In recent months, more than a dozen American states have sought to restrict or ban drag performances, with many framing these legislative moves as aimed at protecting minors. In this explainer, JURIST unpacks the trend and highlights its worrying implications for free speech.
What is drag?
Drag is an art form, wherein individuals dressed in exaggerated costumes entertain audiences with song, dance, comedy, and by other means. Many associate the term with drag queens — performers dressing as women with exaggerated feminine features on stage, but the genre is more expansive and nuanced. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality:
“Today, many prominent drag artists are still people who identify as men and present themselves in exaggeratedly feminine ways as part of their performance, and are known as drag queens. While some drag queens live their lives as men outside of their drag personae, people of any gender can be drag queens. Drag kings, who wear men’s clothing and perform stylized forms of masculinity, are less common, but do exist. Many drag kings are women, but people of any gender can be drag kings as well. … Like transgender people, drag performers can experience discrimination and harassment because of their gender expression.”
Why do states want to ban drag performances?
State lawmakers moving to crack down on drag performances have typically couched these initiatives as efforts to protect children from “prurient” forms of entertainment. A survey of the many bills pending state legislative reviews reveals similar, if not identical, language along those lines.
These efforts come amid the backdrop of US culture wars that have reached a fever pitch in recent years, with gender issues featuring heavily in popular debate. As social progressives have increasingly embraced the idea of gender as a spectrum, social conservatives have drilled down on the idea of gender as a binary. Drag as an art form has gained mainstream popularity, and as a form of entertainment that necessarily entails creativity in gender expression, it appears to have become an easy target for politicians eager to rally socially conservative voters.
Why are they focusing on minors?
As Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown over the course of 20 years of authoritarian rule, an effective way to stifle free speech and expression is to claim that failure to do so will hurt children.
This is how the Russian leader justified a 2012 law banning so-called “gay propaganda” in the presence of minors in similar terms in a 2019 interview with US filmmaker Oliver Stone:
Oliver Stone: Years ago when we were talking about homosexuality, you said that in Russia we don’t propagate it.
Vladimir Putin: Not exactly. We have a law banning propaganda among minors.
Oliver Stone: Yes, that’s the one I’m talking about. It seems like maybe that’s a sensible law.
Vladimir Putin: It is aimed at allowing people to reach maturity and then decide who they are and how they want to live. There are no restrictions at all after this.
Arizona State Senate Republicans mirrored this logic in a recent statement. “One of the reasons why we were elected as lawmakers by our constituents was to protect family values. If men want to dress as women, and if adults want to participate in watching these hyper-sexualized performances, they have the freedom to do so. It crosses the line when kids are subjected to these drag shows,” they said.
In effect, by focusing on a vaguely termed and amorphously defined “threat” to the youth, leaders are able to appeal to the lowest common ethical denominator, even in the absence of evidence or concrete explanations of the perceived threat.
|Arizona||SB 1026, 1028, and 1030||To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors, to classify drag shows as adult entertainment and accordingly bolster zoning and permit requirements|
|Idaho||HB 265||To prevent “sexual exhibitions” around minors, defined in part as performances involving “sexual conduct,” which is defined as “Sexually provocative dances or gestures performed with accessories that exaggerate male or female primary or secondary sexual characteristics.”|
|Iowa||SB 348||To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors|
|Kansas||SB 149 and 201||To expand the crime of promoting obscenity to minors to include drag performances, and to prohibit public funding related to drag shows for which minors are the primary audience|
|Kentucky||SB 115||To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors, although referring to drag shows in the following terms: “a live performance involving male or female impersonators, who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest in sexual conduct, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration, which taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”|
|Minnesota||HF 1903 and SF 933||To classify drag performances as adult entertainment and establish related location restrictions|
|Montana||HB 498 and 494||To categorize drag performance venues as “sexually oriented businesses,” and to create an offense related to adult cabaret performance, defined in part as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether performed for consideration”|
|To prohibit individuals under 19 and under 21 years of age from attending various types of drag performances|
|North Dakota||HB 1333||To strengthen the state’s obscenity laws with respect to drag performances, described as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration”|
|To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors|
|South Carolina||SB 585||To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors|
|South Dakota||HB 1116 and 1125|
|To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors, to prevent public funding of drag-related activities|
|Tennessee||SB 0003; see also HB 0009, 0030, and SB 0841||To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors or on public property|
|Texas||HB 643, 708, 1266, 4129, and 4378; SB 2281 and 476||To restrict drag performances in various ways, including with the creations of civil and criminal offenses|
|West Virginia||HB 3176, SB 253 and 103|
|To prevent drag shows from being performed in front of minors, to restrict public funding for such performances, and to prohibit “people from dressing in drag when reading aloud during story time in schools.”|