Texas’ Last Drag Queen Story Hour

Update Sept. 26 at 2:00 p.m. PT: A federal judge in Texas ruled that the state’s new law limiting public drag performances was an unconstitutional restriction on speech and permanently forbid enforcement of it. The judge, U.S. District Judge David Hittner, said drag performances were not inherently obscene, and were the sort of speech protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Drag performer Brigitte Bandit reads to families at a story hour in Austin, Texas, on Aug. 26. (Roxy Szal)

Ahead of an anti-drag law set to take effect on Friday, a drag queen story hour in Texas this weekend was marked with both celebration and mourning.

On Saturday morning in Austin, a group of parents and children gathered for what may be the last drag story hour ever in the state of Texas. A ban on drag performances is slated to take effect on Friday, Sept. 1. Under the law, businesses that host drag shows where minors are present face up to a $10,000 fine per violation, while drag performers and participants face misdemeanor penalties. 

Before the story hour got started, local drag queen and activist Brigitte Bandit asked the attendees if anyone knew what a drag queen was. One child responded, “You are!” During the two-hour long event, Bandit read aloud from books like No One Owns the Colors, which challenges gender stereotypes about colors, and The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, a twist on the classic nursery rhyme, encouraging kids and parents to dance, stomp and sing along. 

Most of the children in attendance—including babies—stared attentively while Bandit read and performed, and chimed in when she interacted with the audience. (“‘Blah, blah, blah.’ Is that what your teachers sound like sometimes?”) Some ran in circles and did somersaults in excitement. A few brave kids walked right up to Bandit to touch her pink sparkly dress or get a better look at the picture book she was holding. 

“To see someone that is tall and beautiful and energetic and kind and so patient with all of the kids, they are so excited and they love it,” a parent named Max (last name withheld for privacy) told Ms. “It’s so fun.”

I think it’s really important that these spaces exist.

Margie, a Texas parent

Between the singing, costumes, makeup, decorations, and free snacks and drinks at The Little Gay Shop, where the event was held, it was hard not to feel the joy. But for all of the adults I spoke to, the underlying mood was serious and somber—the weight of the upcoming law palpable among all who understand what this could mean for Texas kids.

“I want to expose my daughter to this, and make her feel and know that this is completely normal and good, and celebrate diversity,” a parent at the story hour named Anna said.

“I know because of the drag ban that’s about to go into effect, this might be the last one, so I figured we should get here while we still can,” said another parent, Margie. “I think it’s really important that these spaces exist.”

Margie, who is queer herself, said she wished Texas lawmakers understood that drag “is not inherently sexual. Queerness is not inherently a sexual experience. To close kids off from exploring their identity is fascistic.”

While Texas Senate Bill 12—which bans “sexually oriented performances on public property, on the premises of a commercial enterprise, or in the presence of a child”—does not cite drag performances specifically in the text of the law, 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, Gov. Greg Abbott incorrectly claimed the law would fully ban drag in public, though in reality the law is more limited.

“It’s silly that we are legislating people’s identities,” said Max. “I think it’s important for my kids to identify however they want to identify. It’s also important that we learn about each other. That’s how we build empathy. It’s important to give them exposure and a safe way to experience the whole breadth of humanity, and drag queen story hours are a really wonderful way to do that. … It’s really about just sharing humanity and love.” 

There was no violence or counter-protesters at the story hour in Austin on Saturday, but anti-LGBTQ protesters are common at events like these: GLAAD has recorded over 161 incidents of protests and threats targeting drag events since the beginning of last year. 

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.

Federal Court Hears First Challenge to Texas Drag Performance Law

On Monday, a group of drag performers and LGBTQ+ rights advocates, including Bandit, head to U.S. district court in Houston to attempt to block the law—part of a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the plaintiffs. The ACLU argues that the drag ban violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, effectively branding drag performers as second-class citizens. 

“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 similar drag performance bans from taking effect.

Tennessee was the first state to officially enact strict limits on drag shows, after Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed Senate Bill 3 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.”

Anti-drag laws are already on the books in Arkansas and Montana

Several other states are considering, or have recently considered, anti-drag legislation—including legislation with sanitized language that takes aim instead at “adult performances” or “cabaret” shows, an anti-drag dog whistle—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.

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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.