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Some lawmakers hope to crack down on drag shows watched by children

Scalene Onixxx reads during Drag Queen Story Hour at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif., in 2019
Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images
Scalene Onixxx reads during Drag Queen Story Hour at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif., in 2019

The LGBTQ+ community has long celebrated self-expression with drag shows featuring performers in costumes and makeup, impersonating men or women. Witness the popularity of the Emmy Award-winning RuPaul's Drag Race. But Republican legislators in Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states are trying to crack down, with proposals to ban minors from drag shows.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested he could order his state's child protective services department to investigate parents who take their children to such performances.

"We have laws against child endangerment," DeSantis said during a news conference in Fort Myers Beach last week, after a video of children attending a drag bar in Dallas surfaced. "They were putting money in the underwear, and that is totally inappropriate," he said. "That is not something that children should be exposed to."

Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini takes it even farther, proposing to terminate the parental rights of adults, and make it a felony if they bring their children to watch a drag show.

Bryan Slaton, a Republican state representative in Texas, said he would also propose a bill banning drag shows where minors are present. "Perverted adults are obsessed with sexualizing young children," he complained in a statement.

In Arizona, Republicans say they're also alarmed. "If men want to dress as women, and if adults want to participate in watching these hyper-sexualized performances, they have the freedom to do so. It crosses the line when kids are subjected to these drag shows," they wrote in a joint statement, adding that they send a message of "complete and utter perversion" to children.

Arizona state Sen. Vince Leach told NPR he has heard more and more from parents complaining about drag shows witnessed by children, and he is now drafting legislation to do something about it.

"It's a drag on society," Leach said in a phone call this week. "These performers are, in my view, disgusting." He says he's disturbed by newspaper photos of kindergarteners "stuffing bills into panties" at drag performances. "These are kids looking at something they'll never be able to get out of their minds. We don't allow kids into strip joints, we don't allow them into X-rated movies ... so it's foreign to me why we allow this to go on."

Across the country, the heat is on for drag performers, especially during Pride Month.

Last weekend, West Palm Beach's "Pride on the Block" event canceled its planned drag show after Canadian police reported a 17-year-old made anti- LGBTQ comments online and threatened to shoot people at the event.

In California last weekend, a group of men allegedly part of the far-right Proud Boys disrupted a storytimeevent at the San Lorenzo library. Kyle Chu, whose drag name is Panda Dulce, was about to read to preschool and kindergarten children. Wearing shirts emblazoned with an AK-47, the men shouted homophobic and transphobic threats.

"The Proud Boys yelled 'who brought the tranny?' and started hurling insults, calling me a pedophile and a groomer," Chu told Teen Vogue. "To be confronted with bigots that are deeply misinformed about who you are and what you stand for, it's terrifying."

A security guard quickly escorted out the group, and Chu went on to read to the children. The Alameda County Sheriffs office has opened a hate crime investigation.

In response to DeSantis' comments, his gubernatorial rival, Democrat Nikki Fried, announced she supports drag shows.She told the website Florida Politics, "If a parent wants to take their kids to a drag show, that's on the parents. And it's entertainment. The kids are not turning gay because they went to a drag show."

During a civil rights conference, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel reportedly described complaints about children exposed to drag queens as "fake issues" that are dividing people. The Detroit News quoted heras saying that drag queens lift children up when they are having emotional issues. Nessel, the state's first openly gay person elected to statewide office jokingly called for a drag queen for every school. "Drag queens make everything better," she said. "Drag queens are fun."

TV talk show host Andy Cohen tweeted, "I'd take my kids to a drag show before taking them to a gun show." And comedian, actor, singer and author Randy Rainbow posted this tweet: "I'm introducing a bill to protect drag queens from children."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.