Drag queens defend their livelihood while lawmakers try to define ‘adult live performances’
Friday at 8 a.m., House lawmakers gathered at a commerce committee meeting to consider a bill that would limit minors from attending so-called “adult live performances.” At issue is that some businesses may lose their licenses if they host an event involving so-called “lewd conduct” and where minors are present.
As Rep. Randy Fine discussed his bill, five drag queens walked in 20 minutes late to the early meeting to oppose the legislation.
“It is a pleasure to be here this morning, as early and as sleep deprived that I may be,” said Bak Lava, a drag queen from St. Petersburg, during public comments Friday.
The reason why Bak Lava and other drag queens attended the early committee hearing was to defend drag performances as lawmakers consider a bill that could impact their industry.
HB 1423, sponsored by Fine, who represents part of Brevard County, would charge a person with a first-degree misdemeanor for “knowingly” admitting a minor to an “adult live performance.” The bill would also permit the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) to remove or suspense licenses from lodging or food establishments who allow minors to attend an “adult live performance.”
But the bill’s definition for what constitutes as an “adult live performance” is left vague and subjective, and advocates for the LGBTQ+ community worry that it will target drag shows, especially in states like Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Lee earlier this month banned some drag shows.
“I’m just trying to make a living just like the rest of us are. I actually work three jobs,” Bak Lava told lawmakers. “I’m a server, I run a coffee house – as a boy, I don’t look like this. That would be too much work — But I’m just here to make my living just like everyone else in America and work my 80 hours a week, and just hopefully have a little bit of fun at the end of the day. I’m not trying to convert anyone’s children,” she said.
Drag performers can be people of all genders — men who dress in elevated-performances of women, women who dress in elevated-performances of men, or other variations of gender expression. Some drag performances are intended for adult audiences and can be provocative in nature, while others aim to be more family friendly.
HB 1423 defines an “adult live performance” as:
“Any show, exhibition, or other presentation in front of a live audience which, in whole or in part, depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, specified sexual activities” as defined by state law, “lewd conduct, or the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts when it:
/predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest;
/is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community of this state as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for the age of the child present.
/taken as a whole, is without serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for the age of the child present.”
Fine argued that his bill would not impact any performances that do not violate those provisions, but LGBTQ+ advocates were not convinced.
“We all know that this bill is really about drag performances and attacking the queer community,” Jackson Oberlink from Florida Rising, said at the House Commerce Committee meeting. “That is the true intent behind it. It is not some altruistic parental rights bill or about protecting children.”
At the end of his testimony, he urged lawmakers to oppose the bill — and to attend a drag show.
“And I would encourage you all to go to a drag show – and even, you know, try out drag. Get in drag, it’s really freeing.” Oberlink then looked to Fine, who was sitting to his right.
“I think the sponsor would enjoy it too. Loosen up a little bit – it’s a good time,” Oberlink added.
Rep. Bob Rommel, who chairs the commerce committee, added lightheartedly:
“Thank you for your testimony and recommendation for (Rep.) Fine to dress in drag,” prompting laughter from lawmakers.
Following Oberlink’s testimony were the handful of drag queens who drove up from the Tampa Bay area to oppose the bill, arguing that drag performances have artistic value that children can benefit from and to inform lawmakers that not all drag performances are provocative in nature.
Here is a sampling of their testimonies.
Ericka PC is newer to drag performance. She told lawmakers that many of her drag performances are charity events to raise money for a variety of issues and is a way to connect with her late mother.
“I started doing drag in October because of the different legislation you all are passing against the LGBTQ community. Since I started doing drag – it is not easy – I started doing benefits. I do charities for the LGBTQ communities. I do charities for people who are not in the LGBTQ community. I did one about two or three weeks ago for a couple that lost everything in a fire,” she said.
“And I started to do drag as actually a persona of my mother who passed away of stage four cancer,” she added. “This is her to me. This is how she looked. It is my way of letting her live on through me. And I’ve been able to do so much good for other people. For cancer, we will make somebody up that has lost everything – their hair, their eyelashes, so we’ll put makeup on them. Make them feel beautiful. We had to do that for my mother.”
Freya Rose Young
Freya Rose Young, from Tampa, told lawmakers that exposure to drag as a child saved her life.
“I was a suicidal child – child, not teenager, child – because I did not have the information and I did not have the resources to fight for my own life. It was not up until I was 14-years-old, met that woman sitting in the back row back there, Ms. Angelique Young, who later on became my drag mother and quite literally saved my life…I started doing drag as a minor, as a child. That is what saved my life and that is what turned my life around.”
She added that some of her fans are children:
“My biggest fans are children. I have a drag Bingo that I do on Thursdays at a pizza place. Literally, I have children in my message boxes saying ‘I’m so excited to see you. I can’t wait to see you’ — because those children were me. Those children have supportive parents that fight for their children. I did not have supportive parents that fought for me. By taking away a parent’s right to do what’s right for their children – it’s unconstitutional.”
“Good morning everyone — I will try to make this quick as I am wearing four pairs of pantyhose, a girdle and I have to pee,” said Angelique Young, prompting laughter from the lawmakers. She added later in her testimony: “I dressed today and put on more makeup than I’d like to at 8 a.m. — just so you can see me.”
Angelique Young is a Black and Latina transwoman who has been doing drag for 17 years. She spoke to the artistic merit of drag performance.
“I make a very good point to use my artistic ability as a makeup artist, as a production designer, as a dancer… I am trained in hip hop and ballet and contemporary dance … and I use these things to put on shows and take people into a reality, just like a movie does. Just like television does,” she said.
She also added that, as an aunt to “15 boys and one girl,” her family comes out to see her performances, some as young as one-years-old.
“They come to those shows to see their ‘Tití,’ to see ‘Auntie,’ to see the person that they see at every holiday. They come to watch me perform and put on these shows and meet the other entertainers, just like you would when you go to Broadway.”
She added that drag performers “don’t want to harm children.”
“We want to educate them. We want to show them art,” she said.
House Speaker Paul Renner confirmed Friday afternoon that the bill is a response to drag performers engaging with children during a press availability.
“What it is (HB 1423) is a response to an effort, a regrettable effort, by adults, in this case drag queens, who seem to be obsessed with pushing their lifestyle on children. So my point, and I think the point of our members and my side of the aisle, is let kids be kids.”
“Drag queens need to go do drag queen shows with adults and leave the kids alone.”