Republican state lawmakers want to shield children by closing the curtains on drag performances.
Legislation moving through several GOP-controlled capitols would ban the gender-diverse shows in front of young people — including at schools, colleges, or on public property — sparking a furious response from the LGBTQ community and civil liberties groups.
“We’re just trying to keep minors away from sexually explicit material,” Arkansas Republican state Rep. Mary Bentley told her fellow lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday about a bill she’s co-sponsoring to prohibit children from watching drag shows that might affect student performances. Many drag shows do not contain sexually explicit content, especially when performers — who often wear more clothing — are entertaining in spaces where children may be present.
“We’re not trying to be anti-anybody, anti-trans, anti-anything, we’re just trying to protect our kids,” said Bentley, who acknowledged at the hearing that schools expressed concerns that student performances might be targeted if costumes had exaggerated anatomical features or had certain types of singing and dancing. “We’re not trying to stop plays. We’re not trying to stop Peter Pan, or Tootsie, or any of those things.”
Drag show restrictions have become a leading cultural issue during this year’s legislative sessions for the right and prominent Republicans like Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is set to deliver her party’s response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Lawmakers in at least eight states — including Arizona, South Carolina and Texas — introduced measures to block children from drag shows at the start of this year, according to PEN America, a free speech advocacy group. Many of the measures would subject educators, business owners, performers and parents to criminal prosecution and professional sanctions for allowing children to view performances, many of which have been the focus of recent armed demonstrations.
Drag performers are not a regular presence at school events, despite GOP uproar. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican, reportedly petitioned the state school board association for help this week after middle school students attended an event that featured a drag performance.
The bills often seek to categorize drag shows the same way as explicit adult entertainment, and sometimes include language saying restrictions only apply to “prurient” exhibitions with erotic intentions, or include nudity or explicit material. Several proposals would prohibit drag performances or appearances in schools, while other bills further regulate shows on public property and in private businesses.
Opponents argue that signing these measures into law might not only violate constitutional protections, but also provoke a broader cultural suppression of LGBTQ people.
“The goal for many of these lawmakers has been to frighten people about what drag performances are, and what kids are actually being exposed to,” said Sarah Warbelow, the legal director of the Human Rights Campaign.
“Many of these bills essentially allow private individuals to report a performance to be investigated oftentimes for violations of criminal law,” Warbelow said in an interview. “That’s going to have a chilling effect on drag performances from Pride parades, to the drag queen story hour at the local library, to college campuses that might have a drag performance as part of a Pride celebration.”
North Dakota’s House of Representatives last week approved a drag show ban that would categorize repeated performances in front of children as a felony offense, sending the measure to the state Senate for consideration.
Bentley’s measure in the Arkansas House was approved by a committee on Wednesday, one week after the state Senate signed off. Lawmakers backtracked on Thursday, however, by filing an amendment that scrubs all “drag performance” mentions from the proposal.
Sanders appeared eager to sign the original measure into law.
“This is not about banning anything; it is about protecting kids,” Sanders spokesperson Alexa Henning told POLITICO in a statement, before the legislation was amended. “We don’t let kids smoke, drink alcohol, go to strip clubs, or access sexually explicit material, and the Governor believes sexually explicit drag shows are no different. Only in the radical left’s woke dystopia is it not appropriate to protect kids.”
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s office declined to comment on the proposal moving through his state’s legislature, but one of its top Democrats is livid.
“It pisses me off,” state House Minority Leader Josh Boschee said of the bill.
“There aren’t parents coming forward to say there are all these drag performances happening on Main Street and we need to be protected from them,” Boschee, who is gay, said in an interview. “These are all concepts and ideas that are being taken from the dark sides of the internet.”
State Rep. Brandon Prichard, a newly elected Republican lawmaker who introduced North Dakota’s bill, is still confident the measure will win Senate approval.
“There is a clear path to victory for the bill,” Prichard said in an interview. “The Senate is more conservative than it has ever been in North Dakota. And I think that there is a natural tendency in North Dakota to agree with this bill.”
In South Carolina, the proposed “Defense of Children’s Innocence Act” explicitly bars schools and publicly funded entities from using taxpayer dollars to provide a drag show, and would allow the prosecution of anyone who allows a minor to view a drag show with a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison and a maximum $5,000 fine.
“I don’t know when drag shows became the devil,” said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, in an interview. “To my knowledge, I don’t know that schools are doing this. I’ve never known of a school to do this. The homophobic attitude from some of our elected officials is quite concerning and disappointing.”
A Montana bill would prohibit state-funded schools and libraries from hosting drag performances during school hours or at school-sanctioned extracurricular activities. Librarians or educators convicted of violating the law would face $5,000 fines and the potential suspension and revocation of their teaching license.
Nearly two dozen South Dakota lawmakers have co-sponsored a proposed change to state education law that would prohibit university systems and public schools from using public money and facilities to “develop, implement, facilitate, host, promote, or fund any lewd or lascivious content” including drag performances.
Arizona Republicans have proposed a trio of drag restrictions including a bill that would classify drag performers, their shows, and establishments that host them as “adult-oriented businesses” — under existing law that regulates strip clubs, erotic massage parlors and movie theaters. Approval would prohibit cross-dressing performances within a quarter-mile of schools, playgrounds, and child care facilities.
“The tactics and the angle that these bills are taking are very different,” Warbelow, of the Human Rights Campaign, said. “But the goal really feels the same, which is to ensure that young people have no exposure to the LGBTQ community.”