Drag shows under fire in conservative states

Legislation to place new limits and restrictions on drag performances has been introduced in at least 10 states.
Drag performer MD Hunter, whose stage name is Athena Sinclair, testifies before a state Senate panel as state Sen. Gary Stubblefield, left, listens, at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. The Senate panel endorsed a bill by Stubblefield that would restrict where drag performances can be shown by classifying them as adult oriented businesses. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

Conservative lawmakers are proposing new limits and restrictions on drag performances in what opponents and LGBTQ rights groups say is the latest effort to marginalize transgender people across the country.

Legislators in at least 11 states have introduced or intend to introduce measures that would restrict where drag performances can be held and bar children from attending. Some of the bills would add criminal penalties for performers or presenters.

Several of the measures are already making progress through legislatures. The Arkansas Senate on Tuesday approved a bill on a party-line vote that would subject drag performances to the same restrictions as strip clubs or adult theaters, banning those performances from public property or anywhere children or teenagers are present.

“I can’t think of any redeeming quality, anything good that can come from taking children and putting them in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women. I thought and I thought and I thought and I couldn’t come up with anything,” Arkansas Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R), the bill’s lead sponsor, said on the Senate floor. “To me, this is putting our children in situations that really is a violation of their personal boundaries.”

In Missouri, a House committee on Tuesday debated several bills that targeted LGBTQ rights, including one measure to bar drag performances from public locations. Another bill would classify venues where drag performances are held as a “sexually oriented” business.

“The genesis of this bill is to respond to concerns of people in my district and other areas of the state who care about protecting the innocence of children,” said state Rep. Ben Baker (R), the sponsor of the bill barring drag shows in public places. “Children don’t belong at adult content-themed drag queen performances, any more than they do at strip clubs or adult theaters.”

Similar bills have been introduced in Arizona, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. Legislators in Montana and Idaho have said they will introduce their own versions in the coming weeks.

Opponents of the measures say they are unnecessary, at least, and harmful to the transgender community, a group of people already more prone to self-harm than others.

“I feel the first measure of every piece legislation should be how many people does this help, and who does it hurt? And I don’t think this bill is going to help anybody, but I do think it is going to hurt people,” Arkansas Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding (D) said during Tuesday’s debate. “It will hurt kids, particularly kids who struggle to feel welcome and safe and accepted and as though they belong in Arkansas.”

The measures are just one slice of a new avalanche of proposals that would target LGBTQ rights. State lawmakers this year have introduced at least 185 bills in 31 states that limit LGBTQ rights or roll back existing rights, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bills that specifically target the transgender community began appearing in state legislatures across the country in 2016, when North Carolina lawmakers passed a first-of-its-kind measure barring transgender people from bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity. Only recently have lawmakers begun to focus on drag performances, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign.

“This attack on drag, drag performances is really something that is crystalizing into a trend that is essentially new this year,” Warbelow said.

“There are folks who want the average American to believe that a transgender woman is a man in a dress rather than drawing the real distinction, which is that transgender people have a gender identity that does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth,” Warbelow said. “It is an intentional effort to confuse the American public about who transgender people are, to try to conflate drag performers with people who are transgender.”

Virtually all of the bills seek to classify drag performances under statutes that also govern adult businesses. Some go farther in establishing criminal penalties.

South Carolina’s version would allow a felony charge against those who allow a minor to view a drag performance. A version drafted in Montana would levy a $5,000 fine on any library, school or employee who allows a drag performance to take place in public.

Efforts to limit drag performances are not new. GLAAD, the LGBTQ rights organization, tracked bills in six states in 2022 that would have restricted or banned performances. The group counted 141 attacks, protests or threats against drag performances last year.

In some states, opponents of the bills have raised concerns that classifying drag performances as akin to adult businesses could unintentionally ban other types of performances — for instance, if a theater cast a woman to play a male role or vice versa in a play or musical.

“If you think about the history of Shakespearean theater, at a time when women weren’t allowed to be on stage, historically all of the roles were played by men,” Warbelow said.

In testimony late Tuesday night, Missouri state Rep. Peter Merideth (D) questioned whether Baker’s bill could apply to cheerleading squads.

Warbelow and others said the measures, if passed, would be vulnerable to legal challenges on free speech grounds.

“These bills are clearly unconstitutional. They’re an attempt to stifle free expression and free speech, and we know that the way that these are written, if the bills become law, they’ll be utilized in a wide variety of contexts to try to chill performances,” she said.

“Even where the legislation itself pretends that it’s making a distinction between an adult performance and another type of performance, the authors of these bills themselves have said that their intention is to shut down family friendly performances like drag story hours.”