Drag queens Felicia Enspire, Alexandria Van Cartier and Sedonya Face sit on a float at a Christmas parade in Taylor, Texas on December 3, 2022. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Washington Post/Getty Images
A series of bills, most in Republican-led states, seek to restrict or ban drag performances in the presence of minors, part of a broader fight over a growing culture war issue.
Republicans say the shows expose minors to inappropriate sexual subject matter and imagery, a claim disputed by Republican advocates who say the proposed measures are discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and could violate First Amendment laws.
As transgender issues and "drag" culture become more widespread, these types of shows — which often feature men dressed as women with exaggerated makeup while singing or entertaining a crowd, although some shows feature more raunchy content — they have occasionally been the target of attacks, and advocates for the LGBTQ community claim that the bills being considered contribute to increasing the state of alarm in the community.
Bills are being discussed in at least 11 states across the country, though none have yet become law, according to a CNN study.
Laws in Tennessee and Arizona, which seek to limit "adult cabaret performances" on public roads to protect them from the view of children, threaten violators with a misdemeanor and repeat offenders with a felony.
A bill in the Texas legislature would include restaurants and bars that host drag shows in the state's definition of a "sexually oriented business."
Under current conditions in West Virginia, parents or guardians of minors who participate in drag shows or allow their children to be in the presence of one could be "required to receive parenting classes, counseling on the substance abuse counseling, anger management counseling, or other appropriate services," as determined by the state.
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Shangela, a drag performer who participated in "RuPaul's Drag Race," told CNN in an interview that as the drag community has gained visibility, "it becomes a bigger target and a bigger point of potential divisiveness."
"Now (people are) watching drag. They're seeing it on their cable networks, they're seeing it in the theater, and it's being performed authentically. And it's forcing, it's driving conversations that have never had to be had before. Some are scared," he said.
Jonathan Hamilton, executive director of Drag Story Hour, a nonprofit organization that features performers reading to minors, believes bigotry is the motivation for the bills.
"If drag wasn't ingrained in gay culture and the queer community, I don't think it would be up for debate," Hamilt said.
"Nobody bans clowns or mime. This is nothing new, it's just the popular 2023 version of homophobia."
“This bill is not 'anti-drag.'
It is in favor of minors"
Drag performer MD Hunter, stage name Athena Sinclair, testifies before a state senate panel as state senator Gary Stubblefield, left, listens, at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, Thursday, April 19. January 2023. Credit: Andrew DeMillo/AP
"Drag touches on stories about gender, beauty and culture," drag queen Sasha Velor wrote for CNN in 2017. "Even in the act of lip-synching, we chose a song—a pre-existing story that's considered 'straight' or 'normal.' or 'nothing out of the ordinary'—and then we bring our beautiful queer bodies into it, changing the meaning, altering the total effect.Drag makes room for us queers as we are (or perhaps more importantly, as we see ourselves). imagine) at the center of all recognizable narrative".
Republican sponsors of some bills, however, claim that such performances are adult in nature and potentially harmful to children.
"When you take one of these little kids and put them in front of drag queens who are men dressed as women, do you think that helps or confuses them about their own gender?" asked Arkansas State Senator Gary Stubblefield, a Republican who sponsored legislation passed by the state Senate last month.
"This bill is not anti-drag. It's pro-minors," Tennessee senator Jack Johnson told CNN.
"I carry legislation to protect children from being exposed to sexually explicit drag performances that are inappropriate for smaller audiences. It's similar to laws that prohibit children from going to a strip club."
Johnson's press secretary, Molly Gormley, insisted to CNN that the bill, which is intended to limit "entertainment that appeals to prurient interest," specifically targets "sexually explicit" drag performances and that the senator "He's not against drag shows or kids in drag shows."
A Montana bill, which purports to outright ban children from attending drag shows, would block drag performances at publicly funded libraries or schools, a reference to events like Drag Queen Story Hours, which have sometimes clashed. to the reaction of far-right groups.
During an event last year, the Proud Boys interrupted drag queen Panda Dulce as she read to children at the San Lorenzo Library in California.
Several patrons CNN spoke to said some voters complained about the shows, while others offered anecdotal examples of performances they described as sexually explicit.
"You have a constitutional right, as an adult, to engage in sexual activity, you have a constitutional right to go to a drag show. And no one in Texas is trying to stop it," said Republican state representative Nate Schatzline.
"I think when we see minors involved in activities that are inappropriate for a child, that's where we as legislators have to step up and say, 'Hey, we've got to draw a line,' because ultimately it's our job to protect the liberties of those who are citizens in the state of Texas and to protect those who cannot protect themselves."
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LGBTQ advocates fear a chilling effect
Advocates for LGBTQ rights and free speech fear the laws, if passed, will have a chilling effect on performances and argue that the language is vague.
"It's not clear to me that a trans man, for example, who has written a book, can do a reading in a local bookstore under these laws. A high school would not be able to do a performance of a Shakespearean play like Twelfth Night because in its plot explicitly includes a woman dressed as a man," said Kate Ruane, director of Pen America's US Free Speech program.
Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, noted that the bills do not amount to outright bans on drag performances, but that "libraries, bookstores, regular theaters and restaurants would have to comply with all business regulations to adults, and it's unlikely they will, so they're more likely to cancel shows."
Shangela acknowledged that some drag shows may be inappropriate for minors.
But, she said, "you can't characterize the world of drag by a particular type of show, in the same way that you can't characterize a TV movie by a particular show."
"The world of drag is no different than any other aspect of entertainment in our world," he said.
"If you are a parent who is concerned about what your child is seeing, then be involved in what you allow your child to be exposed to."