Anti-Drag Show Legislation Threatens Local Businesses
Houston drag performers weigh in on the legislative hate and hypocrisy.
Things are heating up in Texas, and it’s not just the weather. Senate Bill 12 defines drag as a “sexually oriented performance” and threatens venues hosting all-ages drag performances with civil fines up to $10,000, and individual performers with criminal misdemeanor charges. Senate Bill 1601 revokes state funding for any municipal library that hosts an all-ages drag story time.
These are only two of the 76 proposed bills by Texas legislators, and several other states have already passed laws or are trying to enact similar ones. The majority of them carry an undertone of demonizing LGBTQ spaces, and the language is vague enough to be interpreted in myriad ways.
If these bills do pass in Texas, they would likely have a far-reaching effect on Montrose businesses as well as their drag performers and patrons.
“The first impact that would be felt would be on the ability of the venue to generate profit. Being classified as a sexually oriented business requires specialty insurance with much higher premiums. Not to mention, any venue that is within a certain distance of a school or church would be shut down immediately, and reopening would require more resources than many queer and queer-friendly spaces can spare,” explains drag king Ian Syder-Blake.
While many venues would try their best to fight for the entertainers who bring in patrons, it’s not realistic to believe that the typical club could spend the time and money that a legal fight would require.
“In the end, it would mean the destruction of countless small businesses, leaving our community with nowhere to feel safe and millions of dollars in City tax revenues lost. I believe the impact will be much farther-reaching than these legislators have considered,” Syder-Blake adds.
Keep in mind that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission already enforces decency and obscenity laws that bars and clubs must follow. Further, most people in favor of the odious bills are also members of the “limited government” party. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
Drag performer Lana Blake shared her thoughts on the situation, saying “The only thing I have to say about legislatures weighing in on drag performances is that if you don’t want to see a drag show, then don’t go to that establishment. But don’t tell others that they can’t go, as well. It’s that simple. The new legislation being proposed is exceptionally frightening because of the wording. It makes my mere existence illegal. If I go to the grocery store and there are children there while I’m wearing women’s clothing, I could be arrested.”
Blake’s comment underscores how the bills’ vague language also endangers transgender people. “If [you can be arrested] simply for wearing makeup or clothing contrary to your assigned birth gender [when you are] outside or buying groceries, the entire trans community is at risk,” notes drag performer Violet S’Arbleu. “This is a witch hunt. More cisgendered gay people should really be speaking up about this and helping to protect our trans community. Famously, trans people were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots, which is what led to our Pride celebrations today. Trans people should be our idols, not our stepchildren.”
It’s also hard to explain why drag is suddenly such a problem, considering the number of famous straight actors who have appeared in drag for decades: Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Jared Leto, Barbra Streisand, Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, Tyler Perry, Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Lawrence, Tony Curtis, Julie Andrews, Felicity Huffman, Hugo Weaving, and Robin Williams. And don’t forget Bugs Bunny.
It wasn’t until LGBTQ culture became more socially acceptable and visible that the fake outrage over drag performances began to take shape. Despite the fact that most Americans are in favor of marriage equality and LGBTQ social acceptance, legislators are now using the queer community as a political football, with drag performers serving as the most visible lightning rod.
“The facts don’t support anything being claimed about us—just the opposite,” Syder-Blake emphasizes. “These conservatives call us groomers, but they are by far the greater threat to children. They say we’re dangerous to society, when they have been the driving force behind [everything from] institutionalized racism to child abuse. We cannot continue fighting if we don’t use facts and evidence to show that [most] of what these people do is meant only to maintain their control.”
“We must absolutely draw a line [and defend] our gender expression. I am literally just trying to live my life, do my job, pay my bills, and be happy—yet, these politicians want to pander to the religious right and claim that we are horrible people, for some reason,” Ian Syder-Blake adds.
S’Arbleu pokes holes in the logic that the bills are intended to protect children. “If minors sneak into an R-rated movie, they get kicked out of the theater; that theater is not sued or criminalized, and the child isn’t sent to jail. But [under the proposed laws], if parents bring their children to a drag show designed for children, the venue can lose its license, the performers can be charged with crimes, and everyone involved in the show is open to lawsuits—all because the parents [have chosen] to teach their children about acceptance and freedom,” she says.
“If these bills were really about protecting kids from sexualized content, they would also be banning minors from Hooters. Suspiciously, I see nothing about that in any of the 76 bills currently working their way through the Texas Legislature.”
Local performer and artist Marcus Pontello is upset that the bills stem from a long history of oppression against people who are typically not straight. “The whole purpose of these bills is [part of] a larger agenda to keep society heteronormative. Bills like this won’t stop at a drag show. People will continue to assault any form of society that deviates from a heterosexual vision of the United States. So every aspect of [queer life] is at risk, not just drag performers. Transphobia is at the root of all of this interest in banning drag shows. It’s about the fear of boys not being boys and girls not being girls. If drag was about biological men performing masculine roles and biological females performing feminine roles, there would be absolutely no issue.”
The words of German pastor Martin Niemöller can hopefully serve as a rallying cry for those fighting against the proposed bills. Reflecting on the Nazis’ rise to power before World War II, he said the following:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
A full list of anti-trans and drag show bills under consideration can be found at equalitytexas.org/legislature/legislative-bill-tracker-2023.