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As drag shows go ‘mainstream,’ some red states look to restrict them


As drag shows go ‘mainstream,’ some red states look to restrict them

Apr 01, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Amanda Hernández
As drag shows go ‘mainstream,’ some red states look to restrict them
A drag performer, Champagne Monroe, reads the children's book “Rainbow Fish” to a group of children and parents at the public library's Drag Queen Story Hour in Mobile, Ala. Much of the drag-related legislation under consideration across states aims to prohibit minors from attending performances and reclassify establishments that host drag shows as adult entertainment spaces, subjecting them to stricter business regulations. Dan Anderson/The Associated Press

Drag performances used to be found mostly in the confines of nightlife venues such as clubs and bars.

But drag has stepped into the daylight, with elaborately costumed and made-up performers appearing at library readings and kid-friendly brunches, and a newfound visibility for gender-bending entertainment and self-expression.

“Drag now versus 15 years ago is like night and day,” said Dr. Lady J, a Cleveland-area performer with a doctoral dissertation in drag history. “Drag is so mainstream now. … I grew up in a world where drag queens were this mysterious thing that maybe existed in New York or San Francisco.”

The growing visibility has made drag performances a target for conservative legislators. Although polls show most Americans don’t support laws to restrict drag performances, lawmakers in states including Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and West Virginia have considered or enacted legislation this session that would prohibit businesses from allowing minors to attend drag shows. Several would impose stricter business regulations on establishments that host drag shows or would ban “obscene live conduct” at state universities.

Supporters of these bills say they are designed to protect children from entertainment that is not appropriate for them, not to target the transgender community. But critics warn that such laws could be used to file criminal charges or discriminate against people who identify as transgender outside of drag performances. This year, 21 drag-related bills have been considered in 12 states, according to the ACLU’s LGBTQ+ bill tracking database. (Some were carried over from last year’s legislative sessions.)

Most of them failed. Of 15 drag bills considered last year, only three were carried over to this year’s legislative sessions, according to the ACLU’s database. Those that become law often face significant legal challenges.

In Montana, where a law explicitly restricting drag performances was enacted last year, federal court orders have rendered it unenforceable.

Courts also have deemed the laws in Florida, Tennessee and Texas — all of which use similar language about “adult cabaret entertainment” or “sexually oriented businesses” — unenforceable. A federal court ruled that the Texas law was unconstitutional and violated the First Amendment.

Legislation restricting gender-affirming care, transgender girls’ participation in school sports and restroom access is also on the table in many states.

Drag is so mainstream now. … I grew up in a world where drag queens were this mysterious thing that maybe existed in New York or San Francisco.

– Dr. Lady J, a Cleveland-area drag performer

Dr. Lady J says drag-related bills deflect attention from deeper issues facing the LGBTQ+ community.

“[These drag-related bills are] distracting people from the actual anti-trans laws that are being passed,” she said. “It’s flashier to talk about drag than it is to talk about what it means to tell a 12-year-old, 14-year-old trans kid they can have hormones one day and the next day to tell them that thing that you thought was going to save your life … the government decided yesterday you don’t get it anymore. Good luck surviving, kid.”

Largely backed by GOP lawmakers, bills affecting drag performances have often surfaced during election cycles, experts pointed out, deployed to mobilize conservative voter bases.

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“[Drag] is the latest in a series of LGBTQ-related issues that [some Republicans] have found compelling as a way of firing up their base and getting folks either to contribute money or to come out and vote for them,” said Melissa Michelson, a political scientist and LGBTQ+ politics expert at Menlo College in California.

The focus on drag-related legislation is likely to wane as election season fades, Michelson added. “It’s all about riling up the public. There’s no actual threat. It’s very much an electoral politics phenomenon.”

Dr. Lady J said these efforts aren’t about protecting children but rather about erasing LGBTQ+ visibility from public spaces. When she performs at kid-friendly events, she is deliberate about selecting music and attire that are both appropriate for and captivating to younger audiences, such as a headdress adorned with pony figurines inspired by the popular toy and show “My Little Pony,” Dr. Lady J told Stateline.

“The reality is that a lot of these people just don’t want queer people anywhere near their kids,” she said. “They don’t want their kids to see that you are allowed to grow up and be happy and be a queer person.”

Many who are backing the bills disagree, saying they’re worried about how adult content is seeping into everyday life.

“We’ve really come to a place where things that were always considered adult-oriented have moved into the public sector and have been marketed and advertised at family-friendly events, when truly they were very sexual in nature,” Kentucky Republican state Sen. Lindsey Tichenor said in an interview.

