Drag Shows Are the Next Target for Republican Lawmakers

(Bloomberg) -- In their latest anti-LGBTQ push, conservative lawmakers from multiple US states have recently introduced a series of bills targeting drag performances, particularly those with kids in attendance.

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Legislators from at least seven states — Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas — have proposed anti-drag laws in recent months.

“This is really brand new,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign. “Prior to this, there had been attacks on drag story hours at libraries by conservative entities and there had been a lot of critiques, but not legislative attacks.” There were at least 141 anti-LGBTQ protests, threats and violent actions against drag events and venues in the US last year, a report from LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD found.

One bill proposed Friday in Arizona would make it a misdemeanor to put on a drag performance in a public place. The change would classify drag as an “adult cabaret performance” similar to topless dancers or strippers, according to the bill text. Another bill introduced in the state last week would ban the use of state money for drag shows for anyone under 18, essentially prohibiting appearances at schools and public libraries.

In November, a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill that would classify venues that host drag shows as “sexually oriented” businesses, making it a misdemeanor to admit anyone under 18 years old. Michigan lawmakers last year announced legislation that would allow parents to sue schools for up to $10,000 if they hosted drag shows.

Conservative politicians are targeting drag entertainers as part of a larger anti-LGBTQ push, specifically around issues of gender identity. Florida Senator Marco Rubio in May criticized drag story hours for placing “young children in close proximity with adults who are intentionally and explicitly sexualized.” Other GOP politicians have made similar comments.

Lil Miss Hot Mess, a board member of Drag Story Hour, in October said events like story hours are “reading books to children, encouraging them to use their imagination to envision a more just and fabulous world.”

“I was proud to file legislation that would ban any type of drag show that is sexual in nature from being performed in any place where kids will be around to see it,” tweeted Tennessee State Senator Jack Johnson after proposing a drag-show ban in the state. Another Tennessee bill seeks to classify drag performers as adult entertainers and require them to obtain licenses.

“Leader Johnson’s bill is not anti-drag,” Molly Gormley, Johnson’s press secretary, said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg News. “Characterizing it as such is disingenuous at best. The bill is aimed at protecting children from being exposed to sexually explicit drag shows inappropriate for children. It is similar to laws that prohibit children from going to a strip club.”

Violence and protests have accompanied the rise in anti-LGBTQ sentiment and rhetoric. The Proud Boys, an extremist far-right group, has shown up to and in same cases shut down events in California and Texas, and a man firebombed a donut shop in Oklahoma after it hosted a drag event. Colorado-based Club Q, where a deadly shooting killed five people, had hosted a drag performance earlier in the day and was promoting a drag brunch for all ages the next day.

Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ rights nonprofit worries the legislation will lead to more incidents. “If the bills pass and drag is criminalized or relegated to 18 and up spaces only, that is dangerous for the performers,” he said. “It’s also leading to this long-term lie that somehow drag queens and trans people are dangerous to kids. Kids love costumes and they love imagination and creativity.”

(Corrects to include direct comment from Rubio in 6th paragraph and comment from Drag Story Hour board member in the 7th paragraph.)

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