Jason DeShazo, a Lakeland man who performs in drag as Momma Ashley Rose, had expected to visit an Orlando high school Thursday afternoon to speak to its gay-straight alliance.
Instead, DeShazo learned Wednesday that the Florida Department of Education had forced the cancelation of the “Drag and Donuts” event, part of a statewide crackdown on any drag activities around minors led by Gov. Ron DeSantis and state legislators.
Both DeShazo and the principal of Boone High School emphasized that the voluntary, after-school event was not a drag show. DeShazo said he planned to speak to members of the school’s Queer and Ally Alliance about life as a gay man and answer any questions the students had.
DeShazo said he has spoken many times to such clubs at after-school events, including at least three in Polk County. He said it would have been his third or fourth time speaking at Boone. He asks the clubs if they would rather have him appear as himself or in drag, and he said the students almost invariably ask for “Momma.”
DeShazo, 43, runs the Momma Rose Dynasty, a charitable foundation that raises money to support LGBTQ youth.
The cancelation apparently arose from criticism by Orange County School Board member Alicia Farrant, a member of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group. Farrant posted on Facebook saying that schools should not be “inviting drag queens in to eat donuts with our children,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.
DeShazo said he awoke Wednesday to emails and screenshots of Farrant’s post. He said he soon spoke to an administrator at Boone High, who confirmed that the event would still go on. A school official later called after consulting with a lawyer and gave DeShazo a list of activities that would not be allowed, he said.
The list seemed based on complaints about “A Drag Queen Christmas,” a December event held at the Plaza Live in Orlando. A state agency has threatened to revoke the venue’s liquor license in response to that event, which children attended.
Dragged into political wars: Polk performers say they don't present danger to children
DeShazo emphasized that he doesn’t wear skimpy outfits, use foul or bawdy language or perform in a risqué manner. He describes his drag character as a matronly Southern lady and calls himself “the Disney channel of drag,”
Later on Wednesday, DeShazo said, Boone Principal Hector Maestre called to tell him the meeting with the students had been canceled. He said Maestre “was very upset that he had to cancel. It was due to the Department of Education was threatening the administration of removing their, I guess, their licensing and losing their jobs, if they went through with this.”
DeShazo said that he learned that school employees received death threats after news spread about the planned club event.
Orange County Public Schools released a statement:
“One of the after-school student clubs invited a guest speaker to attend their regularly scheduled meeting (Thursday). The event Donuts & Drag was not a drag show, but an opportunity for the students to hear a positive message of acceptance and love. This was to be the third year the speaker has addressed this club. As a result of a call from the Florida Department of Education (Wednesday), the event has been canceled. The Department questioned whether the event was age and developmentally appropriate and indicated any administrator, teacher, or staff member in attendance may be investigated and jeopardize their professional license.”
The Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent Thursday morning.
DeShazo said he gave about 10 interviews to newspaper and TV reporters on Wednesday. Fox News posted a story on its website about the cancelation with the headline: “DeSantis shuts down Florida school's 'Drag & Donuts' event featuring drag queen 'Momma' Ashley Rose: report.”
DeShazo said he had received many threatening messages and was considering whether to report any of them to law enforcement. He and other local drag performers faced similar reactions after a group of men displaying Nazi symbols protested outside "A Celebration of the Arts," a drag event held in Lakeland in December.
DeShazo was in Tallahassee earlier this week to protest bills being considered in the current legislative session. He appeared in drag, wearing a prim but colorful dress, to speak before the House Judiciary Committee in opposition to HB 1438, which would create penalties for venues that allow children to attend events depicting or simulating nudity, sexual conduct or lewd conduct.
“Do I look like a stripper?” DeShazo asked members of the committee.
DeShazo said the forced cancelation of his meeting with Boone students contradicts claims of legislators — including Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, sponsor of the Senate companion to HB 1438 — that they weren’t seeking to target voluntary, after-school events with new restrictions.
“I sat Monday and listened to Senator Yarborough promise that these ‘don't say gay’ bills, and the expansions that they're doing, would not affect after-school, student-led events,” DeShazo said. “And this is a prime example that they were lying.”
DeShazo said a monthly event he hosts at a restaurant in Lake Wales has also been canceled indefinitely in response to threats and a loss of business.
“Churches and all these people were sharing hateful stuff about the events,” DeShazo said. “So it’s literally been like back-to-back stuff this week. It's not just at Boone. It's stuff that's happening in our own town.”
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Under state pressure, Orlando school cancels Lakeland man's drag talk