State legislative efforts

Tichenor has sponsored a bill targeting performances “with explicitly sexual conduct” in “adult-oriented businesses” near places children might be.

Her bill would restrict these businesses from operating within roughly a city block’s distance — about 933 feet — of other establishments serving children, such as schools, playgrounds or day care facilities. Violators risk losing business or liquor licenses and may face cease-and-desist orders. Local governments also would have the power to impose stricter rules.

“A lot of the opposition really isn’t informed [about] exactly what is in the legislation. And it’s really, very simply, putting adult-oriented businesses in the proper place where minors can’t have access to it,” said Tichenor.

When initially introduced, the bill contained language that redefined as adult-oriented businesses establishments that “host sexually explicit drag performances.” Tichenor said she made several adjustments to the bill after meeting with performers who were concerned with the proposed revised definition. The current version of the legislation no longer references all drag, but describes adult cabaret that contains “explicitly sexual conduct.”

“I thought it was very important that we had that definition specific to drag performances that are of a sexual nature and where those can be and where they cannot be,” she said.

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This legislative session, only one related measure has been signed into law, in South Dakota. Approved in early March, the law prohibits the state Board of Regents and the public universities it oversees from using state funds or property for “obscene live conduct.”

While the law does not explicitly ban drag shows, some opponents believe it’s a veiled attempt to target them because two bills with similar language, with one explicitly banning drag, died earlier this year.

“It’s kind of impeaching on First Amendment rights –– free expression, freedom of speech,” said Everett Moran, a legislative intern with the Transformation Project Advocacy Network, a South Dakota-based trans advocacy group.

The bills come after controversy erupted in 2022 over a drag show held at South Dakota State University in Brookings that was advertised as kid-friendly. There was backlash, and the Board of Regents set a policy that prohibits programs on campus where minors are present from including specific sexual activities, obscene live conduct or any material meeting the definition of “harmful to minors.”

Proponents of the law said it reflects that policy.

“This [bill] complements [the board’s policy] and says, you know what, this is more than just a policy. This is a law. You broke a law,” Republican Rep. Chris Karr, the bill’s lead sponsor, told colleagues ahead of the bill’s vote in the House in early February. Karr could not be reached for comment for this story.

No one from the Board of Regents testified in favor of or against the bill, but when asked about how the new law would be enforced, the board said in a statement that it “does not currently authorize or expend public funds to support obscene live conduct, as defined in codified law 22-24-27, on any South Dakota public university campus.”

South Dakota state Rep. Linda Duba, a Democrat who voted against the measure, said the law will not affect the transgender community. Still, she said, the law is unnecessary and “purely political.”

“It’s an election year, and the [Republican] supermajority decided this would be something they thought we should do even though we have policies in place that make this bill unnecessary,” Duba said in an interview. “We’ve already defined in current statute what obscenity is, and we have a policy in place by the Board of Regents, and the bill doesn’t do anything different.”

A different time

In West Virginia, a bill introduced in January would have amended the state’s indecent exposure law to criminalize engaging in “obscene matter.” The bill’s definition of “obscene matter” includes “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances, or display to any minor.”

GOP Lawmakers Aim to Criminalize Drag Shows Where Children Could Be Present

The bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Azinger, could not be reached for comment, and co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Robert Karnes, declined Stateline’s interview request. Before the state’s legislative session ended, the bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee.

In Missouri, a Senate and House bill would each add performances featuring male or female impersonations to the definition of sexually oriented businesses. Both bills are in committee. Under the bills, performers could potentially face felony charges for performing in public spaces where the show could be viewed by a child.

And in Nebraska, legislation that would restrict minors — defined by state law as anyone under 19 — from attending drag shows, appeared to die after the legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted against advancing it. The proposed legislation would have imposed misdemeanor charges, carrying a maximum penalty of up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail, against anyone — including parents — who brings a child to a drag event.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans oppose laws that would impose restrictions on drag shows or performances in their state, while 39% support such legislation, according to a 2023 NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll.

Despite the varied opinions among Americans, these drag-related bills have emerged at a time when drag has become a form of mainstream entertainment and widely popular, said Michelson, the political scientist and LGBTQ+ politics expert. This differs from previous attacks on members of the LGBTQ+ community throughout history, who were targeted during a time when stigma was rampant, Michelson added.

“These bans aren’t going to be particularly successful or popular in the way that folks are maybe hoping they will be. It’s kind of too late,” Michelson said. “If they had gone [after] drag performers a decade ago, 15 years ago, it probably would have hit more successfully.”