As the United States continues to grapple with a growing conservative backlash against LGTBQ+ rights, Republican politicians in several states are now targeting drag shows with new legislation aimed at restricting or censoring these performances. According to a recent report from Pen America, legislators in at least eight states have introduced a total of 14 bills in Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
This push against drag shows coincides with an increase in political rhetoric and a growing number of protests or interruptions of drag events, as well as a conservative backlash against trans rights and broader gay rights in states like Florida, which has passed so-called “don’t say gay” legislation that curtails the discussion of LGTBQ+ issues in schools.
The proposed bills share the common attribute of classifying drag shows as adult or sexualized in nature. Most of the bills propose to expand the definition of adult or sexually oriented businesses to include any establishment that hosts drag performances, and many include lip-synching within their definitions. Additionally, six bills explicitly ban minors from viewing or participating in drag performances, and four explicitly ban drag performances at schools or public libraries.
These attacks on drag shows and performers strike at the heart of our rights to gather, read, and perform together. Drag shows are an exercise of artistic and creative expression that should be free from government suppression. As Pen America’s director of US free expression programs, Kate Ruane, has pointed out, “what these bills say and what they do is very different from the public conversation surrounding them.”
It’s time for lawmakers to recognize that drag shows are a form of free expression and should be protected as such. Rather than targeting these performances, we should be working to create an inclusive society where everyone has the right to express themselves freely and without fear of censorship or persecution.