Anatheia Smith, a Montana drag performer, testifies to the House Judiciary Committee against House Bill 359 on Feb. 9, 2023. Credit: Eliza Anderson Wiley / MTFP

A bill that would ban drag shows in public schools, libraries and some businesses unleashed a wave of testimony Thursday, pitting LGBTQ people, public employees and local arts organizations against conservative parents’ groups who cast drag performance — and gender nonconformity more broadly — as inherently harmful to children.

In his remarks to lawmakers on the Republican-majority House Judiciary Committee, sponsor Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Kalispell, said House Bill 359 was a response to the nationwide increase in all-ages drag events, including drag story hours, which he described as “hypersexual” and inappropriate for children. 

“In my humble opinion, there’s no such thing as a family-friendly drag show,” Mitchell said. 

In its current form, HB 359 defines “drag performance” as exhibiting “a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs for entertainment to appeal to a prurient interest.” Opponents blasted that definition on Thursday as inaccurate and broad enough to encompass transgender people.

HB 359 is one of several Montana bills that LGBTQ rights groups describe as a collective attempt to push their community members, particularly transgender people, out of the public sphere. Other Republican-sponsored bills — a ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors, a prohibition on broadly defined “obscene materials” in public schools, and a bill allowing medical providers to withhold health care services based on their religious and moral beliefs — have advanced through the Montana Senate and House chambers with comfortable margins in recent days. 

As they did in prior hearings on those bills, opponents of HB 359 urged lawmakers on Thursday to reject the bill they said was harmful and unnecessary.

“Last time I checked, the government’s place is to protect our rights, not to legislate based on misinformation and fear,” said Chloe Runs Behind, a member of the progressive group Forward Montana. “Trans people are not a danger to the youth of Montana. Legislators who abuse their power to make decisions for Montana families are a danger to Montana.”

Proponents during Thursday’s two-hour long hearing included Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, the Montana Family Foundation and members of parent advocacy groups, including the Yellowstone County chapter for Moms for Liberty, a national conservative group that has supported anti-LGBTQ book bans and school curricula reforms in other states. Several backers of the bill described drag performance as predatory, sexual and psychologically damaging for children

“Why would we allow them access to our children?” said proponent Johanna Kennedy. “Why would we allow these scenarios where our developing children are destabilized, presented with distorted images of sexuality and sexual relationships?”

Democratic lawmakers repeatedly interrupted proponent testimony, saying some remarks were irrelevant to the bill and offensively conflated drag performers with pedophiles and sexual predators. In response to a request from Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, for more help curbing inaccurate testimony, committee chair Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, said the comments were largely acceptable. 

“This is a very wide subject here and there are opinions on both sides of this,” Regier said. “So we’re going to hear this testimony because this is a concern for the proponents that that is what the subject is.”

Opponents later sought to untangle those associations, expressing alarm and frustration at the accusations made by the bill’s supporters.

“What I’m hearing is an enormous mistaken overlap between sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual activity and predatory behavior and sexual abuse. And that’s why we didn’t want this bill to move forward. We knew that this was going to be the conversation,” said SK Rossi, a Montana lobbyist representing the Human Rights Campaign. “The LGBTQ community is tired of being assumed as sexual predators or groomers or people who are looking to harm your children. We’re not.”

Some opponents, wearing drag outfits and elaborate makeup, testified about the positive impact drag has had on their lives. Elani Borhegyi, a performer who goes by the stage name Jackie Rosebutch, said drag shows have been a “beautiful outlet” for their self expression and confidence.

“Doing drag has significantly improved my self-esteem and potential as a queer trans individual. Drag has been lifesaving, not just for me, but for others, too. People have come up to me with tears in their eyes, telling me about how seeing me on stage made them feel braver, stronger and seen,” Borhegyi said.

Other opponents, including the ACLU of Montana and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, highlighted what they said were the free speech, discrimination and other legal issues with HB 359, including the bill’s current lack of definition of “prurient interest.” Local performers and community theater representatives said the bill would also undermine their productions and artistic expression.

“According to this legislation, I’m going to be wrapped up in this moral panic,” said Charlie Macorn, a Montana stand-up comedian. “Asking us to know what clothes are assigned genders? We can’t do that … We have to make sure that we are defending our constitutional right of expression and our constitutional right to express ourselves.”

Opponents and some committee lawmakers also questioned the bill’s scope. In addition to public schools and libraries, the bill would also bar “sexually oriented businesses” from admitting minors, defining those businesses as a nightclub, bar, restaurant “or similar commercial enterprise” that hosts audiences, nude performances or drag shows and allows alcohol consumption. 

Mitchell, the bill’s sponsor, countered that those definitions were “specifically tailored at sexually oriented businesses,” adding that he was sure “we all know what that is.”

The committee, which includes 12 of the bill’s listed Republican cosponsors, did not vote on HB 359 Thursday. When lawmakers do consider it, Mitchell said he and other lawmakers have drafted possible amendments, including one that would define drag performance as one that “features topless dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, or male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”

Another amendment would tighten the enforcement for penalties against teachers or other public employees found to have violated the sections barring drag performances in schools and libraries. A third amendment would define “prurient interest” as “having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.”

Regier, the committee chair, did not say Thursday when the committee would vote on the bill.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.