Texas Senate committee advances bills restricting certain drag shows
Proposed legislation from Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, would criminalize explicit performances where children are present and strip libraries of state funding for hosting any event featuring performers in drag. Critics say the bill is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
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It’s been a long day for Robyn Valentine.
Standing in a packed Capitol hallway, the Corpus Christi-based drag performer could be spotted with her pink wig, stage makeup and baby blue clown outfit that comes with a ruffle collar and tulle sleeves. The look had taken about three hours to put together.
“I woke up at about 1 in the morning, just so I could get ready to be in drag,” she said.
For her, being in drag has always come naturally.
“I have always felt drawn to femininity,” she said. “Drag shows me an outlet in which I can embrace being a feminine gay male, but also doing so in an artistic way.”
It’s also business. Valentine has been a drag entertainer for over a decade, and in recent years she’s been performing live and hosting her own shows. And following the COVID-19 economic closures, she said one of her biggest focuses has been working with local businesses — something that has “created a sense of community.”
But now, she worries that Republican legislation designed to limit certain drag performances — on top of rising threats to and protests against these shows — could take away most of what she has built. So it was a no-brainer for her to drive four hours from the coast to Austin in the early morning to fight these bills, which she said target a minority group instead of protecting children, as the bill authors say.
“I came here because the attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community are not going to stop,” Valentine said. “I do fear for the future and what it could mean for my community and my own personal safety, which is why we need to draw a line in the sand now.”
Several other drag performers said they felt the same way as they gathered Thursday around the rotunda and eventually inside the Senate chamber — many of whom came decked out in higher heels, bigger wigs and brighter outfits — to make their voice heard on Senate Bill 12 and Senate Bill 1601. Four days later, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted to send both bills to the full chamber on a 6-2 vote along the partisan line. These proposals would have to pass both the Senate and the House before it could become law.
“I do get nervous. I do get scared. I’ve even had to cancel a show because I’ve had severe anxiety about it,” said Brigitte Bandit, an Austin-based drag performer who donned a bright pink floor-length gown and a big pink wig. “But ultimately, what am I going to do? Hide? I can’t hide. I have to be able to continue fighting for these things in being present and being visible.”
During the Thursday committee hearing, dozens of drag performers and their allies testified against these bills, outnumbering the the bills’ supporters. Opponents of the legislation also said the Republican-led efforts to criminalize certain drag performances were attacks on Texans’ First Amendment rights, while others said the legislation took away Texas parents’ rights to decide what content or culture their children are exposed to.
On the other side, the smaller contingent of the bills’ supporters say the legislation is needed to protect children from sexually explicit materials.
Filed by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, SB 12 would impose a $10,000 fine on business owners who host drag shows in front of children — if those performances are sexually oriented. The bill defines a sexually oriented performance as one in which someone is naked or in drag and “appeals to the prurient interest in sex.” The U.S. Supreme Court defines prurient interests as “erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion.”
Compared to several other Republican proposals that seek to restrict drag shows — including Senate Bill 476 that Hughes previously filed — SB 12 scales down the proposed restriction on drag shows. But performers and their allies said the bill’s language is still vague.
“The bill being proposed is being left purposely vague to scare people out of interpretation,” Valentine said prior to the hearing. “I’ve seen many different people propose different interpretations already.”
During the Thursday hearing, Democratic Sen. José Menéndez of San Antonio voiced a similar concern about SB 12.
“I am concerned that what this is going to do is just put a target on the backs of certain people in certain businesses,” he said.
Hughes also filed SB 1601, which would withhold state funds from municipal libraries that host events in which drag performers read kids’ books to children.
These libraries don’t receive their operational funding directly from the state, according to a statement from the Texas Library Association. Instead, libraries can get money through competitive grant programs run by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, the association said — around $2 million is distributed each year. SB 1601 could stop libraries hosting drag shows from being able to receive such grants the year after the events were held, the TLA said.
Baylor Johnson, the marketing and public information program manager for the Austin Public Library, is opposing SB 1601. In the past three years, the Austin Public Library has hosted at least two drag queen storytime programs at the request of members, which he said were age-appropriate and earned positive responses from families.
“Austin Public Library supports a parent’s right to make decisions about what kind of learning or entertainment experiences are appropriate for their child,” Johnson said. “Would a female librarian donning a Santa hat and beard to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ jeopardize the library’s state funding?”
The bills’ opponents also spoke about the importance of drag shows to the Texas economy, with these events drawing patrons to restaurants and bars to serve as an economic driver for small-business owners. They have also been a key way to raise funds for charities.
Janson Woodlee, who spoke on behalf of the Equality Alliance, an LGBTQ advocacy and philanthropic organization in Central Texas, testified that drag performances were a central component of the organization’s annual “Unite The Fight Gala.” Woodlee said last year’s gala raised over $200,000 for LGBTQ organizations in Texas.
On the other hand, less than a dozen supporters of the bills spoke at Thursday’s hearing. They said the legislation is needed to protect children from explicit materials and performances.
“Bringing children around sexual content is a targeted assault on their minds and bodies that should never be tolerated in a civilized society,” said Kelly Neidert, a conservative activist and founder of Protect Texas Kids, an organization that protests drag events.
Protect Texas Kids has been part of at least 14 drag event protests since it was founded just before Pride Month last June.
But the bills’ opponents said lawmakers are focusing on the wrong issue if they are trying to protect kids. Instead, they implored lawmakers to turn their attention toward gun violence or sexual abuse by church members.
Additionally, they say drag is simply an art form that shouldn’t be attacked.
“To restrict drag — an art form — in any way is a direct attack on my fundamental rights as an American and as a performer,” said Jay Thomas, an Austin resident who performs in drag as Bobby Pudrido.
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