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Lawmakers targeting drag shows with 14 bills across U.S., analysis finds

Lawmakers in eight states have introduced a total of 14 bills targeting drag shows, according to an analysis by PEN America, a nonprofit organization that champions freedom of speech.

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Protest at the Arizona Capitol on Jan. 22, 2023, in Phoenix in response to anti-drag show bills.
Protest at the Arizona Capitol on Jan. 22, 2023, in Phoenix in response to anti-drag show bills.

Why drag shows?

The legislation comes as all-age drag shows have become a flashpoint in America's culture wars. Drag shows that allow children in the audience have come under fire from far-right extremists across the country over the last year, sometimes with resulting violence. An adult drag show in Colorado Springs became the scene of a mass shooting, in which the shooter now faces hate-crime charges.

An all-age drag show in Roanoke, Texas last summer accepted help from armed anti-fascists who protected the venue after local police refused to provide extra security.

Supporters of all-age drag shows say they provide a crucial support network for LGBTQ children, who can benefit from events that celebrate gender identity and expression. Right-wing extremists, amplified by conservative pundits and politicians, claim all-age drag shows are damaging to children's mental health and allege, without evidence, that they are havens for child abusers.

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People gather in support of transgender youths during a rally at the Utah Capitol on Jan. 24, 2023, in Salt Lake City.
People gather in support of transgender youths during a rally at the Utah Capitol on Jan. 24, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

What the bills propose

Many of the bills require businesses that want to host drag shows to register as adult entertainment venues or "sexually oriented businesses," said Kate Ruane, director of U.S. free expression programs at PEN America. In most cases, that will have the effect of essentially banning drag shows, she said.

The proposed legislation often defines drag shows extremely broadly to include anybody who performs live dressed in clothing associated with the gender they were not assigned at birth, Ruane said.

One bill, which passed the Arkansas Senate on party lines last week, would classify drag performances as adult businesses similar to strip clubs and pornography stores. Arkansas state Sen. Gary Stubblefield, a Republican, who sponsored the bill, told the Senate, “Putting children in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women” cannot have any good outcomes," the Arkansas Advocate reported.

“I had one [person] email me and say that I hate drag queens, and that’s a lie,” he said. “I don’t hate anybody. I do hate sin because that’s the way I was raised. I think that I know what’s wrong in God’s eyes because that’s the way I was raised, and I believe the Bible, but I don’t hate any drag queens.”

A First Amendment right?

The bills are an attack on First Amendment rights in the states where they have been introduced, Ruane said.

"It undermines all of the principles of free expression upon which this country was founded," Ruane said.

"That means if you're a bookstore, and you want to have a trans man come and do a live reading of his book, you can't do that — That's a drag show," Ruane said. "If you want to put on Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play, you can't do it, because it requires drag — it requires a woman dressing as a man."

Identical bills

In Texas, PEN America identified identical bills introduced by three different lawmakers, Ruane said.

Though PEN America did not determine if the bills had a common source, it's not unusual for special-interest groups to write so-called "model bills" which are then copied into proposed laws in many different states.

A USA TODAY-Arizona Republic-Center for Public Integrity investigation previously found that over 8 years, more than 10,000 proposed laws nationwide had been directly copied from special interest groups, including conservative and business special interests.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ban drag shows? Analysis finds bills targeting them in 8 states