Kaleigh Rogers: What is drag? It may seem like a simple question, but it’s baffling politicians across the country. Republican lawmakers in at least 16 states have recently introduced bills to try to ban drag performances under certain conditions, such as in public spaces or when attended by children.
Here’s how one bill, introduced in Arizona, defines him: a performer who is dressed in clothing and makeup opposite of his gender at birth to exaggerate gender meanings and roles and engage in singing, dancing, or a monologue or skit. . By that definition, could opera be considered drag? Or Mrs. Doubtfire? Or Shakespeare’s comedies? And is a ban like this even constitutional? The answer could affect performers and LGBTQ people, even those who don’t perform in drag.
State Senator Kavanagh: I am working on some amendments to the bill because the definition is problematic.
rogers: State Sen. John Kavanagh is one of the sponsors of that Arizona bill, which would prohibit state funds from being used for drag performances in front of children.
State Senator Kavanagh: On the one hand, people talked about some movies and cartoons. So I’ll probably do this deal only when the person is live. And I probably only deal with adults doing this rather than some kid’s theater.
In terms of, you know, a Shakespeare, a Shakespeare play, that’s just cross-dressing. And look, I’ve been around the block for a long time. I have never heard anyone refer to a Shakespeare play as a drag performance. Drag performances are very, very different.
rogers: Are they though? Drag means different things to different people. Daddy Satan is a drag performer.
Daddy Satan: It is very diverse. They have a lot of pageant queens, but we also have a lot of down and dirty alternative people. And we have people who act in their gender assigned at birth. And I love that there’s an opportunity to try something new, try something weird, see if you like it, and build from there.
rogers: Will you tell me some of the things that are being proposed in these bills?
Daddy Satan: The language is very dangerous. Much of this says that if you are dressed in clothing opposite of your gender assigned at birth. So this is not only targeting the drag community, but also the trans community.
rogers: In addition to being difficult to define, live entertainment is a constitutionally protected form of free speech, which is why many of these bills are adding amendments to specifically narrow the definition around “obscene” or “obscene” drag performances. “sexual,” according to Gillian Branstetter, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Gillian Branstetter: They intend to restrict freedom of expression without due justifications. Often in these bills, you’ll see language of a “prissic interest” or labeled as “obscene.” Those are explicitly to make the bills harder to challenge in court, because those are higher standards.
rogers: And that means local law enforcement would be left to decide what is “obscene” and what is not. Supporters of these bills say they are trying to protect children, some from sexually explicit performances and others, like Kavanagh, from what they call “indoctrination.” But opponents of these bills, like drag performer Lil Miss Hot Mess, say they are based at best on a misunderstanding of drag, or at worst on an intentional mischaracterization.
lil miss hot mess: I mean, yeah, some drag performances can take on a sexual nature, especially if they’re done in, you know, an adult club. But like any artist, like any professional, when we drag out story time, we show up knowing our audience. We come in knowing what is appropriate, what clothing is appropriate, what books are appropriate to read, how to engage children, even the basics, like telling a joke that a child will appreciate, versus a joke that a parent might appreciate. I think accusing us of sexualizing our performances or sexualizing children is really trying to pin hypersexuality on LGBT people, you know, just because our identities and desires are different. But we’re not bringing that into the kids’ space, and it’s kind of ironic that they’re so obsessed with us, you know. I’m sorry if I titled you, but that’s up to you, not me.
rogers: So far only one state has enacted a drag ban, Tennessee, but many other states are trying to find the right wording to make it harder for drag performers to do their thing. And it’s part of a broader trend of state legislatures introducing bills seeking to impose restrictions specifically targeted at the LGBTQ community, something that could very likely become a mainstream issue as we head into the 2024 election cycle.