Republican lawmakers in Kentucky advanced a bill Friday to put limits on drag shows, capping a free-wielding Senate debate as supporters touted it as a child-protection measure and opponents called it an unconstitutional attack aimed at LGBTQ groups.
The measure won Senate passage on a 26-6 vote after a lengthy debate that led to some eyebrow-raising exchanges in the buttoned-down chamber.
The bill's lead sponsor was asked if she had ever attended a drag show and then if she found it “sexually arousing.” Republican Sen. Lindsey Tichenor replied she had attended a drag show in Kentucky. The latter question — from a Democratic opponent of the bill — was ruled out of order after a GOP Senate leader called it “outside the bounds of decorum.”
The measure heads to the House with only a few days remaining in this year's 30-day legislative session. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.
The culture wars proposal would prohibit drag shows on public property or in places where they could be viewed by children.
“The intent of this legislation is to restrict these types of adult performances to adults,” Tichenor said.
Democratic Sen. Karen Berg borrowed a libertarian theme to oppose the bill: “Don’t tread on me."
For LGBTQ groups, “drag is a form of self-expression that you don’t have to understand, you don’t have to appreciate, you don’t have to like and you don’t have to attend,” she said.
Across the country, conservative activists and politicians complain that drag shows are contributing to the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. The Tennessee Legislature recently passed a bill banning public drag performances by classifying them as adult cabaret, among topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers and strippers. Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law.
The Kentucky bill takes aim at drag shows by stating adult performances include a live performance involving male or female impersonators that “appeals to a prurient interest in sexual conduct” and lacks "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Drag, however, does not typically involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in the separate art of burlesque.
Violations under the Kentucky proposal — Senate Bill 115 — would be punishable as misdemeanors for the first two offenses but would rise to a felony for subsequent offenses. Businesses hosting such performances could have their alcohol and business licenses suspended or revoked.
Tichenor acknowledged there’s a long history of male and female impersonators, and specifically pointed to the “masterful performance” by Robin Williams in drag in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
“This bill is not in any way addressing those types of performances," the senator said.
The bill is in response to performances once limited to adult audiences but “now are being introduced to the general public as appropriate-for-all-ages under the guise of inclusivity,” she said. She said she’s heard from people who said their families encountered such performances in public places.
“These performances have never been a problem until they made their way into the public sector,” Tichenor said.
Opponents said the bill would encroach on constitutional protections and was aimed at the LGBTQ community. Democratic Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong said First Amendment protections extend to the “expressive choices we make,” including the clothing worn and “the way we choose to present ourselves to the world.” That includes “the choice to dress in drag,” she said.
There are numerous existing laws, including indecent exposure, to deal with sexually explicit activity in public places, she said. The bill instead sends a message of “hate and fear and discrimination to a group of Kentuckians that deserve equal protection and equal dignity under our laws,” she said.
The bill's supporters said the focus is on protecting children from exposure to adult performances.
“What is hateful about keeping children away from sexualized adult performances?” Tichenor said.
The bill has drawn support from social conservatives. David Walls, executive director of The Family Foundation, on Friday called it “a family-friendly bill.”
It's brought condemnation from gay-rights activists and drag supporters. Opponents chanted “shame” when the bill was approved recently by a Senate committee.
“This bill not only compromises or asks me to explain my humanity, but it also brings into question my livelihood,” drag performer Poly Tics told the GOP-led Senate committee.
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