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.
Arkansas Republican state Rep. Mary Bentley told her fellow lawmakers at a recent hearing 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.
She said, “We're not trying to be anti-anybody, anti-trans, anti-anything, we're just trying to protect our kids. We're not trying to stop plays. We're not trying to stop Peter Pan, or Tootsie, or any of those things.”
She also 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.
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.
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.
North Dakota's House of Representatives has also 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.
State Rep. Brandon Prichard, a newly elected Republican lawmaker who introduced North Dakota's bill, is still confident the measure will win Senate approval.
Bentley's measure in the Arkansas House was also got also approved by a committee, one week after the state Senate signed off. Lawmakers backtracked, however, by filing an amendment that scrubs all “drag performance” mentions from the proposal.
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.
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 childcare facilities.
Legislators in at least eight states have introduced legislation aiming to restrict or censor the shows, according to a new report from a leading freedom of speech group. A total of 14 bills have been introduced across Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
How the opponents are responding?
Opponents argue that signing these measures into law might violate constitutional protections and provoke a broader cultural suppression of LGBTQ people. Sanders appeared eager to sign the original measure into law.
According to Sarah Warbelow, the legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, “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”
Recent attacks on the drag shows
Drag performances are not just facing backlash from the republican state governments, but some right-wing and fanatic nongovernment organizations and groups are also not shying away from showing their unsolicited hatred towards drag. They are attacking these shows, spreading misinformation, and creating fear and disgust around them; something exactly opposite of what drag shows are.
Last year, on June 11, five members of the Proud Boys, a far-right white supremacist hate group, targeted a “Drag Queen Story Hour” at San Lorenzo Public Library in California.
The same month, 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front were also arrested outside of a Pride event in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, leading to a rise in death threats made against local police officers.
According to a first-of-its-kind report by GLAAD, last year alone, over 120 events featuring drag performers in 47 different states faced targeted threats. GLAAD is the world's largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. And the Department of Homeland Security warned, in its latest summary of domestic terror threats, that the LGBTQ+ community is among several groups that could be targeted.
What is RuPaul's response to these bans?
During an appearance on “The Late Late Show” last year, host James Corden acknowledged that drag has become mainstream globally, adding, “which makes to me and so many people what's happening in Texas all the more shocking.”
The 61-year-old drag icon went on saying, “This is a diversion tactic to take the narrative away from the gun debate into something to scare people into thinking about something else and they've been successful. It's like y'all want to help your kids? Take away them guns, that will help your kids. Drag queens ain't hurting nobody!”
We couldn't agree more, RuPaul!