Anti-drag bills win unanimous approval from Senate GOP

By: - March 3, 2023 2:50 pm

A drag artist performs on the stage at Phoenix Pride Festival 2011. Photo by Devon Christopher Adams (modified) | Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Teachers who play movies like Mulan or Mrs. Doubtfire in class would jeopardize their school’s funding, under a proposal Senate Republicans on Thursday sold as protecting children from the dangers of drag shows. 

“I don’t think government money should be spent to confuse and disturb children,” said Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who sponsored the measure.

His legislation, Senate Bill 1026, prohibits any entity that receives state funding from hosting a “drag show targeting minors” or risk forfeiting that money for three years. But an amendment also bans school districts, cities and towns from using private money to pay for such a show. 

Democrats opposed the bill, which passed on a party line vote of 16-13, denouncing it as yet another attack on the LGBTQ community in a landmark year for Arizona Republicans, who have introduced a spate of discriminatory legislation

“It’s mind-boggling that we are focusing on these types of bills instead of the priorities that are on the minds of Arizonans,” said Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix.


More pressing issues like the looming housing crisis, education funding and the increasingly contentious state budget process should be at the top of the legislative agenda, she said, not proposals that contribute to hostility toward an already marginalized community. Bills like Kavanagh’s only signal to violent bigots that their behavior is acceptable, she warned. 

Tempe Democrat Juan Mendez agreed, positing that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the statehouse contributed to the bomb threat made against a drag story hour event last month in his district. 

“I wonder if these kinds of bills are making my community less safe,” he said.“There’s nothing to be afraid of and I cannot support demonizing a community.” 

Sen. Priya Sundareshan added that the bill’s definition of drag shows is too broad, and risks looping in unrelated performances. The Democrat from Tucson asked Kavanagh to clarify his bill in committee and when the full Senate considered it, but he repeatedly maintained the language is clear enough. It defines a drag show as one in which one or more performers use makeup and clothing belonging to the opposite biological gender to exaggerate gender roles and sing, dance or act to entertain an audience of minors. 

Republicans have claimed that drag performances differ from mainstream satirical plays because of their sexual content — but Kavanagh’s bill doesn’t include any reference to such content, and that argument ignores that drag performances vary by audience. A family friendly performance, such as a drag brunch or drag storytime, is far different from one performed in a nightclub, which is already subject to the same laws other adult-themed shows are. 

“Without understanding what drag is and what drag isn’t, it’s too easy to conflate form with content,” Mendez said. “And that’s how we get bills with no regard for the humanization of a community simply because the community appears to be different.” 

Supporters of the measure were undeterred by criticism from Democratic senators, defending it as a regulation on where taxpayer dollars go and accusing drag performers of being groomers — a homophobic myth used to advance the idea that LGBTQ people are pedophiles. 

“There are taxpayers who do not agree (with drag shows), therefore their funding should not be utilized in this fashion,” Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, said. “It is extremely important to make sure that tax money is not spent on activities that are sexualized towards children.” 

“There’s something wrong if there’s a drag queen who wants to go and perform in front of five-year-olds. It’s teaching children illicit behavior and it’s grooming,” echoed Sen. Justine Wadsack. She has embraced QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that is focused on stamping out a supposed global pedophilia ring run by world leadres and celebrities.

The Tucson Republican added that movies like Mulan and Mrs. Doubtfire, which Democrats warned stood to be looped into the bill’s prohibitions, are inappropriate for young children because of their PG-13 ratings. While the live-action version of Mulan is rated PG-13, the 1998 animated movie, which still includes the titular character dressing and acting as a man, is rated G. 

Wadsack authored her own anti-drag bill that also passed with solely Republican support on Thursday, with a 16-14 vote. 

Originally, her measure included drag shows under the legal definition of adult-oriented businesses alongside porn shops and strip clubs, and would have forced any drag performer — not just those in adult-themed shows — who performed in front of minors to register as a sex offender and serve a 10-year prison sentence

Wadsack, however, said she was concerned her bill’s broad definition of drag shows could criminalize everyday dance teachers and amended it on Thursday to punish only adult-oriented performances, removing any mention of drag shows. 

But Democratic lawmakers pointed out her definition is still too vague and could be weaponized against drag shows by people who oppose them. The proposal, Senate Bill 1698, defines an adult-oriented performance as one which includes nudity, sexual activities, the exposure of “specific anatomical areas” or is harmful to minors. State law says that harm to minors means representation of sexual conduct that is offensive to the average person, appeals to the prurient interest and does not have any literary, artistic, political or scientific value. 

“The worry is that the language of this bill will be perverted in order to continue to be applied to drag shows because (they) often focus on over-the-top humor, sometimes sexual in nature” said Sen. Anna Hernandez. “It may be offensive to some individuals that hear it.” 

The Glendale Democrat noted that relying on “prurient interest” as a benchmark for what constitutes sexual behavior is too subjective. The U.S. Supreme Court, she said, has ruled in the past that obscenity can be recognized on an “I know it when I see it” basis, which, like prurient interest, leaves too much open to interpretation. And Wadsack’s bill fails to define it further. 

“How would a person have a good idea of whether or not they would be breaking the law if there is no definition of prurient interest?” she asked. 

Others said placing the burden on performers is too unfair. The measure criminalizes not only parents and any adult who takes a minor to an adult-oriented performance, but also the performer themselves with a class 4 felony. If the child is under 15, that offense is classified as a dangerous crime against children, resulting in a 10-year prison sentence and mandated registration as a sex offender. 

“This puts a lot of responsibility on the person performing, as they would suddenly be responsible for knowing if there is even a minor in their audience,” said Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix.


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Gloria Rebecca Gomez
Gloria Rebecca Gomez

Gloria Gomez joined the Arizona Mirror in August 2022. She graduated in 2022 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor.