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Republican Politicians Are Struggling To Define Drag


Kaleigh Rogers: What is drag? It may seem like a simple question, but it’s stumping politicians across the country. Republican lawmakers in at least 16 states have recently introduced bills to try to ban drag shows under certain conditions, like in public spaces or when children are in attendance.

Here’s how one bill, introduced in Arizona, defines it: a performer who dresses in clothing and makeup opposite of their gender at birth to exaggerate gender signifiers and roles and engage in singing, dancing or a monologue or skit. By that definition, could opera be considered drag? Or Mrs. Doubtfire? Or Shakespearean comedies? And, is a ban like this even constitutional? The answer could impact performers and LGBTQ people — even those who don’t perform in drag.

State Sen. Kavanagh: I am working on some amendments to the bill because the definition is problematic.

Rogers: State Senator John Kavanagh is one of the sponsors of that bill from Arizona, which would ban state funding from being used for drag performances in front of children.

State Sen. Kavanagh: For one thing, people were talking about some movies and cartoons. So I’m going to probably make this only deal when the person is live. And I probably only deal with adults doing this as opposed to some children’s theater.

In terms of, you know, a Shakespeare, a Shakespearean play, that’s just cross dressing. And look, I’ve been around the block a long time. I have never heard anybody refer to a Shakespearean play as a drag performance. Drag performances are very, very much different.

Rogers: Are they though? Drag means different things to different people. Daddy Satan is a drag performer.

Daddy Satan: It’s very diverse. They have a lot of pageant queens, but we also have a lot of down and dirty alternative people as well. And we have people who perform in their gender assigned at birth. And I just love that there is opportunity to try something new, try something weird, see if you like it and progress from there.

Rogers: Will you tell me some of the things that are being proposed in these bills?

Daddy Satan: The language is very dangerous. A lot of it says that if you are dressed in clothing opposite of your assigned gender at birth. So this not only goes to target the drag community, but the trans community as well.

Rogers: Along with being difficult to define, live entertainment is a constitutionally protected form of free expression, which is why many of these bills are adding amendments to specifically narrow the definition around “obscene” or “sexual” drag performances, according to Gillian Branstetter, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gillian Branstetter: They attempt to restrict free expression without due justifications. Often in these bills, you’ll see the language of a “prurient interest” or as labeled as “obscene.” Those are explicitly to make the bills harder to challenge in court, because those are higher standards.

Rogers: And that means it would be left to local law enforcement to decide what’s “obscene” and what’s not. Proponents of these bills say they are trying to protect children — for some, from sexually explicit performances, and others, like Kavanagh, from what they call “indoctrination.” But opponents of these bills, such as drag performer Lil Miss Hot Mess, say that’s based on a misunderstanding of drag at best, or an intentional mischaracterization at worst.

Lil Miss Hot Mess: I mean, yes, some drag performance can take on a sexual nature, especially if it’s performed at, you know, a club for adults. But like any entertainers, like any professionals, when we do drag story hour we show up knowing our audience. We show up knowing what’s appropriate, what’s appropriate to wear, what books are appropriate to read, how to engage children, you know, even basics, like how to tell a joke that a kid is going to appreciate, versus a joke that a parent can appreciate. I think to accuse us of sexualizing our performances or sexualizing children, is really kind of just trying to attach a hypersexuality to LGBT people, you know, just because our identities and desires are different. But we’re not bringing that into the space of children, and it’s kind of ironic that they’re so obsessed with us, you know. I’m sorry if you’re titillated by me, but that’s kind of on you, that’s not on me.

Rogers: So far, only one state has enacted a drag ban — Tennessee — but many other states are attempting to find the right wording to make it harder for drag performers to do their thing. And it’s part of a wider trend of state legislatures introducing bills that seek to impose restrictions specifically targeting the LGBTQ community, something that could very likely become a dominant issue as we head into the 2024 election cycle.


Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Julian Kim is a video editor for ABC News.


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