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Nebraska drag queens, advocates fight proposal to prohibit children from attending drag shows


Nebraska drag queens, advocates fight proposal to prohibit children from attending drag shows

Mar 24, 2023 | 11:01 pm ET
By Zach Wendling Aaron Sanderford
Nebraska drag queens, advocates fight proposal to prohibit children from attending drag shows
Supporters of trans rights gather in the Rotunda of the Nebraska Capitol on Friday to speak out against three bills that organizers say target LGBTQ youth, including one to ban minors from local drag shows. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Drag queens and local LGBTQ advocates flooded a legislative hearing Friday talking about the joy of drag in the face of efforts to restrict minors from attending such performances.

Legislative Bill 371, proposed by State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, would prohibit minors, specifically those younger than 19, from attending drag shows. He defines drag as when the performer entertains displaying a gender identity different from their sex assigned at birth. Opponents expressed concern that such a definition could apply to transgender people in public life.

An amendment would classify drag shows as adult entertainment and would extend to education, not just singing, lip syncing, dancing or otherwise performing for entertainment.

Anyone who brought a child to such an event, including the child’s parents, could be charged with a Class I misdemeanor. Murman said that charge matches the lowest punishment for child abuse, when children are placed in a situation where they are sexually manipulated or put in harm’s way but that does not result in serious bodily injury.

A Class I misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to $1,000 or one year in jail. 

Organizations that knowingly violate the proposed law would be fined $10,000. No state agency could use state funds to host a drag performance.

‘Overly sexual and inappropriate’

Murman said his bill is about protecting children, which is the same argument that’s been used to support other legislation this session dealing with LGBTQ Nebraskans.

“I have nothing against anyone dressing in drag or participating in drag shows, and I love everyone,” Murman told the Judiciary Committee. “But this is about making sure kids are not at drag shows and are not introduced to overly sexual and inappropriate behavior far too early.”

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, a committee member, expressed concern the bill would apply to other entertainment, such as Shakespearean plays, theater generally or rock concerts.

“What you’re doing is cherry-picking a demographic,” Blood said.

State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington, committee vice chair, questioned whether Murman’s bill should instead apply to prurient behavior generally, which is defined as a “morbid, degrading or excessive interest in sexual matters.”

She asked Murman whether he believes anyone who performs in such a manner around children should be punished.

Dave Murman speaks before a legislative committee in February. He is the lead sponsor on a bill to prohibit minors from attending drag shows.
State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil introduces legislation before a committee on Feb. 10, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Murman said that is correct, though drag could be a “contributing factor.” 

He and other supporters of LB 371 also expressed concern about people performing as a different gender than their assigned sex at birth. Some supporters said this could “confuse” children.

One testifier in support, Angie Eberspacher, said drag shows indoctrinate and groom children and are the result of post-modernism and “wokeness.”

“They want to initiate children to the world of queerness,” Eberspacher said. “They want to teach children to be transgressive against heteronormative society. They are teaching a simplified version of queer theory. It is a coordinated nationwide state-by-state playbook to infiltrate and subvert children.”

‘Moment of joy’

Earlier in the day, about 100 Nebraskans, including more than 25 in drag, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the Capitol Rotunda and called for senators to treat them as human beings and equals. 

OutNebraska Executive Director Abbi Swatsworth organized a noon-hour gathering to defend LGBTQ Nebraskans with the ACLU of Nebraska. She described the rally as a “moment of joy” during a difficult week. 

“Having your humanity debated, having people talk about whether or not you exist as a trans person is extremely painful,” Swatsworth said. “It is destabilizing for folks.”

The loudest cheers of the rally were reserved for two entertainers who participate in local “Drag Queen Story Hour” performances, Pollie Roxia and Babygirl Uchawi. 

They performed a story section from Alex Willan’s “Unicorns are the Worst” to show what happens during story hours, saying they wanted to correct what some Nebraskans read online. 

Roxia said none of the people who showed up for trans rights should have to do so — their right to exist should be understood.

“What you saw here was not evil,” Roxia said. “It’s just queer people sharing queer hearts to queer families and children.”

