During an action-packed hearing on legislation to ban sexually oriented performances in the presence of minors, a Democrat lawmaker asked a witness supporting the proposal where he could take his teenage daughters to see a drag show.
Her response highlighted the intense emotion surrounding the contentious issue.
The House State Affairs Committee, chaired by State Rep. Todd Hunter (R–Corpus Christi), heard testimony Wednesday on Senate Bill 12, which would prohibit businesses and local governments from holding events with sexually oriented performances that are open to children. The measure passed the Senate on April 5, but it was not scheduled for a hearing in the House until a pro-family organization criticized Speaker Dade Phelan (R–Beaumont) for refusing to push for the bill’s passage.
With the significant controversy regarding “all-ages” or “family-friendly” drag shows, which have become increasingly common over the past year, dozens of witnesses registered to testify about SB 12. State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D–Dallas) was particularly antagonistic toward those who supported the bill, and his exchange with the first witness set the tone for the rest of the hearing.
Kelly Neidert, the executive director of Protect Texas Kids, recounted how she organizes peaceful protests at “kid-friendly” drag shows, which are “happening every weekend across the state of Texas.” At these events, she explained, “children can be seen handing the performers cash tips or sometimes even tucking it in the costumes of the drag queens.”
“It’s very clear that drag shows are sexually oriented performances, and they are no place for a child,” Neidert argued. “If adults want to attend these shows, that’s fine, but children need to be left out of it.”
Anchia, who said he represents “the heart of a number of different entertainment districts,” asked if Neidert had a list of such drag shows, explaining that his teenage daughters have been asking him to take them to one.
“That’s disgusting,” said Neidert, prompting Hunter to issue a warning to “watch your comments on the microphone and in the room, or I will clear the room.”
Hunter wasn’t kidding. He had a DPS officer providing security remove a witness who bemoaned the Legislature’s inaction on gun control legislation after being warned to stick to the subject of the bill.
Several other witnesses also exhibited combative behavior, but none of them were removed.
One switness aid lawmakers who vote for SB 12 would be “on the wrong side of history.” Another said, “If you’re thinking drag is a threat to children, you lost that battle a while ago,” and a musician known as Caleb De Casper accused lawmakers of doing the bidding of “big oil” and the NRA while “scapegoating queer people.”
Cheerleaders, Bugs Bunny, and Elvis
State Rep. Matt Shaheen (R–Plano), the bill’s sponsor in the House, actually removed language referring to drag queens from the version considered during the hearing, but that didn’t stop witnesses from claiming the legislation is fundamentally an attack on drag performers. One witness said, “It has been terrifying for them to simply exist,” and others suggested the legislation “could be used as some type of legal dragnet against queer and trans people.”
First Amendment attorney Tony McDonald said the removal of language pertaining to drag performers “is a smart move” because it “makes it more likely the bill will be upheld in the courts.”
“The bill still beefs up actions that sexualize children, which is the whole point,” McDonald explained.
Some witnesses, however, raised concerns that it could jeopardize a parent’s ability to take their child to an R-rated movie, a restaurant featuring scantily dressed servers, or a sporting event where cheerleaders regularly perform.
Jonathan Covey, the director of policy for Texas Values, countered that argument, saying, “There’s a substantive difference between a performance of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and something like this.” Covey added that he’s “never seen a drag show that’s not sexual in nature.”
A witness whose stage name is “Alexander the Great” disagreed, asserting that drag “is not inherently sexual in nature.” Rather, “drag is love, drag is art, drag is powerful,” he proclaimed, suggesting that “drag has been a part of our culture since Shakespearean times” and can be observed in children’s cartoons such as those featuring Bugs Bunny.
Another witness argued that “prurient interest is in the eye of the beholder” and claimed the legislation interferes with a parent’s right to choose what’s appropriate for their children. Anchia suggested that moral outrage about allowing children to attend sexually explicit drag shows is similar to objections people had in the 1950s about some of Elvis Presley’s performances.
“Protect our children.”
While a majority of witnesses opposed the legislation, several defended it, imploring lawmakers to “protect our children.”
Mary Elizabeth Castle, the director of government relations for Texas Values, explained how “exposing kids to any sexual content at an early age has been proven to have detrimental effects” such as an “increase in violence, objectification of others, and even dysfunction in adult relationships.”
Reagan Green compared those exposing children to inappropriate sexual behavior to the people Jesus addressed in his warning that “whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
“Our culture wants us to accept radical progressive sexual and gender ideology,” Green explained, but “culture changes like the wind” while “principles, by their nature, must be consistent.”
This bill before you is asking you to be consistent in principle. We the people of Texas are asking you to stand for the innocence of our children. We are asking you to stand in the face of natural perversion and protect our children.
SB 12 was left pending at the hearing’s conclusion. If it is approved by the committee and passes the full House, the Senate would need to sign off on all changes before it can go to the governor’s desk.
The 88th Legislative Session ends May 29.