The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP targets drag shows with new bills in at least 14 states

Republicans at the state level have introduced at least 26 bills taking aim at drag events — an escalation of a wider conservative backlash to LGBTQ rights. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Diana King, Jeffrey McWhorter/The Washington Post)
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Early in the 2023 legislative session, at least 26 bills have been introduced in 14 states by Republican legislators taking aim at drag events — an abrupt movement that has emerged this year amid a wider conservative backlash to expanded LGBTQ rights.

There’s no recent precedent for the bills, which seek to ban children from drag performances, block the shows from public venues, or force locales that host drag events to register as “adult-oriented businesses,” according to LGBTQ advocacy groups. A Washington Post analysis of state legislation dating to 2015 shows the first bill in that period seeking broad restrictions on drag shows was pre-filed in November for this year’s legislative session.

“These bills have not only been numerous, they’re also coming very early in the legislative session,” said Emerson J. Sykes, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is tracking the efforts and considering legal challenges. “They seem to be a top priority this year for the GOP lawmakers.”

Behind the spike is a growing conservative objection to a type of performance that has boomed in pop culture in recent years and also expanded to hundreds of libraries through Drag Queen Story Hour, which aim to teach children gender diversity and acceptance through book readings and shows. Many Republican lawmakers pushing the bans say their efforts are aimed at limiting the exposure of children to drag shows — not at the events themselves.

“I am not trying to ban drag shows, and I’m not trying to take away anyone’s First Amendment rights,” Tennessee state Sen. Jack Johnson (R), who filed the first of the recent wave of drag bills on Nov. 9, said in an interview. “But you should be able to take your kids to a public park or library and not be surprised by seeing sexually explicit entertainment taking place.”

As viral videos and conservative media coverage have driven the movement, numerous state affiliates of the Family Policy Alliance, a conservative Christian organization that acts as the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family, have helped fuel the legislative push, according to presidents of the state groups and their websites.

“Just like we wouldn’t want strippers on poles in schools — even if their body parts are not exposed — we don’t want drag performers to be present in front of children,” said Idaho Family Policy Center President Blaine Conzatti, who wrote a bill that a Republican state lawmaker plans to introduce this month.

But LGBTQ advocates say accusations by some conservatives that drag performers are trying to “recruit” or “groom” children is a familiar trope used by conservatives to generate public fear, which is then leveraged to enact legal restrictions on the LGBTQ community. They say proponents of the drag laws are falsely equating sometimes bawdy events in adult-only venues with family-friendly performances at libraries.

“Drag performances, like all sorts of other performances, run the gamut in terms of who they’re designed for,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. “There are certainly some drag performances that are intended for adult audiences only, just like there are R-rated movies. And then there are other performances that are for all ages, like G-rated movies.”

LGBTQ activists and drag performers say this legislative movement is the latest GOP effort to spread anti-gay and anti-trans sentiment.

“They say it will only affect our drag queens, but it’s going to affect our trans community, our nonbinary communities, our gay communities,” said Timothy Sherwood, a drag performer who was crowned Miss Gay Texas in 2022. “They are trying to spread fear and attack the way we express ourselves and the way we live our lives.”

The movement against drag shows has also sparked volatile protests. Last month, five armed members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, confronted families attending a Salt Lake City show. Outside a Baltimore church event last month, counterprotesters clashed with protesters as families filed in.

The drag show bills come amid a multiyear movement by Republican state lawmakers to target LGBTQ rights, particularly trans rights, including a recent trend of bills that require students to use school bathrooms that align with the gender they were assigned at birth and bills that ban transgender girls from participating on girls sports teams.

Last year, 315 measures to restrict LGBTQ rights were introduced in state legislatures across the nation — triple the number of similar bills introduced in 2019, according to data from the Human Rights Campaign.

“Year after year, they attack one particular part of the LGBTQ community,” said MD Hunter, who performs in drag as Athena Sinclair and who testified against a bill that passed the Arkansas Senate last month. “They attacked the trans community last legislative session and now that has mellowed out a little bit. So now they’re going to the next thing — drag queens.”

The bills are so broadly written, opponents say, they would effectively shut down drag shows and limit the gay community’s ability to perform in drag at gay pride parades and other long-running public events. Many of the proposed laws would also require venues to register as “adult-oriented businesses,” meaning they would have to be located in the same areas zoned for strip clubs or adult sex toy shops. This could shut down drag shows at venues like college campuses, restaurants and community theaters.

Several measures would also allow anyone to sue a venue that hosts a drag show if they believe the performance violated state law — a provision modeled off a Texas bill that has restricted abortion in the state.

“It’s clearly intended to have a chilling effect,” Warbelow said. “The goal is to shut down people’s willingness to engage in drag performances and these vigilante provisions are designed to turn neighbor on neighbor.”

Until about 20 years ago, drag was largely an underground performance art, but “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the Emmy Award-winning reality show that is now in its 15th season, has helped bring drag performances to the masses. Drag Queen Story Hour, a nonprofit founded in 2015, now has 20 chapters nationwide that brand drag as family entertainment. At the events, drag performers read stories and often deliver messages about tolerance and acceptance of others aimed at children.

“We’re theatrical. We are going to be speaking with an inflection in our voice and we are going to be loud,” said Sherwood, who has performed at Drag Queen Story Hours in Dallas as Kylee O’Hara Fatale. “And we are these bright, colorful creatures. Kids respond to that.”

While the library events have sparked backlash from right-wing groups for years, broad anti-drag legislative efforts gathered national momentum last summer thanks to a viral video of an event at a Dallas bar. The clips shows bejeweled drag queens strutting, dancing and posing with children.

The event was a Saturday-morning brunch, advertised as a family-friendly, which meant there were no sexually charged jokes and no stripping. However, drag queens performed in front of a sexually suggestive neon sign that reads “It’s not going to lick itself.” The show prompted Texas Rep. Bryan Slaton to call for a state law banning children from future drag events.

“Drag shows are no place for a child,” said Slaton, calling such events “horrifying” and a representation of a “disturbing trend in which perverted adults are obsessed with sexualizing young children.”

As protests mounted, Johnson, the senator from Tennessee, introduced the first bill of this legislative cycle, which would require drag venues to register as adult-oriented businesses. Six bills in other states have used a similar approach to stiffening oversight of drag venues.

As with most other drag bills, first offenses for establishments would be misdemeanors, while future violations would be felonies.

Other bills filed this year would either seek to ban public funds from being used for drag performances — which would effectively shut down most Drag Queen Story Hours — or set age restrictions for drag events that appeal to a “prurient interest” or that involve performances that are “lewd and lascivious.”

In most cases, venues hosting the drag events could face legal penalties, but in some cases adults who bring children to such performances could also face criminal charges — with one Arizona drag show bill calling it “child abuse.”

Four drag bills were introduced in the Texas legislature from mid-November to mid-January — the most, so far, in any state. Texas lawmakers plan to hold hearings this month on some of the drag show bills.

Some efforts have already met resistance in state capitals. While the Arkansas Senate passed a bill targeting drag shows last month, the state House stripped the drag show language in its version last week following pushback from LGBTQ rights groups.

Marti G. Cummings and Maebe A. Girl spoke about how Rep. George Santos's (R-N.Y.) denial of performing in drag effects the LGBTQIA+ community. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, right-wing conservative groups are continuing to highlight drag events in viral videos. Protect Texas Kids, a conservative group that’s mounted numerous protests outside venues, posted a clip last month from one recent church bingo fundraiser where a drag performer in a sequined leotard gave a bawdy toast.

Even as the bills gain steam around the country, legal challenges — on First Amendment grounds — may slow their momentum.

“It’s a fundamental principle that the government can’t discriminate against people or silence them just because the government doesn’t like what they have to say or how they’re saying it,” said Emerson, the ACLU attorney.

Legal experts said the proposed laws could violate the constitutional rights of performers and audiences.

“When you are restricting performances and preemptively declaring them to be inappropriate for children, you really are violating folks’ right to free expression and free speech, which includes not only the right to engage in the speech, but also to receive that speech as well,” Warbelow said.

Proponents of the bills acknowledge that they are likely to face legal challenges. But they say the first round of bills will serve as trial balloons, which will help inform how future drag bills should be drafted.

“A bunch of these bills will fail in court,” said Jerry Cox, president of Arkansas-based Family Council. “But then we will learn which ones will stand, and future bills will be modeled after them.”