Montana has banned drag queen story hours.
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 359 into law Monday, and it took effect immediately. It bans drag story hours at publicly funded schools and libraries, and it also prohibits any “sexually oriented” performances at those venues or on any public property where children are present. Violators will be fined and are subject to lawsuits.
It appears to be the first state law banning drag story hours even if they include no content that could be perceived as sexual — not that such story hours do.
Laws enacted in Tennessee and Florida “appear to try to ban drag reading events, but both require the performances to be sexual in nature, which could be up for interpretation,” the Associated Press reports. Both of those states’ bans are being challenged in lawsuits, with Tennessee’s temporarily blocked from enforcement while the suit is heard. There will likely be a challenge to Montana’s law as well.
“It’s just constitutionally suspect on all levels,” Lambda Legal attorney Sasha Buchert told the AP.
Upper Seven Law, a Montana-based nonprofit, has vowed to challenge the measure, the Montana Free Press reports. “This is a really straightforward First Amendment activity,” Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, the organization’s executive director, told the publication. “There’s nothing obscene about dressing in drag. The First Amendment allows reasonable restrictions on speech, but this isn’t it.”
Drag performer Anita Shadow told the Free Press that “there seems to be a complete misunderstanding that drag is inherently sexual — and that is not the case.”
“We have white [cisgender] individuals that have zero experience within the drag community providing a legally binding definition of what drag art is, and I think I speak for the community when I say that is hurtful, degrading, and it’s a misunderstanding,” Shadow added.
Backers of the ban did express the opinion that all drag is sexual. “In my humble opinion, there’s no such thing as a family-friendly drag show,” Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell, the legislation’s lead sponsor, said in April, according to the AP.
Gianforte spokesperson Kaitlin Price told the Free Press, “The governor believes it’s wildly inappropriate for little kids, especially preschoolers and kids in elementary school, to be exposed to highly sexualized content.”
Kevin Hamm, president of Montana Pride, told the publication the new law won’t interfere with June’s festivities. “We have tons of events planned, many featuring drag,” Hamm said. “Knowing how resilient and energized this community is in the face of adversity, I suspect that this nonsense will inspire even more people to show up as their authentic selves in drag or genderqueer outfits. Our community refuses to be pushed back into the closet by a small minority of ignorant but very vocal bigots, and this bill does nothing to change that.”
Gianforte has signed four other anti-LGBTQ+ bills into law recently, over the objections of his nonbinary son, David. They are a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors; legislation defining sex as binary, immutable, and based on chromosomes and reproductive characteristics; a bill allowing public schools to out transgender students to their parents; and a measure that will let parents withdraw their children from school if they object to the day’s lesson plan. The ban on gender-affirming care is being challenged in court.
The Human Rights Campaign denounced Gianforte's latest action. “From community performances of Shakespeare to famous family movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, drag performances have been a form of entertainment for millions of Americans for generations," said a statement from HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. "This new law will further alienate members of Montana’s LGBTQ+ community. It’s a sad state of affairs when extremist politicians enact new laws that hurt their constituents instead of helping them.”