The GOP Wages a War on Drag

Update Thursday, Aug. 3: A group of drag performers and LGBTQ+ rights advocates have filed a lawsuit seeking to block a new Texas law that outlaws public drag performances. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. district court in Houston by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the plaintiffs.

“In its zeal to target drag, the Legislature passed a bill so yawning in scope that it criminalizes and restricts an enormous swath of constitutionally protected activity,” according to the suit. “The State has threatened the livelihood and free expression of many Texans.”

In Florida and Tennessee, judges have already blocked drag performance bans from taking effect.

Drag queen Brigitte Bandit during a storytime reading on March 11, 2023, in Austin, Texas.​ (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

On Sept. 1, 2023, a ban on drag performances will take effect in Texas. Under the law, businesses that host drag shows where minors are present face up to a $10,000 fine per violation and loss of their liquor license, and drag performers and participants face misdemeanor penalties. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed Senate Bill 12 into law on Sunday, June 18, in the middle of Pride month (with Austin’s to come in August, just before the law takes effect). 

While drag performances aren’t specifically cited in the text of the law—which bans “sexually oriented performances on public property, on the premises of a commercial enterprise, or in the presence of a child”—Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said in a statement the law specifically targets drag shows: “I will not allow Texas children to be sexualized and scarred for life by harmful drag performances.” And during the bill’s signing, Abbott incorrectly claimed the law would fully ban drag in public, though in reality the law is more limited.

Anti-drag laws—including legislation with sanitized language that takes aim instead at “adult performances” or “cabaret” shows, an anti-drag dog whistle—are already on the books in three states:

  • Arkansas: Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed Senate Bill 43 into law in February. Under the legislation, “adult-orientated performances” are now banned from public property, as is the admittance of minors.
  • Florida: Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed anti-drag bill Senate Bill 1438 into law in May. The law enables the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to fine, suspend or revoke the license of any business that admits a child to an adult live performance.
  • Montana: Like its counterparts, House Bill 359—which went into effect in May when Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed it—prevents children from attending “sexually oriented shows” and from attending such performances on public property.

Tennessee was the first state to officially enact strict limits on drag shows, after Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed Senate Bill 3, commonly referred to as the “Anti-Drag Bill,” into law in March. (While the bill never explicitly mentions drag performances, the carefully constructed language—“adult cabaret performance,” “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest”—was designed to target drag performances where children are present.) But on April 1, only days before it took effect, district judge Thomas Parker blocked its enforcement on the basis that the bill’s language is “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.”

Several other states are considering, or have recently considered, anti-drag legislation, with varying success: Alabama, Arizona (though Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs has vowed to veto these measures), Colorado (though it would likely stop at the desk of Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat and the nation’s first openly gay governor), Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.

“There’s been bills that have been passed and or that they’ve been attempting to pass that haven’t been in our best interest before,” said Jaida Essence Hall, a drag queen and the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12, at the SXSW Conference in March. “But the number of bills at this moment, and how high the stakes are in this country—right now is not the time to flop.”

In several instances, opponents have misrepresented key details of drag performances to make them seem more sexual or sinister for children.

  • In February, Florida officials filed an administrative complaint against the Plaza Live theater in Orlando for hosting a drag show three months prior, in December, that they claimed included “acts of sexual conduct, simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar, and indecent displays” with children in attendance, among other complaints. But a later investigative report by undercover state agents refuted many of these claims: “Besides some of the outfits being provocative (bikinis and short shorts), agents did not witness any lewd acts such as exposure of genital organs. The performers did not have any physical contact while performing to the rhythm of the music with any patrons.”
  • In local television ads, the Texas Family Project—an anti-LGBTQ and so-called pro-family nonprofit—photoshopped the background of a photo from a daytime drag storytelling event, to make the event appear as if it took place in a dark club, as drag queen Brigitte Bandit pointed out on Twitter

The GOP-led movement to limit who can see drag performances and where, is part of a larger nationwide push to stigmatize any content with LGBTQ themes, presenting it as a danger to kids. And beyond drag performers and their allies, anti-drag laws will no doubt victimize the trans community—since “their vague language could lead to the broad criminalization of public gender-nonconformity,” wrote ​James Factora in them.

“It’s been clear with SB 43 in Arkansas. … They tried to label it a ‘drag bill’ but it actually is just an anti-trans bill,” Rumba Yambú, founding director of the Arkansas-based trans advocacy organization Intransitive, told them. “They are trying to equate our trans identities with an art performance, which is drag.”

Rather than protect children, the frenzy around drag shows and at-large attacks on the LGBTQ community have detrimental effects on trans, gay and queer youth. According to a January poll from The Trevor Project:

  • 71 percent of LGBTQ youth—including 86 percent of trans and nonbinary youth—say recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health.
  • 75 percent of LGBTQ youth—including 82 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth—say threats of violence against LGBTQ spaces, such as community centers, pride events, drag shows or hospitals/clinics that serve transgender people, often give them stress or anxiety. 

“I just think about myself when I was young,” said Symone, the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13. “When I was 18, I went to prom in drag, and that’s how I was able to finally feel like I can express myself to people and people can finally see me. With all this hate and legislation coming by, I just think about the younger people. I know how important it was for me, and how important it could be for them.”

“Drag is a form of speech, it is a form of expression,” said Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “Some people might find it offensive. The solution to that is: Don’t go.”

Up next:

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.