LGBTQ Agenda: Artists and others speak out as bills advance in 3 states that would criminalize drag

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023
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Participating drag artists in the Drag Story Hour nonprofit use age-appropriate material and the shows are optional for children and their parents or guardians to attend, officials said. Photo: Courtesy Drag Story Hour
Participating drag artists in the Drag Story Hour nonprofit use age-appropriate material and the shows are optional for children and their parents or guardians to attend, officials said. Photo: Courtesy Drag Story Hour

LGBTQ civil rights groups and drag artists are sounding the alarm about bills in three states that if they became law would restrict drag performances.

The bills are in North Dakota, Arkansas, and Tennessee, and are part of a backlash to queer visibility that was spearheaded by the so-called Don't Say Gay education bill passed in Florida last year and signed into law by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

Some 315 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBTQ rights organization.

On January 26, the North Dakota General Assembly advanced House Bill 1133, which would classify drag shows as "adult-oriented businesses'' and forbid them in places where children under 18 are present, as well as on public property.

The punishment would be up to 360 days in jail and up to a $3,000 fine, as violating the bill would be a Class A misdemeanor if it became law.

Sarah Warbelow, the legal director of HRC, stated in a news release that legislators are "clearly failing to understand that a drag performance at a bar for adults is very different from a drag story hour for families in an age-appropriate environment meant to foster creative validation and acceptance."

The bill "reflects the dangerous place to which extremism has led," Warbelow added.

"Bills like these create more stigma, discrimination, and ultimately violence against LGBTQ+ people, particularly transgender and nonbinary people," Warbelow continued. "We urge members of the North Dakota Senate to focus on the real issues impacting North Dakotans by opposing this nakedly political attack on the LGBTQ+ community."

The bill was forwarded to the state Senate. It passed the General Assembly in a vote of 79-3.

Jonathan Hamilt, a gay man who is the executive director of Drag Story Hour, a national nonprofit formerly known as Drag Queen Story Hour, told the Bay Area Reporter that the bills are "dangerous and detrimental" both to the drag and the trans communities.

"The bigger picture is that this isn't about drag queens, drag story hour, or protecting the children. It's about a larger, coordinated campaign about the rights of LGBT people and legislating them out of existence entirely," Hamilt said. "For people really into having rights and parental rights, these strip people of the ability to experience art and LGBTQ voices and equity and equality for everyone.

"Our program is 100% optional. You have the choice to bring your family to queer programming or not. We use drag as a traditional art form to promote literacy and teach people about LGBTQ lives," Hamilt continued. "We provide age-appropriate programming and routinely receive praise from educators for promoting acceptance. You don't have to understand everything and everyone to have compassion for people."

In fact, the San Francisco chapter of Drag Story Hour is looking for an interim events coordinator, according to its Facebook page. The position includes coordinating events and taking a lead role in the organization's Shields Up safety program, which is being piloted in the Bay Area.

Legendary San Francisco drag queen Juanita MORE! had this to say when asked about the legislation:

"We must be vocal and diligent about fighting for the rights of our LGBTQIA+ community," MORE! stated to the B.A.R. "Right-wing politicians and Christians continue ignoring the realities around them and, instead of doing anything meaningful, create anti-drag legislation that is born out of hate and ignorance. These bills endanger the safety of all queer people — but especially the youngest among us."

MORE! continued that LGBTQ youth are at particular risk of discrimination when visibility is attacked.

"As a community, it is crucial to empower our queer youth to ensure that they and their allies have the necessary tools and information to confront adversity on all levels, whether that be in the classroom, at home, or on the streets," MORE! continued. "In addition, the voices of the younger members of our queer community will shape future policy and affect the change necessary to elevate the quality of life for all individuals in this city — this state, this country, and throughout the world."

Arkansas, Tennessee bills

A similar bill in Arkansas was just forwarded to the full House of Representatives there by a panel after passing the state Senate. The bill uses the "adult-oriented businesses" line, but it also includes a portion that states that that the show must appeal to the "prurient interest," a line from obscenity laws that was used in the United States Supreme Court case Miller v. California (1971).

In the Miller case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that obscene materials are not protected by the First Amendment, but lessened the definition of "obscene material." (

For something to be obscene, and thus not covered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it must appeal to the "prurient interest," that is, sexual appetites; lack "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value;" and describe "in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law."

A law professor told Business Insider that the Arkansas bill is trying to fit within the Miller framework. However, most drag shows don't specifically appeal to the prurient interest, and therefore the bill may be essentially unenforceable.

HRC condemned the Arkansas bill.

"This is just another example of radical politicians in Arkansas spreading propaganda and creating more stigma, discrimination, and ultimately violence against transgender and non-binary people just to rile up extreme members of their base, the only voting bloc they are moving on these issues," HRC Arkansas state director Eric Reece stated in a news release after the state Senate passed the bill 29-6.

A subcommittee of the Tennessee General Assembly also advanced a similar bill, as did a panel of the Tennessee state Senate. Neither has been voted on by the full bodies.

The Assembly version of the Tennessee bill, like the Arkansas bill, has the "prurient interest" line. It would make it illegal to hold a drag show on public property or "in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult." Locations that wanted to hold a drag show would have to check ID's to make sure attendees are 18 or older.

There is already a law in the Volunteer State defining so-called male or female "impersonators" as participants in a "cabaret."

The anti-drag bill was filed by Republican Tennessee State Representative Chris Todd, who stated during a hearing that "This is a common-sense child safety bill ... There's confusion in the law of what performances are covered. This clarifies what is crossing the line that is harmful to minors."

But not everyone agreed.

Democratic Tennessee State Representative Gloria Johnson retorted, "I can tell you that people in drag shows have more clothing on, as a rule, than people in wrestling."

The Tennessee Equality Project is asking people to get involved on this and other legislation in the state.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

Updated, 2/7/23: This article has been updated with comments from Juanita MORE!

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