to our world,” because “it’s a world where we can be who we are without judgment.” She and Sanders both argue that describing drag as inherently illicit or sexual is inaccurate.

“It’s not drag that makes something adult entertainment,” Sanders said. “Putting on a lot of makeup, a wig, and dancing or lip-syncing, that is not inherently adult entertainment.”

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Added Huffington: “There’s nothing sexual about lip-syncing.”

One result of these legislative proposals could be harassment of trans people, Sanders said, “because the way the state views trans people would not be far from the [bill] language of male and female impersonators, unfortunately.”

The push to ban drag shows in part or in full took on new meaning Nov. 19, the week after Johnson filed his bill, when a shooter killed five people at an LGBTQ club in Colorado the night of a drag queen’s birthday party. Attorneys for the suspect said in a court filing that their client, who has been charged with bias-motivated crimes, is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.

“LGBTQ Americans are reporting feeling unsafe, and there is documented evidence as to why,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “Extremist politicians have to stop using anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to score points and stoke fear.”

In addition to legislative proposals, GLAAD also is tracking protests and threats against drag performances, including six in Tennessee in 2022, more than nearly any other state. In September, a drag show in Memphis was canceled after armed protesters showed up. Drag shows in other cities in the state also have been canceled in recent months in response to outrage from local officials.

Diskin Cider, a Nashville bar that hosts drag brunches, said in a statement last week that “a small group of organized extremists congregated outside of our building to openly express their opposition to drag” over the weekend. The company said it had preemptively hired security “due to a national influx of hateful rhetoric.”

In recent weeks, drag shows in other states have been met by right-wing protesters, some of them armed. GLAAD has tallied at least 124 protests and “significant threats” to drag events this year.

“We’re always nervous and afraid, even before the shooting,” Huffington said. “At this moment, we know we have to be more unified. We know we have to get the message out there.”

Sanders’ group is weighing its options after Murfreesboro, Tennessee, officials said they would deny the group permission to host the Murfreesboro Pride Fest again in 2023.

“We will not accept any policy that labels drag as inherently adult entertainment, and we’re absolutely going to stick to our First Amendment rights on this,” Sanders said.

Johnson, the sponsor of the Tennessee ban, said the Colorado shooting had not made him reconsider his plans for the legislative session.

“It’s terrible what happened there, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we think is best in Tennessee in order to try to protect children from adult-themed, sexually explicit entertainment,” Johnson said.

The Republican lawmaker was unopposed in the general election but faced a spirited challenge from a conservative activist in the GOP primary. Sanders suggests the primary challenge could have inspired Johnson’s new focus on drag shows.

Sanders and Ellis, the GLAAD president, contend that the push by Johnson and other lawmakers to label drag shows as sinister will result in the demonization of queer people.

“It’s abundantly clear that something has to change in our politics and media to reject harmful rhetoric that leads to real life violence,” Ellis said. “Everyone, including LGBTQ people and youth, should know they are accepted and safe.”