Drag artists who perform in front of children would be forced to register as sex offenders and face a minimum of 10 years in prison, under the latest measure Arizona Republican lawmakers have advanced in their vendetta against drag performers.
The proposed law would punish anyone who performs for or allows a minor to view an “adult-oriented performance,” or even enter a business in which one is occurring. Drag shows would be included in the definition of adult-oriented businesses, which has historically applied only to strip clubs and porn shops.
Any adult who violates the bill’s provisions would be charged with a class 4 felony, potentially netting them up to 3 years in prison. But if the child is under 15 years old, it is prosecutable as a dangerous crime against children, which increases the penalty to a 10-year sentence, and requires those convicted to register as sex offenders.
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Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, said her Senate Bill 1698 was the result of meetings with members of the Log Cabin Republicans and the far-right anti-LGBTQ organization Gays Against Groomers while drafting the legislation. Both groups espouse anti-trans talking points. The latter was formed specifically to campaign against gender-affirming care for trans minors and family friendly drag shows, which it characterizes as the “sexualization and indoctrination of children,” and it has orchestrated harassment of school boards and hospitals that provide gender-affirming health care.
Jeanne Woodbury, a lobbyist for LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Arizona, noted that the language used to define a drag show is too broad and risks looping in family-friendly drag shows and even actors who aren’t drag performers. If the bill’s intent is to outlaw sexually explicit content, it fails to do that, she said.
“This would include every kind of drag performance,” Woodbury warned at a Feb. 16 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. “It includes a lot of things that aren’t even drag.”
The bill defines a drag show as a performance meant to entertain during which one or more performers sing, dance or act and use clothing, makeup or other “physical markers” opposite of their biological sex to exaggerate gender roles.
Wadsack acknowledged that the issue had been brought up by legislative attorneys and is one she is interested in addressing with a future amendment.
“I’m not here to hurt people’s businesses because they teach dance,” she said. “I’m not here to change people’s livelihood. It’s a matter of the protection of children.”
Despite its glaring flaws, the measure was moved out of the Republican-controlled committee along party lines.
Wadsack’s bill is far from the only anti-drag proposal forwarded by a contingent of far-right Republicans this session. Another bill threatens the withdrawal of state funding from schools who host drag shows and two others attempt to add prohibitions that are generally only applied to strip clubs, restricting where and when drag shows can occur. The latter two were sponsored by Glendale Republican Anthony Kern, who, like Wadsack, is a member of the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus.
One of Kern’s measures, Senate Bill 1030, was also approved along party lines on Feb. 16 by the Senate Government Committee, which is chaired by Arizona Freedom Caucus leader Sen. Jake Hoffman. While the proposals might be approved by the Republican-majority legislature, Gov. Katie Hobbs has warned that her veto pen will be at the ready to reject any bills that fail to earn bipartisan support, and her chief of staff has dismissed other anti-LGBTQ measures as dead on arrival.
Kern’s bill places drag shows under the legal definition for “adult-oriented business”, which are not allowed to operate between the hours of 1 a.m. and 8 a.m. Monday through Saturday or 1 a.m. and 12 p.m. on Sunday — likely affecting popular drag brunches. In a previous hearing, Kern acknowledged that the impetus behind his anti-drag bills was the family-friendly drag brunch in Texas, an event that attracted protests from white nationalists and has spurred similar anti-drag measures in other states.
Adult-oriented businesses are also prohibited from being located within one-fourth of a mile from schools, childcare facilities, homes or churches. Violations of those rules are punishable with a class 1 misdemeanor, which can result in up to a six month jail sentence and a $2,500 fine. Every day the rules are violated merits a separate misdemeanor charge.
Elijah Watson, a member of student coalition Keep Arizona Blue, criticized the measure on Thursday as discriminatory.
“This bill is a clear and divisive attack against the drag and queer community,” he said. “It perpetuates the myth that has been pushed this legislative session by Republicans that drag is a form of sexual entertainment, and that drag is an art form that promotes pedophilia and grooming.”
Hoffman rebutted that the bill deals only with sexually explicit drag shows. An amendment authored by the Queen Creek Republican sought to exclude family friendly shows by adding the term “sexually explicit” to any mention of drag shows in the bill, defining it as a depiction meant to arouse or simulate intercourse, or as broadly as simply the act of touching a person’s “clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or breast”.
But Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, pointed out that a drafting error failed to add the term before a mention of “drag performer,” meaning that any performer would also be subject to the bill’s regulations and punishments. And because the bill’s definition of drag performers is as broadly defined as Wadsack’s, it risks falling afoul of the same issues.
Hoffman conceded the omission but said that Kern, who accepted his amendment, would likely be open to another.
Jeff Perales, a managing partner of local Kobalt Bar, which is a frequent host of drag shows, said that, even in its revised form, the bill presents a redundant and unnecessary burden on small businesses. Kobalt Bar, and every other nightclub across the state, are already highly regulated. Those under 21 are not allowed to enter and, in the 16 years the bar has been in operation, he’s never had a problem with minors being present during adult-only shows.
“Instead of focusing on real issues like education funding, that are truly meant to inform and help, you’ve insisted on targeting already marginalized communities,” he said.
Perales urged lawmakers to reject the bill, warning that it only serves to encourage the kind of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that resulted in tragedies in Colorado and Florida, when shootings targeted the LGBTQ community in bars like his.
“Using this to blunt self-expression and free speech is un-American,” he added, likening it to comments from a previous hearing in which Hoffman accused totalitarian governments in China and Iran of doing the same.
That accusation incensed Hoffman, who immediately cut Perales off and threatened to have him removed from the room.
“In those countries, they throw homosexuals off of roofs and kill them,” he shot back.
Lydia Burton told lawmakers that approving the proposal would amount to violating her inherent parental rights and dismissing her culture as a part of the LGBTQ community.
“I have the right to celebrate my history and my culture with my child in alignment with my values, and there is no governing body — here or elsewhere — that will ever change that,” she said.
Burton cited Arizona’s Parents’ Bill of Rights — a law used often by Republican lawmakers to criticize masking policies and social agendas in schools — as giving her the sole power of directing her daughter’s upbringing.
“This bill is an egregious violation of my rights as a parent to raise my child in the way I choose,” she said. “I do not share custody of my child with the government, and I do not intend to allow you input into her upbringing.”
Hoffman once again reiterated the bill’s intent to address only sexually explicit shows, but Burton wasn’t convinced, noting that “sexually explicit drag shows” is a newly created category. When Hoffman rebutted that the definition for “sexually explicit” he added to the bill is grounded in statutes from 1961, she asked if he would like to return to the rampant criminalization of LGBTQ people that was common in that time.
Burton then asked if Hoffman had ever attended a drag show, and questioned his ability to legislate them when he replied that he had not — which prompted him to dismiss her from further testimony.
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