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The war on drag shows
On February 3, the State of Florida filed an administrative complaint against the operators of the Plaza Live theater in Orlando for hosting a drag show. According to the complaint, the drag show performed on December 28, 2022, at Plaza Live included "acts of sexual conduct, simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar, and indecent displays" with children in attendance. The complaint alleges the show, "A Drag Queen Christmas," violated a Florida law that makes it a felony for a person to "commit a lewd or lascivious exhibition" in the presence of "a victim who is less than 16 years of age." The state, through the complaint, is seeking to revoke the venue's liquor license, which would likely put it out of business.
The targeting of Plaza Live is part of a broader effort championed by Governor Ron DeSantis (R) to stigmatize any content with LGBTQ themes and present it as a danger to kids. A spokesperson said that DeSantis was pushing for a crackdown on drag shows because "Governor DeSantis stands up for the innocence of children…throughout Florida."
But newly released public records reveal that the complaint is fraudulent, grossly misrepresenting what undercover state agents observed at "A Drag Queen Christmas."
According to the investigative report by the agents first obtained by the Miami Herald, the drag show did not include "any lewd acts such as the exposure of genital organs." Further, the performers "did not have physical contact while performing to the rhythm of the music with any patrons within the audience." The agents noted that some of the outfits worn by the performers were "provocative," including "bikinis and short shorts."
The complaint from the DeSantis administration also contained other misrepresentations. For example, the complaint states the drag show included "graphic depictions of childbirth and/or abortion." In reality, the show featured "a performer named Jimbo the Clown giving birth to a log of bologna and throwing slices to the crowd."
The agents observed three children who attended the show. Photos included in the complaint illustrate that the children were accompanied by their parents. While DeSantis has stressed "parents' rights," he apparently does not believe parents have the right to take their child to a drag show. Notably, DeSantis is not targeting parents who accompany their children to R-rated movies, which can include full nudity and sex.
Meanwhile, the pictures of the drag show included in the complaint as evidence show are mildly suggestive but do not include anything obscene.
DeSantis' decision to target drag shows may be unconstitutional. "Drag is a form of speech, it is a form of expression,” Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, explained. “Some people might find it offensive. The solution to that is: Don’t go."
Investigation prompted by a handful of tweets from far-right political activists
When the DeSantis administration announced it was investigating “A Drag Queen Christmas” at the end of last year, it said it was a response to growing public outrage over the show. Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ press secretary, said they had received “multiple complaints” about the event. Griffin thanked “the public for continuing to bring attention to these incidents.”
But the claim that the investigation was sparked by a flood of complaints is false.
When asked by the Miami Herald to provide copies of these alleged complaints, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) could only muster up “links to several Tweets.”
One of the tweets the DBPR shared came from Libs of TikTok – a far-right account rife with anti-LGBTQ and bigoted content. In a recent interview, Libs of TikTok founder Chaya Raichik said that “the point of drag is to queer kids.” Raichik has also publicly called for the firing of all LGBTQ teachers and frequently uses her account to incite threats and harassment against LGBTQ people.
The other tweet shared was from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Taylor Greene, who is notorious for being a right-wing conspiracy theorist, accused the drag show of profiting off of the “intentional grooming of children.”
A statewide crackdown
The Plaza Live theater incident raises questions about the validity of similar complaints. Last week, the DeSantis administration filed a complaint against Hyatt Regency Miami for hosting “A Drag Queen Christmas” — the same show as the Plaza Live theater. And the 17-page complaint is nearly identical to the one filed against Plaza Live. It similarly describes the show as "lewd" and claims that minors under the age of 16 were present. (The complaint includes a redacted photo of one alleged minor.)
DeSantis praised the DBPR’s complaint. "Sexually explicit content is not appropriate to display to children, and doing so violates Florida law," the governor’s press secretary told Insider.
Similarly, last summer, DeSantis filed a complaint against a drag brunch venue after a video of children eating at the restaurant was posted by Libs of TikTok. The drag show, DeSantis said, marks “a disturbing trend in our society to try to sexualize these young people.” His administration claimed to be responding to public outcry, but “in fact, the controversy was traced back to a well-known conservative influencer, Lauren Chen,” the Miami Herald reported.
New bill targets drag shows
Earlier this month, Florida lawmakers introduced a bill that would authorize the DBPR to fine, suspend, or revoke the license of a public venue that “admits a child to an adult live performance.” Titled “Protection of Children,” the bill says that such a violation poses an “immediate” and “serious danger” to the general public. An adult live performance, according to the bill, is anything that “depicts or simulates” nudity, sexual conduct, lewd conduct, or lewd exposure of “prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”
While the bill makes no mention of drag shows, the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Randy Fine (R), told WTSP that the “focus of our bill is on drag shows.” When asked if there will be future legislation that will protect children from non-live explicit material, like R-rated movies, Fine said “No.”
Tennessee enacts new law banning public drag performances
Attempts to restrict drag shows are occurring across the country. On March 2, Tennessee became the first state to enact a law banning certain drag show performances. The law restricts “[a]dult cabaret performance[s],” which includes "male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers.” The law prohibits these performances on “public property” or “[i]n a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.”
Violators may be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for the first offense “punishable by a $2,500 file and up to a year in jail.” Any additional offenses “will be classified as a Class E felony, carrying a maximum six-year prison sentence.”
Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R), who sponsored the bill, said that he “introduced the measure to prevent drag shows that are ‘sexual in nature’ from taking place” around children, and that the bill does not “target anyone.” Johnson celebrated the passing of the bill on Twitter, saying, “This bill gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance.”
According to the Tennessean, the bill’s co-sponsor, Representative Chris Todd (R) “fought a public Pride drag show in Jackson, Tennessee” last October. “[Drag performances are] clearly meant to groom and recruit children to this lifestyle… That is child abuse and we will not have that here,” Todd said at the time. Todd called the new law “a common-sense, child safety bill.”
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) faced criticism for signing the bill into law after a photo surfaced appearing to show Lee dressed in drag in high school. Lee has not confirmed the photo, in which he appears to be wearing a cheerleader’s uniform and a wig. When asked about it during a press conference, he said: “What a ridiculous, ridiculous question that is. Conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children, which is a very serious subject.”
While Tennessee is the first state to pass a law limiting drag shows, anti-drag legislation has been introduced in “at least fourteen other states'' across the country, according to TIME. Other states where anti-drag legislation has been introduced include Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.