Arizona Republicans want to ban kids from drag shows, following moves in Texas and Florida

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

Republicans in Arizona are following the lead of lawmakers in Florida and Texas by opening a new front in America's culture war, proposing laws to ban children from attending drag shows.

GOP leaders in the Arizona Legislature sent out a hotly worded press release Tuesday announcing work on such a bill. They criticized drag shows — in which people perform, sing or dance on stage, most often wearing extravagant makeup and dressed in flamboyant clothing of the opposite gender — as a dangerous "perversion" for children.

"We will be damned if we won't fight like hell to protect the most innocent from these horrifying and disturbing trends" spread by "extremist Democrats," the leaders' statement said. It also slammed "nondiscrimination" policies regarding gender expression and sexual orientation, saying they were leading to a societal decay of “morals and values.”

Arizona's Republican lawmakers already have passed two bills this year that were criticized fiercely by LGBTQ activists, including bans on genital reassignment surgery until age 18 and transgender youth in competitive school sports.

The release referred to the recent Native Drag Night on June 3 at the Heard Museum and a planned drag show at a Tucson Unified School District high school.

Sen. Vince Leach, R-SaddleBrooke, said the strong tone in the statement came from him, and that he's angry over the events that he believes harm children.

"When you have a drag queen sitting on the steps with her ... crotch wide open and little kids sticking dollar bills in her g-belt, that's a problem with me," Leach said.

Photos and video of a recent daytime drag show at a Dallas gay bar were widely shared by conservatives on social media following a protest of the event, though the pictures don't depict what Leach described. The event was billed as "family" friendly, and the children appear to be there with their parents as they hand dollar bills to drag queens near a neon sign that states, "It's not going to lick itself."

Leach isn't sure how the bill would define a "drag show," or whether it would go as far as bans proposed this month by lawmakers in Texas and Florida, which would penalize parents. The proposal would aim to protect children "as we do with X-rated movies, as we do with strip joints, and as we do with bars," he said.

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Besides Leach, the Senate's President Pro Tempore, Senate President Karen Fann and three other senators — Sonny Borrelli, David Gowan and Rick Gray — put their names on the press release. Leach said they hope to introduce a bill this session, but that he doesn't know if all Republican lawmakers would support it.

Republicans have a one-person majority in both the House and Senate, meaning the bill would have to get unanimous support by all Republicans to pass since no Democrat would likely vote for it.

Dems: Proposal 'dangerous and wrong'

Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, said that tying the drag show proposal to alleged “perversion” of LGBTQ people and to anti-discrimination ordinances is “dangerous and wrong.”

“As one of only four openly gay members of the Legislature, this is a big concern,” he said. “They’re attacking a community that’s already marginalized.”

The potential drag-show bill follows statements by Vice President Kamala Harris over the weekend connecting violence with laws that target the LGBTQ community and an incident Saturday in which a group of self-described "Proud Boys" disrupted a Bay Area library's drag queen story-reading event.

It also comes after concerns about an Arizona conservative activist who said last month he would "hunt" LGBTQ supporters at Target stores in metro Phoenix. 

Hernandez called the proposal a “gimmick” meant to distract the public from the fact that the GOP-dominated Legislature has yet to approve a state budget before a deadline of June 30.

The proposal could face other hurdles. A law that seeks to ban minors from drag shows would be “almost certainly unconstitutional,” said Gregg Leslie, an attorney and executive director of Arizona State University’s First Amendment Clinic.

It’s “strange” to imagine how the bill would be worded, he said.

Typical drag shows involve dress that is no more revealing “than a kid would see at a pool or beach,” yet nudity has long been one of the separating lines in law pertaining to public indecency, Leslie said.

A ban — even for minors — when no nudity or sexually explicit material was involved would be “problematic," he said.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

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