Nebraska drag queens, advocates fight proposal to prohibit children from attending drag shows
The Rev. Debra McKnight of Omaha’s Urban Abbey speaks to a crowd of trans rights advocates in Lincoln on Friday. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

One host of their performances, the Rev. Debra McKnight of Omaha’s Urban Abbey, said the books that get read are “about being who you are and loving who you are.” 

She and others said the amount of vitriol that opponents send toward trans advocates and allies is upsetting and, in some instances, leads to violence. McKnight described an emailed death threat she said the Abbey received.

“I just wish that everyone … who has so much fear and rage and anger could come see it firsthand because the scales would fall from their eyes,” McKnight said. 

Nebraska violations

Murman provided multiple links to the committee of what he said showed sexual and inappropriate behavior performed by drag queens. Two of those links allegedly occurred in Nebraska.

One video, Murman said, showed a child taking off their clothes and dancing provocatively. The second, he said, showed a drag queen bringing a child onto a tabletop and encouraging the child to dance for money. According to Murman, this child quickly got down and was clearly uncomfortable.

Both events differed from Murman’s accounting, however, based on a Nebraska Examiner review of the videos, posted to Twitter by the Libs of TikTok account.

In the first video, at an Omaha event, a child is dancing and removes a cape but remains fully clothed otherwise. The child then jumps up and down while waving an arm in a windmill fashion, before lying down on the floor. 

In the second video, taken in Lincoln, a child is led onto a table and remains standing there until after the video ends about 10 seconds later. It is unclear what the child is feeling, based on the distance the child is from the camera.

Drag queens testify

Multiple drag queens and transgender Nebraskans testified before the Judiciary Committee, with a line of testifiers earlier in the afternoon stretched across the Capitol’s lower first floor to the cafeteria. 

Nebraska drag queens, advocates fight proposal to prohibit children from attending drag shows
Local “Drag Queen Story Hour” performers Pollie Roxia and Babygirl Uchawi spoke to a group of trans rights advocates in the Nebraska Capitol Rotunda on Friday. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

They described how drag helped them discover themselves and find community.

Alliyah Hopkins, who performs as JaJa Adore, described drag as an exchange of energy.

“In more ways than one, this has saved more lives than it has harmed,” Hopkins said.

Jacob Thomsen, who performs as Jackie O Kennedy, said Murman’s proposal assumes drag performers cannot tailor their shows to match a target audience.

“I believe this body has made a grave mistake in introducing this bill, and I implore you all to make the choice to not allow it to continue any further,” Thomsen said.

Multiple opponents noted that drag performances can get raunchy but that performers are careful not to do so in front of children. As DeBoer told Murman, any performer who violates those principles could be held accountable.

‘Trans joy is revolutionary’

On Thursday, lawmakers voted to advance LB 574, a bill that would restrict access of some gender-affirming care to minors in the state.

A small group of counter-protesters gathered outside the Capitol during Friday’s rally. One held a sign thanking the 33 senators who voted for cloture on LB 574, allowing first-round passage.

Several joined testifiers in support of LB 371, arguing that children have no business attending drag shows or drag story hours, despite their parents’ willingness to have them attend.

ACLU Nebraska Legal and Policy Counsel Jane Seu said at Friday’s rally that Nebraska taxpayers, like those in Arkansas, where a law similar to LB 574 has been held up in court, are in for an expensive defense if laws such as LB 574 and LB 371 pass into law.

Seu said both bills appear unconstitutional. The former discriminates on the basis of sex, she said, while LB 371 infringes on First Amendment rights.

“It takes significant resources to defend a law that is unconstitutional,” Seu said. 

While Seu stopped short of promising lawsuits, she said the ACLU has already spoken with potential litigants who are lined up to protect their individual rights.

Nebraska drag queens, advocates fight proposal to prohibit children from attending drag shows
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, whose filibuster against anti-trans bills drew national attention, told a group of trans rights advocates Friday that she would continue fighting. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, who has led filibusters against LB 574 and other bills targeting LGBTQ Nebraskans, vowed at Friday’s rally to continue fighting.

“I’m grateful … to all of you who continue to show up and be yourself,” said Cavanaugh, who said she was humbled by their support. “I will fight for 40 more days [of the session].”

Swatsworth and other advocates said they will continue to press for trans rights.

“Trans joy is revolutionary,” Swatsworth said. “Queer joy is revolutionary. We plan to make the revolution joyful.”