Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Dark and Nasty Republicans Propose Drag Brunch (and Maybe Gay Pride) Bans in Several States

The free speech party strikes again.
January 30, 2023
Dark and Nasty Republicans Propose Drag Brunch (and Maybe Gay Pride) Bans in Several States
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The drag panic of 2022 has exploded into a frightening and revanchist nationwide movement to menace and ban drag performances, pushed by activists and politicians whose insides are dark and nasty.

Protests targeting drag queens have sprouted up all across America, surging in the latter part of last year, according to analysis from Counting Crowds. In the two months since a deadly attack on a drag show in Colorado Springs, a gay New York City council member’s apartment building was breached by protesters; a Unitarian-Universalist church in Ohio canceled an event due to protests by militia members; armed activists gathered outside a theater in San Antonio; a Massachusetts library story time featuring a drag queen dressed as a princess was interrupted by adult males shouting profanities; and in Cookeville, Tennessee, a group of masked men carrying a Nazi flag threatened attendees of a drag brunch.

And that’s just a random sampling from their recent rolodex of hate.

These actions can’t be dismissed as outlier behavior from a tiny number of Oath Keeper freaks because the attacks on drag have gone from libraries to the legislature, where Republican politicians in states across the country are now poised to criminalize the free expression of the victims of these assaults.

First to the runway is Arkansas, where the state Senate passed SB-43 last week by a 29-6 vote. The bill would ban drag outside of strip-clubs: Any performance “in which one or more performers exhibits a gender identity that is different from the performer’s gender assigned at birth . . . and sings lip-synchs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience of at least 2 persons for entertainment” must take place at an “adult-oriented business,” which the bill defines as an adult arcade, book store, video store, cabaret, theater, massage establishment, escort agency, or nude model studio.

Arkansas has gone so retrograde that they are poised to ban Milton Berle and Bob Hope. Not to mention, of course, Rudy and Kitara Ravache (née George Santos, né Anthony Devolder).

This wasn’t a random messaging bill that will die on the vine. It is Arkansas Republicans’ top priority! SB-43 was the “first bill of consequence on the floor of the state Senate in this legislative session,” according to one of the six apparently sane members of that body, Sen. Clarke Tucker.

Meaning that Arkansas Republicans considered all of the challenges facing their state and determined that they should start not with inflation or economic development, or with tackling child poverty and infant mortality, in both of which they rank near the top (meaning the bottom) of the country.

No, dealing with real problems facing children in Arkansas will have to wait, ’cause the bubbas in charge gotta crack down on the imagined threat from Eureka first.

In an impassioned speech against the bill, Sen. Tucker argued that it is un-Christian, mean-spirited, unconstitutional, and an assault on freedom of speech. He also flagged potential downstream consequences, including banning Gay Pride Parades and the state’s movie theaters being unable to air raunchy films, like, uh, Tootsie.

His pitch fell on deaf ears; the bill passed overwhelmingly. So it’s on to the state’s House of Representatives next. Arkansas’s newly elected governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who may be a little butthurt over her send-up from Nina West, said in a press availability that she supports the bill’s passage. (West, it should be mentioned, was forced to go into hiding after a campaign of harassment targeted her both during performances and in her home.)

I asked Gov. Huckabee’s office whether she has concerns about how the bill would infringe of free speech rights, or contribute to the recent spate of violence against drag performers, or if it would somehow help with her state’s abysmal track record on child welfare stats. While I was at it, I asked whether or not she has ever attended a drag performance.

While the governor’s office declined to share whether SHS has been one of the wealthy straight women who enjoy a bottomless mimosa drag brunch, a spokesperson did reply claiming that this bill would not impact pride parades, saying “This bill doesn’t ban pride parades or adults from anything.”

When I pushed back, referring to the text of the legislation, which explicitly limits drag performances to adults-only venues. Huckabee Sanders’s office replied, “You’re missing the part in the bill that specifically states performances, ‘that is intended to appeal to the prurient interest,’ meaning sexually explicit material intended for those over the age of 18.”

On the one hand, I guess it’s noteworthy that Gov. Huckabee doesn’t intend to ban gay pride?

But it’s unclear how her office’s interpretation of the law matches the text. Maybe they are being intentionally obtuse, or maybe they’ve never attended a pride parade, but the reality is there is definitely some prurient shit happening there. (Warning: Those links are not for the faint of heart.) And parades are, by definition, not held in “adult-oriented businesses.”

Sooo . . . maybe this year in Arkansas, pride will be going back to its subversive roots.

Not to be outdone by their dusty cucu to the south, Missouri Republicans are considering eight different bills targeting the LGBTQ community, including two that would criminalize the presence of minors at drag shows and one that would ban drag performances at any venue where a minor could see the performance. Should the bill be enacted, a drag performer caught lip-synching in front of teenagers on two separate occasions could be charged with a Class E felony and sashayed away to their local prison for up to four years. Four years!

So in the Show-Me State, a high school junior could drive his car to Hooters for some wings and scantily clad women, but there would be criminal consequences if he went to an auditorium to watch Crystal Methyd baby bird her drag family. Madness.

In South Dakota, the state legislature is considering a bill that would ban drag shows at state-owned facilities or property, including universities. This bill was precipitated by a drag performance at South Dakota State University put on by the school’s “Gender and Sexualities Alliance.”

In support of the bill, the president of South Dakota’s Board of Regents said, “We respect the First Amendment, but none of us are happy about children being encouraged to participate in this event on a university campus.”

Children?! These are college students! They’re eligible for military service! And we’re talking about a dress-up show! What is the possible harm? I’m starting to get nostalgic for the GOP culture war targeting safe spaces. At least that was an ethos.

Additional drag show bans are being considered or drafted in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.

It seems insane to think that at the same time drag is peaking in worldwide popularity, with an inescapable hit TV franchise (which has more successful spinoffs than I can count), drag performers are as unsafe and targeted as ever.

But that is our reality. And if the leaders of this campaign don’t tamp down these attacks, then all the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent in the world might not be enough to protect people from those dead set on demonizing them.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.