This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
The state Capitol was lit up Thursday by glittering gowns, vibrant makeup and voluminous wigs — all worn by drag performers whose artistic expression has been hotly debated by Republican lawmakers throughout the legislative session.
Hours before the drag queens, kings and nonbinary goddexes took to the Capitol steps to lip-sync and dance in an April snowstorm, lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an amended version of House Bill 359, a ban on drag performances in many public spaces.
The latest version of the bill, as amended by its sponsor, Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, would ban drag performances and drag story hours in libraries, museums, and any public facility — like the Capitol building — that receives at least 10% of its funding from state or local government. The previous version of the bill would have applied only to drag performances, not to story hours, and would have banned such performances in any public space where a minor is present.
Republicans in the Montana House supported the bill, casting it as a way to protect children from what they describe as inappropriate performances, naysaying the concept of family-friendly drag shows. Democrats and LGBTQ bill opponents have scorned the policy for criminalizing art and pushing expressions of gender diversity out of the public eye.
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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.
Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, was the only Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday to express reservations about the amended bill, suggesting that it might conflict with First Amendment rights to free speech and be difficult to defend in court.
“If I struck everything that said ‘drag queen’ out of here and put ‘Christian youth group,’ would you still vote for the bill?” Friedel asked fellow committee members. He joined Democrats to vote against the amendment, which nonetheless passed 6-5, but rejoined Republican members to pass the new version on a party-line vote.
Outside the Capitol later that morning, a drag performer named Buster lip-synced to the song “Show Yourself” from Disney’s “Frozen 2.” The t-shirt Buster wore at the end, printed with large black letters, read “I am not a crime.”
Other performers picked songs carrying complementary messages: “Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance, “You Need To Calm Down” by Taylor Swift, and “I Dare You to Love” by Trisha Yearwood. Onlookers could be seen peering out at the crowd of about a hundred people from the Capitol’s second-story windows.
Shawn Reagor from the Montana Human Rights Network told the audience that, despite the advancement of the drag ban and other legislation he characterized as “the slate of hate,” the presence of the crowd and the performers was a reminder of the power of the LGBTQ community.
“We know that drag is art. We know that drag is about joy. We know that drag is about celebrating who you are,” Reagor said.
One bill on Reagor’s list, banning gender-affirming care for trans minors, has already proceeded to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. Another high-profile policy, Senate Bill 458, would define sex in state code based on a person’s reproductive characteristics, sidelining transgender and intersex people from dozens of parts of Montana law. That bill had a hearing Thursday morning but has not yet been voted on.
If legislators continue to pass bills that harm his community, Reagor said, “we’re going to fight them in the courts.”
The festivities continued under the Capitol dome later in the day. Three performers hosted a drag story hour for kids and families in the rotunda that afternoon, where the audience was asked to reflect on themes of love, diversity and community as lawmakers occasionally poked their heads over banisters to watch.
After the story hour adjourned, Bozeman performer Alotta Hull Shadow said being in the Capitol felt better than expected, despite some gawking and unfriendly looks. Above all, Shadow said, it was a reminder that the legislation being debated doesn’t reflect her experience of living and performing in Montana.
“The Legislature is really out of touch with the rest of Montana on this,” she said.
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