Republicans across the country are pushing legislation to restrict drag show performances
A slew of bills, mostly in Republican-led states, seek to restrict or ban drag shows with children present, part of a broader fight over a burgeoning culture war issue. .
Republicans say the performances expose children to inappropriate sexual themes and imagery, a claim denied by advocates, who say the proposed measures discriminate against the LGBTQ community and could violate First Amendment laws.
As transgender issues and drag culture become more common, such shows – which often feature men dressing as women with exaggerated makeup while singing or entertaining a crowd, although some shows feature a more debauched content – have sometimes come under attack, and LGBTQ advocates say the bills under consideration add to a heightened state of alarm for the community.
According to a CNN review, bills in at least 11 states across the country are being worked through legislatures, though none have yet been signed into law.
Legislation in Tennessee and Arizona, which seeks to limit ‘adult cabaret performances’ on public property to protect them from the sight of children, threatens misdemeanors and repeat felony offenders . A bill in the Texas legislature would include restaurants and bars that host drag shows under the state’s definition of a “sex business.”
Under conditions currently being considered in West Virginia, parents or guardians of children who participate in drag shows or allow their children to be in attendance could be “required to take parenting classes, counseling on addiction, anger management counseling or other appropriate services” as determined by the state.
Shangela, a drag performer who competed in “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” told CNN in an interview that as the drag community gains visibility, “it becomes a bigger target and a bigger possible point of division. “.
“Now (people see) the drag. They see it on their cable networks, they see it in film, and it’s portrayed authentically. And it’s forcing, it leads to conversations that have never happened before. And some people are afraid of it,” she said.
Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Story Hour, a nonprofit that features performers reading to children, believes bigotry is the motivation behind the bills.
“If drag wasn’t rooted in gay culture and rooted in the queer community, I don’t think it would be up for debate,” Hamilt said. “Nobody’s banning clowns, nobody’s banning mime. This isn’t new, it’s just the trending 2023 version of what homophobia looks like.
“Drag intertwines with stories about gender, beauty and culture,” drag queen Sasha Velor wrote for CNN in 2017. considered ‘straight’ or ‘normal’ or ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ – and we enclose our beautiful strange bodies there, displacing the meaning, disrupting the total effect. Drag makes room for us queers as we are (or perhaps more importantly, as we imagine ourselves) at the center of every recognizable narrative.
Republican sponsors of some bills, however, say these performances are adult in nature and potentially harmful to children.
“When you take one of these little kids and put it in front of drag queens who are men dressed as women, do you think that helps them or confuses them about their own gender?” Arkansas State Sen. Gary Stubblefield, a Republican who sponsored legislation passed in the state Senate last month, asked during remarks.
“This bill is not anti-drag. It’s pro-child,” Tennessee State Senator Jack Johnson told CNN in a statement. against exposure to sexually explicit drag shows that are unsuitable for underage audiences.This is similar to laws that prohibit children from going to a strip club.
Johnson’s publicist Molly Gormley insisted to CNN that the bill, which seeks to limit “entertainment that appeals to a lustful interest,” specifically targets “sexually explicit” drag performances. and that the senator “doesn’t take issue with drag shows.” or kids at drag shows.
A Montana bill, which is categorically aimed at banning children from attending drag shows, would block drag shows at publicly funded libraries or schools, a reference to events such as Drag Queen Story Hours, which has at times faced backlash from far-right groups. At an event last year, Proud Boys interrupted as drag queen Panda Dulce read to children at the San Lorenzo library in California.
Several sponsors CNN spoke to said some voters complained about the shows, while others offered anecdotal examples of performances they described as sexually explicit.
“As an adult, you have a constitutional right to engage in sexual activity, you have a constitutional right to attend a drag show. And nobody in Texas is actually trying to stop that,” said Texas State Representative Nate Schatzline, a Republican. “I think when we see minors involved in activities that are not suitable for a child, that’s when we as lawmakers have to step in and say, ‘Hey, we have to draw a line,’ because in Ultimately, it is our job to protect the freedoms of those who are citizens of the State of Texas and to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Advocates for LGBTQ rights and free speech fear the laws, if passed, would have a chilling effect on performance and argue the language is vague.
“It is not clear to me that a trans man, for example, who has written a book, could do a book reading at a local bookstore under these bills. A high school couldn’t perform a Shakespeare play like Twelfth Night because Twelfth Night explicitly includes in its plot a woman dressed as a man,” said Kate Ruane, director of Pen America’s US Free Expression program.
Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, noted that the bills do not amount to outright bans on drag shows, but “regular libraries, bookstores, theaters and restaurants should comply. to all commercial adult regulations, and they’re unlikely to do so, so they’re more likely to cancel shows.
Some drag shows may indeed be inappropriate for children, Shangela acknowledged. But, she says, “you can’t characterize the dating world by a particular kind of show, the same way you can’t characterize the way a TV movie is by a particular program.”
“The world of drag is no different than any other aspect of entertainment in our world,” she said. “If you are a parent concerned about what your child sees, you stay involved in what you allow your child to be exposed to.”