Clad in a gray sports coat, black dress pants and shiny buckled loafers, Axavier Strick — an Army veteran who is more commonly known in Orlando by the drag stage name Darcel Stevens — sat in a committee room in the state Capitol on Tuesday listening to people compare drag performers to “sexual offenders” and equate some of their performances to “child abuse.”
He had prepared remarks to address the Senate Judiciary Committee. But after hearing the comments, he improvised.
“I am a drag queen,” Strick said. “I am a big man. I fought for this country. I would die for this country. And if you have a question that you want to ask me, ask it.”
The panel — composed of nine Republicans and three Democrats — went silent.
The moment encapsulated the tension surrounding proposed legislation that, if approved, would tighten restrictions on venues that allow minors into drag queen performances as Gov. Ron DeSantis has vowed to hold accountable businesses that expose children to “sexualized content.”
Republican lawmakers are following suit, saying they believe there are instances in which the state government should step in when they believe children are being harmed.
“Government intervention should be a last resort,” said Sen. Clay Yarborough, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1438. “However, as lawmakers we have a responsibility to protect children from what is patently offensive to the prevailing standards in our communities.”
A business owner could face up to a year in prison if they knowingly admit a child into an “adult live performance,” which under the proposal, would include a show that “depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct,” or “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”
The penalties would not target parents who choose to bring their child to watch a performance, Yarborough said. In those cases, though, the business could still be held liable for knowingly allowing a minor in if the performance violates the standards set out in the proposed law.
Comparing drag shows to NC-17 movies
Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, compared the issue to the standards set for movies that are rated NC-17 (no one 17 and under admitted), a rarely used rating that blocks minors from watching the film even with a parent present.
“While we are wanting to empower parents, and they already do have the right to do as they would like to do with their children, as lawmakers we also have a responsibility to make sure that we are doing as we should do to make sure protections are in place,” Yarborough said.
Several members of the public, including those affiliated with Christian and conservative groups, applauded Yarborough’s efforts. Many of them worried about children being exposed to adult content and events, particularly those tied to the LGBTQ community.
“The phenomenon of drag queen performances targeting specifically children have exposed the increasing focus of the LGBTQ community to target children, which is very disturbing,” said John Labriola with the Christian Family Coalition. He added that the legislation was needed to protect kids from “registered sexual offenders” and stop female impersonators from “influencing children.”
Anthony Verdugo, a Miami man with the Christian Family Coalition, echoed those sentiments. He criticized a Wynwood restaurant that hosted daytime drag queen brunches. One of those shows was caught on video, which is the subject of a state complaint that could put the venue’s liquor license at risk of being suspended or revoked.
“That is patently child abuse, that is not debatable. That is child abuse,” Verdugo said about the video, which showed a drag queen clad in a bright yellow G-string and nipple covers leading a young girl around the restaurant.
Drag queen talks about charity work
Upset by the comments, Momma Ashley Rose, an entertainer who showed up in the committee room dressed in a colorful checkered dress with a big, red bow on the waistline, and a puffy blonde wig and dramatic eye makeup, asked lawmakers: “Do I look like a stripper?”
The entertainer is also the president and founder of the nonprofit organization Rose Dynasty in Lakeland. The organization raises money through drag shows and other events that are advertised as family-friendly with the goal of offering resources and a safe space to LGBTQ youth.
“I am a drag artist, and what do I do? I raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in Polk County and across Central Florida for charity and children in need,” the entertainer said. “This bill may not speak directly to drag, but it is causing Nazis to show up at my events and causing me to get death threats daily and causing me to be falsely accused of doing things that are inappropriate.”
The emotional testimony during an hour-long committee hearing ended with the bill advancing on a party-line vote.
Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, said that he believed the bill was “very appropriate” and thanked Yarborough for having the “courage” to introduce it this year.
Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book of Plantation opposed the bill and wondered if Republicans would go after “child beauty pageants that sexualize young girls,” or restaurants, like Hooters and Twin Peaks, where scantily clad waitresses work.
“If not, it [the effort] is simply further proof of bigotry and homophobia,” Book said.
After the passage of the bill, Strick, the drag queen from Orlando, walked out of the room profanely expressing displeasure with the vote.
After a few minutes, he told a reporter that all he wanted was to have lawmakers understand that they are vilifying the entire LGBTQ community by focusing on the “fringes” and are not legislating by taking all the perspectives of the community in mind.
“If their rhetoric continues as such, I’ll be deemed a pedophile and that really upsets me more than anything,” he said.