GOP lawmakers move to criminalize drag shows that aren’t adults-only

By: - January 10, 2023 1:58 pm
Arizona LGBTQ

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Arizona Republican legislators have turned their ire on drag performances in the ongoing culture wars against the LGBTQ community, proposing several new laws that would severely limit where and how often they can take place. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, three bills had been filed that would move drag performances into the realm of adult shows and away from minors, in a bid to cast them as overtly sexual and damaging for youth. 

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Last year saw a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills in statehouses across the country, and the GOP-controlled Arizona legislature joined the movement. Lawmakers passed a host of laws targeting LGBTQ and trans youth, including one that bars trans girls from joining school sports teams that match their gender identity and another that prohibits trans minors from receiving gender-affirming care

The focus turned to drag shows in early June 2022, when — amid a conservative furor over a family drag brunch in Houston — Arizona lawmakers announced a plan to outlaw kids at drag shows. That effort was eventually abandoned for lack of time as the legislative session came to a close. 

But the new session brought with it a new opportunity. 

Senate Bill 1028 adds drag performances to the legal definition of “adult cabaret performances,” which has historically been limited to strip shows, and says they cannot be held on public property or anywhere else a minor may be able to see them. The first violation is subject to a class 1 misdemeanor, for which the maximum penalty is a $2,500 fine and up to 6 months in jail. A second violation can result in a class 6 felony, with an associated fine up to $150,000 and a prison sentence as long as two years. 

Another proposal requires county boards of supervisors to create and issue zoning permits for both drag shows and performers. It also adds both to the definition of “adult oriented business,” along with strip clubs and porn shops. Under Senate Bill 1030, a drag show couldn’t be conducted between 1 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Monday through Saturday or between 1 a.m. and noon on Sunday. A violation of those rules would result in a class 1 misdemeanor, and each day they’re violated would be considered a separate offense.

A third bill, Senate Bill 1026, threatens school funding by prohibiting organizations that receive state tax dollars from hosting a drag show to entertain people under 18 — or else forego spending or receiving state funds for three years. 

Fountain Hills Republican John Kavanagh, who sponsored the bill addressing drag shows in schools, has also proposed a law restricting preferred pronoun use by students. Kavanagh told the Arizona Mirror that he drafted SB1026 after watching television reports of drag shows in which sex acts were simulated. 

“I don’t think that’s appropriate for children,” he said. “Even if there aren’t simulated sex acts, I still think it could be confusing for children. And I don’t think taxpayer’s dollars should fund it.” 

Kavanagh’s bill defines a drag show as a performance by one or more people who dress in clothing or wear makeup opposite of the performer’s biological sex to “exaggerate gender signifiers and roles” and sing, dance or act. Kavanagh dismissed concerns that his definition is broad enough to include football players who dress up as cheerleaders for pep rallies or satirical school Shakespeare plays. 

“Drag shows are specifically shows that engage in exaggerated gender mannerisms. The movie ‘Tootsie’ would not be a drag show,” he said, referring to the 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman. “It is so typical to find the most remote potential example to be a reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but in this case, these remote things don’t even apply.” 

Jeanne Woodbury, a spokesperson for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Arizona, said Kavanagh’s bill is reminiscent of cross-dressing laws from decades past in how it seeks to police what clothing belongs to which gender. 

“People had to challenge those legally, because (they) were being prosecuted for wearing clothes that someone decided weren’t appropriate for their gender,” she said. “We can’t have these kinds of things on the books because it opens a really dark door to dress codes and general discrimination against people who are gender non-conforming.” 

Woodbury noted that it’s no surprise the bill was put forward by Kavanagh, who authored a measure in 2016 seeking to prosecute transgender people for using a public bathroom if their IDs and gender identity were incongruent. Just like that bill purported to be a protection of women, SB1026 is pretending to protect children when, in reality, it works to vilify a community, Woodbury added. 

“When you take something that’s part of a community, or part of a culture or someone’s identity and you say, ‘Well, this is specifically sexually explicit, this is dangerous to kids’, it doesn’t seem like what you’re trying to address are things that are dangerous to kids,” she said. “It seems like you’re trying to paint a community or group in a really negative light.” 

In fact, Woodbury said, SB1026 fails to resolve Kavanagh’s stated intent: The bill discusses clothing and makeup, but not sexually explicit content. 

For Bridget Sharpe, it’s disappointing to see continued attacks from Republican legislators on the LGBTQ community when Arizona is facing so many other pressing crises. Sharpe is the executive director of the Arizona branch of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization. She noted that Kavanagh’s bill is attempting to address a problem that doesn’t exist: Drag shows in schools or family-friendly settings are substantially different than those offered in adult settings. 

“A drag performance at a bar for adults is a very different situation than a drag story hour at a library,” she said. “It is evident that this legislation aims to mislead the public and intimidate LGBTQ people by perpetuating false, offensive narratives.” 

Putting drag shows out of reach for LGBTQ youth is also harmful, Sharpe said, because it takes away an opportunity for them to feel seen and accepted. 

Last year, Tucson High Magnet School’s student club “Q Space” organized a drag show, with plans to make it an annual event. Kavanagh’s bill would put an end to those hopes. Clearly, SB1026 unfairly puts the onus on LGBTQ students to decide what programming to cut for fear of legislative backlash against their schools, Woodbury said. 

“It’s sad to think about kids having to be under all of this pressure, just because of their identity, just because of the communities that they’re a part of — having to be under pressure of jeopardizing their club or funding for their school,” she said. 

Kavanagh rebutted that drag shows represent harmful stereotypes and not affirming experiences. 

But Chandler high school student and activist Dawn Shim disagreed, saying that SB1026 makes it harder for students to feel welcome in school. Shim founded Support Equality Schools Arizona to speak out against anti-LGBTQ legislation, and has organized walkouts and protests to call out hostile lawmakers. 

“The right has begun to frame LGBTQ issues as something that’s corrupting the youth, and one part of that is blaming drag performers and basically creating this bogeyman,” she said. “What’s actually happening is legislators are creating horrible bills that are killing students, and they’re not allowing (students) to be affirmed in spaces that they should be.” 

A survey by the Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, found that legislative efforts to limit the rights of trans and nonbinary people negatively impacted their mental health, and may increase the rates at which they contemplate suicide.

It’s unlikely that SB1026 or the other proposals targeting drag performances will make it past Gov. Katie Hobbs, who in the past has denounced anti-LGBTQ laws and has vowed to only approve legislation that earns bipartisan support. Still, Sharpe said, the mere existence of these bills and the rhetoric that accompanies them represents a danger for the LGBTQ community, especially as hate crimes against the community are on the rise. 

The November shooting at queer nightclub in Club Q in Colorado has been linked to a rise in anti-LGBTQ speech from the state’s politicians and other authority figures. Sharpe fears the same could happen in the Grand Canyon state. 

“We’re already nervous because of the recent violence against our community and it makes us nervous as LGBTQ Arizonans to see these types of bills pop up, and pop up so early in the session,” she said.

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Gloria Rebecca Gomez
Gloria Rebecca Gomez

Gloria Gomez joined the Arizona Mirror in August 2022. Prior to that, she wrote for the Mirror as the UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow. She has written for the Arizona Daily Star, the Arizona Republic and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She graduated in 2022 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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