(CNN) — A slew of bills, mostly in Republican-led states, are looking to restrict or prohibit drag show performances in the presence of children, part of a larger fight over a burgeoning culture war issue.
Republicans say the performances expose children to sexual themes and imagery that are inappropriate, a claim rejected by advocates, who say the proposed measures are discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and could violate First Amendment laws.
As transgender issues and drag culture are increasingly becoming more mainstream, such shows — which often feature men dressing as women in exaggerated makeup while singing or entertaining a crowd, though some shows feature bawdier content — have occasionally been the target of attacks, and LGBTQ advocates say the bills under consideration add to a heightened state of alarm for the community.
Bills in at least 11 states across the country are working their way through legislatures, though none have yet been signed into law, according to a CNN review.
Legislation in Tennessee and Arizona, which seek to limit "adult cabaret performances" on public property so as to shield 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 performances under the state's definition of a "sexually oriented business."
Under the terms presently being considered in West Virginia, parents or guardians of children who are either involved in drag shows or permit their children to be in the presence of one could be "required to complete parenting classes, substance abuse counseling, anger management counseling, or other appropriate services" as determined by the state.
Shangela, a drag performer who has competed on RuPaul's Drag Race, told CNN in an interview that as the drag community has gained visibility, "it becomes a greater target and a greater point of possible division."
"Now [people are] seeing drag. They're seeing it on their cable networks, they're seeing it in film, and it's being represented authentically. And it's forcing, it's driving conversations that have never had to be had before. And some people are afraid of that," she said.
Jonathan Hamilt, the executive director of Drag Story Hour, a non-profit organization that features performers reading to children, believes bigotry is the motivation behind the bills.
"If drag wasn't rooted in gay culture and rooted in queer community, I don't think it'd be up for debate," Hamilt said. "Nobody is banning clowns, nobody is banning miming. This is nothing new, this is just the 2023 trending version of what homophobia looks like."
'This bill is not anti-drag. It is pro-child'
"Drag meddles in stories about gender, beauty, and culture," drag queen Sasha Velour wrote for CNN in 2017. "Even in the act of lip syncing, we choose a song — a preexisting story that's deemed 'straight' or 'normal' or 'nothing out of the ordinary' — and then we squeeze our beautiful queer bodies into it, shifting the meaning, disrupting the total effect. Drag makes room for us queers as we are (or perhaps more importantly, as we imagine ourselves) in the center of every recognizable narrative."
Republican sponsors of some bills, however, claim 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 that are men dressed like women, do you think that helps them or confuses them in regard to their own gender?" Arkansas state Sen. Gary Stubblefield, a Republican who sponsored legislation that passed in the state Senate last month, asked during floor remarks.
"This bill is not anti-drag. It is pro-child," Tennessee state Sen. Jack Johnson told CNN in a statement. "I am carrying the legislation to protect children from being exposed to sexually explicit drag shows that are inappropriate for minor audiences. It is 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 looks to limit "entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest," is specifically aimed at "sexually explicit" drag performances and that the senator is "not taking issue with drag shows or children at drag shows."
A Montana bill, which flatly seeks to prohibit children from attending drag shows, would block drag performances at publicly funded libraries or schools, a reference to events such as Drag Queen Story Hours, which have occasionally faced backlash from far-right groups. During an event last year, Proud Boys interrupted as drag queen Panda Dulce was reading to children at the San Lorenzo Library in California.
Several sponsors to whom CNN spoke said some constituents complained about the shows, while others offered anecdotal examples of performances they described as sexually explicit.
"You have the constitutional right as an adult to engage in sexual activity, you have the constitutional right to go to a drag performance. And no one in Texas is actually trying to stop that," said Texas state Rep. Nate Schatzline, a Republican. "I think when we see minors involved in activities that are inappropriate for a child to be involved in, that's where we as legislators have to step up and say, 'Hey, we have to draw a line,' because ultimately it's our job to protect the liberties of those that are citizens in the state of Texas and to protect those that can't protect themselves."
LGBTQ advocates fear chilling effect
Advocates of LGBTQ and free speech rights fear that the laws, if passed, would have a chilling effect on the performances and argue that the language is vague.
"It's not clear to me that a trans man for example, who wrote a book, would be able to do a book reading at a local book store under these bills. A high school couldn't perform a Shakespeare play like Twelfth Night because Twelfth Night explicitly in its plot includes a woman dressed as a man," said Kate Ruane, the director of Pen America's US Free Expression program.
Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, noted that the bills don't amount to outright bans on drag performances but "libraries, book stores, regular theaters, and restaurants would have to comply with all adult business regulations, and they are unlikely to do that so they're more likely to cancel the shows."
Some drag shows indeed may be inappropriate for children, Shangela acknowledged. But, she said, "you can't characterize the world of the drag by one particular type of show, the same way that you can't characterize the way a television film by one particular program."
"The world of drag is no different than any other aspect of entertainment in our world," she said. "If you are a parent that is concerned about what your child is seeing, then you stay involved in what you're allowing your child to be exposed to."
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