Republicans in Montana’s House of Representatives gave initial approval Thursday to a bill banning drag performances in public schools, libraries and public properties “in any location” when a minor is present, legislation blasted by LGBTQ people as hateful and misinformed but welcomed by conservative parental rights groups.
House Bill 359, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, received intense public testimony during an earlier February committee hearing, when several drag performers and other members of the LGBTQ community urged lawmakers to disentangle the perception of drag as sexual or related to a “prurient interest,” as the legislation states.
In his comments to lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee, Mitchell reinforced that idea, suggesting that drag artists invited to read at story hours and make other appearances with minors were pushing a “sick agenda” and that drag shows were “damaging to a child’s psychology and general welfare.”
Democrats on the committee, including two transgender lawmakers from Missoula, refuted those ideas as offensive and wrong when the bill was considered for a vote this month. Republicans said the bill was focused on prohibiting minors from attending sexual performances in public spaces and certain businesses, saying those were proper restrictions for the Legislature to consider.
The bill passed out of the committee on a party line vote with amendments that broadened its scope to public spaces where a minor is present and changed the definition of drag performance to “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.”
The amended bill soared through the Republican-majority House in a 66-33 vote on Thursday, with one member of that party joining Democrats in opposition, after a heated floor debate. Lawmakers from the two parties repeatedly clashed over characterizations of drag performance.
In the days leading up to an annual Pride event, outrage flared on social media, with commenters calling the drag story hour “inappropriate” and indicative of child abuse. The event planners were unwilling to be cowed. The event would go forward, they decided, but not without a call to action.
“I’m going to object today every time we’re equating a drag performance to sexualizing children,” said Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, in response to comments from Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe describing drag as men “flaunting” themselves in front of children. “And I just want the body to know that we can do it all day long.”
Minutes later, House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, interrupted remarks by Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, when the transgender lawmaker suggested the bill could restrict performances by transgender people because it defines drag as including “male or female impersonators.”
“This bill has nothing to do with the transgender community, and I can do this all day as well,” Vinton said.
Mitchell and other Republican lawmakers repeatedly described drag as inappropriate for children, comparing the performance with stripping and referencing adult drag shows they had heard of or personally attended decades ago.
“It was adults doing adult things. And that’s great,” said Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, referencing a drag performance he said he attended 30 years ago. “We’re just asking, just leave the kids out of it.”
Democrats gave more modern-day examples of all-ages drag shows, including one in Helena that Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, said she attended last weekend. Zephyr sought to put drag, and its continuously rising profile as mainstream art, in historical context.
“There’s questions as to why are children coming to them now? I’ll tell you what happened. We lived. We lived through the AIDS epidemic. We lived through people trying to disallow our marriage. We adopted children. We grew up and now we’re taking some of our children and sharing an art form that’s valuable to our community in a way that is age appropriate to them,” Zephyr said. “That’s why, if you would have come to the drag show on Saturday, what you would have seen is people in full-length dresses, in beautiful gowns, celebrating our art, our history, and the fact that we’re alive today.”
Zephyr was repeatedly interrupted by Vinton and chair of the House floor session, Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, including when she referenced proponent testimony on the bill earlier this month that conflated drag performers with pedophelia and grooming.
“Mr. Chairman, I will stand and object to any comments regarding groomers and pedophiles,” Vinton said.
“I appreciate that. And I wish that the proponents who came to the testimony would have done the same,” Zephyr said.
Democrats attempted to bring an amendment to the bill to replace references to “drag” with “adult-oriented performance,” a change that the amendment sponsor, Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, said would clarify the intent of the bill and focus on restricting children from age-inappropriate performances.
Mitchell said the amendment “completely derails the intent of the legislation” and asked lawmakers to oppose it. The motion failed, 58-42.
A final vote before House lawmakers will likely take place Friday. If passed, the bill will be routed to the Senate for consideration before another committee.
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