‘Drag Queen Story Hour’: 15 State Legislatures Consider Bills to Protect Kids
Committee Hearings Drawing Passionate Testimony On Both Sides
Lawmakers in several states are trying to stop “Drag Queen Story Hours” at public libraries and public schools.
In some other states, legislators are trying to keep children from seeing drag shows.
The bills have generated spirited debate, with advocates on either side filling hearing rooms in state capitols during the past several weeks.
Drag queens are performers — usually men — who dress in exaggerated feminine costumes, wigs and makeup. They sing and dance, often sexually suggestively and often impersonating a famous female singer. Such performances tend to be popular in nightclubs and bars pitched at homosexuals.
Starting in 2015 in San Francisco, drag queens began appearing at events aimed at children.
Supporters of these events say they promote literacy, tolerance, and fun. They criticize the bills for what they describe as intolerance and overbroad definitions that they say might capture cross-dressing in mainstream plays and movies like Mulan, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, and William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Critics say drag queen events introduce children to sexual themes they aren’t ready for and in a way, that is confusing and morally degrading. They say the legislators’ bills are narrowly tailored to stop inappropriate interactions between adult-oriented performers and kids, and wouldn’t affect showings of movies or plays.
In October 2022, a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill that would have prohibited federal funds from paying for “any sexually oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10.” (It’s titled the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act.”) It was referred to a committee but did not get a hearing before the legislative session ran out.
Below is a survey of legislative action in 15 states since mid-January 2023.
One bill filed in January in the Arizona Senate would prohibit public money from being used “for a drag show targeting minors.” Another bill seeks to prohibit “adult cabaret” performances (including “drag performers” and “drag shows”) on public property or in places where it could be viewed by someone 17 or younger. Another bill would require zoning permits for drag shows, which would allow local authorities to steer drag performances away from local libraries and schools.
The public-funds bill came up for a hearing before a legislative committee last week.
The sponsor of the bill, State Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, told the Arizona Senate’s Committee on Government that he thinks “it might be confusing and disturbing to children to see images at a drag show.”
“And in addition, frankly there’s a culture war going on in this country to win the hearts and minds of people. And a lot of these drag shows that target children, like library story hour, are specifically meant to introduce children to drag show and drag show performers. This is basically an attempt to influence the children,” Kavanagh said during the hearing Feb. 8.
State Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, the committee chairman, called separating drag queens and children on public property “common sense.”
“To expose children to drag shows, to drag attire, to bring that into the minds of a 3-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old, is wrong. It is objectively wrong. It socializes and conditions. It unlocks doors in their brains that they are not ready for, that their parents have not decided to speak with them about, and it is objectively wrong to do that,” Hoffman said.
An opponent of the bill, Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, described the bill as a harmful and dangerous overreaction.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to drag shows reading stories to children. If that scares you, if that threatens you, if that confuses you, then we have way bigger problems than what’s before us today,” Mendez said.
The Arizona Senate’s Committee on Government voted 5-3 to recommend the bill Feb. 8, breaking down along party lines, with Republicans for and Democrats against.
Republicans hold slim two-member majorities in both the House and Senate. The governor is a Democrat.
In Montana, a bill would ban “drag performances” in public libraries and public schools.
“My question is: Why do adults want to dress in drag and perform for children? … In my humble opinion, there’s no such thing as a family-friendly drag show,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, during a hearing Feb. 8 of the Judiciary Committee of the Montana House of Representatives.
Heather Higgs, a mother who said she is in “a culture war with adults who seek to hypersexualize Montana’s children,” told the committee drag queen performances harm children.
“Children do not know what normal looks like. They only know what they are exposed to. A drag show, or a drag queen story hour, isn’t simply men parading in women’s attire. Subjecting children to drag shows or drag queen story hour are indoctrinating and grooming children to believe that it is normal for men to play dress-up as their favorite female idol in dresses that reveal large silicone breasts while adorned in outrageous bouffant wigs and caked-on clownish makeup. Their appearance does not evoke one of a woman deserving of respect. Rather, it is a mockery of women, and perpetuates our sexual objectification,” Higgs said.
Akilah Deernosc, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, called the bill “a solution in search of a problem where none exists,” afterward using terms that refer to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“There is nothing inherently sexual about drag,” Deernosc said. “The legislature must not heed the call of the dog whistle intended to sexualize this form of expression, thereby inciting fear, discrimination, and hate towards a form of artistic performance and community of performers that has nothing to do with sex. This bill is just another attempt to erase two-spirit and LGBTQIA individuals from public sphere, and the constitution does not allow for such erasure. And the First Amendment does not allow the state to determine or constrain what is permissible for how we choose to express ourselves.”
At legislative committee hearings in several states, drag queens have testified, some in costume and makeup.
One of those is Elani Borhegyi, a Montana resident who performs as “Jackie Rosebutch.” Borhegyi described being one of three drag queens who read to kids during an event in Helena during the summer of 2022; Borhegyi plans to do that again this coming summer.
State Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, asked the drag queen, “Your message to children is love, community and acceptance. Do you have to dress as a drag queen to give those messages to children?”
Borhegyi responded, “So, I believe that there’s many means to deliver messages to all sorts of people. That’s the definition of art. Drag is art. And drag is an art form, a very creative art form, with lots of freedom that allows you to express messages in a creative way. And, sure, there are many ways that we can express these messages, and I think that drag is just one of those, in many ways. And a way that happens to be super-fun and engaging.”
The North Dakota House of Representatives on Jan. 26 passed a bill that would ban “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from performing on public property or “in the presence of an individual under the age of eighteen.”
The bill doesn’t mention drag queen story hours.
The vote was 79-13, largely along party lines, with four Republicans voting against it and one Democrat voting for it.
Mark Jorritsma, executive director of North Dakota Family Alliance, told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 23 about a drag queen show in June 2022 on the grounds of the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck that included face painting and a sign saying “All Ages Welcome.”
He also linked in written testimony to a June 2022 NBC News story showing a video of a drag queen dancing in provocative red clothing in a bar in Dallas, Texas, and taking a dollar bill from a young girl sitting in the first row.
“These kids should be playing with Legos, making string art, and growing lima beans in wet paper towels, not tipping drag performers with cash as they writhe in front of them,” Jorritsma said.
The sponsor of the drag queen bill, State Rep. Brandon Prichard, R-Bismarck, attached to his written testimony to the North Dakota House Judiciary Committee a link to a 2017 YouTube video depicting an 8-year-old boy named Nemis who at the time danced drag as “Lactatia,” with the support and approval of his mother. In the video, the boy appears in makeup, blonde wig and a red dress with well-known drag queen Ru Paul.
“It’s because of people like you that I’m here,” Ru Paul says in the video, which is posted on the Elle magazine YouTube channel. “You are my replacement. And you’re gonna be wonderful at this. You’re going to have lots of fun with it. And it’s going to take you to a lot of wonderful places.”
During the Jan. 23 committee hearing, a Minnesota resident who lives on the border of North Dakota expressed opposition to the bill. Aeon Axiom Carlson, who identifies as “trans and genderfluid,” expressed concern about how the bill might affect a common family activity.
“I am a hula hoop performer and one of my favorite things to do in the summer is visit the lovely Fargo parks in a nice flowy dress and hula hoop and dance while my kids play on the playground. This bill would strip away everyday joys and freedoms I have as it is worded in a way that erases and ignores genderfluid and gender nonconforming people. It would paint actions of wholesome family time in a terrifyingly dark light that as a parent is unimaginable,” Carlson said.
The North Dakota Senate plans to take up the bill in March.
Republicans dominate both chambers. The governor is a Republican.
A bill filed Jan. 30 would define drag performances as an “adult entertainment establishment,” at which minors are not legally allowed. Such establishments would not be allowed on public property.
It has not yet been granted a committee hearing.
A bill filed would define an “establishment that hosts drag performances” as an “adult-oriented business.” Minors are not legally allowed at adult-oriented businesses in the state.
It has not yet gotten a committee hearing.
A bill in Tennessee would ban an “adult cabaret performance” that includes “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” on public property or in a place that “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”
The current version of the bill does not mention drag queen story hours.
The Tennessee Senate’s Judiciary Committee voted 7-1 on Jan. 31 (along party lines) to recommend that the bill pass. Fifteen state senators are sponsors of the bill, all Republicans. That’s almost enough to pass the Senate, which has 33 members. The Republicans hold a 27-6 majority in the state Senate, and a 75-23 majority in the state House of Representatives. The governor is also a Republican.
In January two state legislators in Arkansas filed a bill seeking to define a “drag performance” as an “adult-oriented business” that cannot take place on public property or where a minor can see it.
The Arkansas Senate passed a version of that bill 29-6 on Jan. 24, along party lines.
But House members in early February watered down the bill, taking out references to drag performances. The House version of the bill would prohibit on public property or within view of a minor only “a performance that is intended to appeal to the prurient interest,” which is defined by certain explicitly sexual markers. The House on Feb. 6 passed the watered-down version of the bill 78-15, along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against.
The governor, a Republican, has said she wants to sign a bill that in her view protects children from drag queens.
In January, an Oklahoma state representative filed a bill that would define “drag performers or similar entertainers” as “adult cabaret performances,” which the bill would ban from public property “or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a minor.”
Violations would be felonies carrying prison sentences ranging from 30 days to two years and a fine ranging from $500 to $20,000.
The bill defines a “drag performer” as “a male or female performer who adopts a flamboyant or parodic feminine or masculine persona with glamorous or exaggerated costumes and makeup.”
The bill has not gotten a committee hearing yet.
A bill filed Feb. 7 would prohibit state funds from paying for “drag shows targeting minors.”
The bill has not yet received a committee hearing.
Another bill, filed Feb. 2, would define a “drag performance” as an “obscene performance”; under state law, “promoting obscenity to minors” is a misdemeanor for first offense and a felony for subsequent offenses.
That bill, too, has not yet gotten a committee hearing.
A bill filed in January in the Missouri House of Representatives would define “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” as an “adult cabaret,” which minors 17 and younger cannot legally attend under state law.
Another bill would define a “drag performance” as a “sexually oriented business,” which is off-limits to children 17 and younger.
The House General Laws Committee held a hearing on both bills Jan. 24. The committee has not voted on them yet.
A bill filed in the West Virginia Senate in January would prohibit minors “from being involved in drag shows for any reason” and require that drag shows “may not be held in the presence of minor.”
The bill has not yet gotten a committee hearing.
A bill filed in January in the South Carolina House of Representatives called the “Defense of Children’s Innocence Act” would prohibit state or local government funds from paying for drag shows and prevent minors from attending drag shows.
The bill has not gotten a committee hearing yet.
A bill filed in January in the South Dakota House of Representatives would prohibit public schools from hosting drag shows and would ban state money from being used to pay for them.
The South Dakota House State Affairs Committee voted 11-1 to recommend the bill on Monday, Feb. 13, after a hearing.
A bill filed in Nebraska’s single-chamber Legislature in January would prohibit a state agency from using state funds for a drag show and would ban people under age 19 from attending a drag show.
The bill has drawn several proposed amendments from a Democratic member who identifies as a lesbian and an atheist, including an amendment that would ostensibly ban people under age 19 from attending “religious indoctrination camp,” which would include any camp or vacation Bible study sponsored by a church.
Neither the bill not the proposed amendments have gotten a committee hearing yet.