Republican lawmakers advance bill to restrict 'evil' drag shows in Arizona

Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

Arizona lawmakers spent two hours Thursday debating a bill that aimed to fix the "evil" of sexually charged dancing by male drag performers, drawing passionate opposition from LGBTQ community members.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, is one of the latest attempts by Republican legislators here and in states across the country to address cultural issues that divide Americans. Kern's Senate Bill 1028 would allow the arrest of drag performers if they engage in a "prurient" performance — even while fully clothed — that children can see.

It aims to expand the definition of "adult cabaret performances," which typically means stripping and nude dancing, to include "drag performers, drag shows, (and) male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest or other similar entertainers."

Drag performers on public property or in locations viewable by minors would face a misdemeanor charge on their first violation and a low-class felony on the second.

Strong opinions came out about the bill at the Senate Judiciary Committee, with arguments over the broadly applicable definitions of "prurient" and "sexually explicit," and references to movies including "Tootsie," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "To Wong Foo (Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar)."

Supporters of the bill, including Kern and Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, seemed to struggle at times to define the dividing line of the bill that could trigger a criminal charge. Asked if the bill would affect drag show "story hours" where drag performers read books to children, Kern said, "It depends on the book. It depends on how they're dressed. If they're dressed sexually, if they've got, you know, nipples hanging out, and you know, fake breasts."

Critics pointed out that judging whether a performance was of a sexual nature was highly subjective.

Lisa Bivens, a lawyer with the nonprofit Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice group, composed of criminal defense attorneys, said the proposed law should be more narrowly tailored and is unenforceable as is.

"It's just too broad to provide any sort of meaningful guidance about exactly what's supposed to be caught," Bivens said. "By the definition in this bill, you cannot tell where the line is drawn."

Several transgender speakers said they worried the bill would target them, too.

"This bill is so vaguely written that it would effectively make it illegal for me to exist in public as a trans woman, let alone DJ anywhere but a strip club," Jessica Alice Harbor said.

Republicans target LGBTQ community, again

Nationally, LGBTQ issues have reemerged as a political target for Republicans in recent years, fueled by activists and sites like Twitter's Libs of Tiktok account.

Republicans saw several "culture war" proposals signed into law under former Gov. Doug Ducey, including a ban on transgender women competing in competitive school sports. Kern's bill is one of three so far this year that focus on drag shows, which have faced protests in some cities by conservative activists who say they are concerned about children attending the performances.

Passing any such bill into law this year in Arizona, though, likely is an impossible task under Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. Asked during a news conference on Feb. 2 if she would veto the bill, Hobbs gave an unequivocal "yes."

Kern, who chairs the committee, insisted repeatedly throughout the hearing that his bill was not intended to single out drag performers or people who are LGBTQ, but was only trying to protect children. He made it clear that the underlying problem was "good versus evil," however.

"I appreciate the people reading the Bible here because that is the only way we're gonna be able to push back on this evil, honestly," he said, apparently referring to a speaker's comments about a verse from the Book of Proverbs.

The bill ultimately moved forward on a 4-3, party-line vote, heading for a likely vote by the entire Senate.

A 'hurtful and depressing' hearing

Richard Stevens, a drag performer for the past 25 years who goes by the stage name Barbra Seville and who spoke at the committee meeting, told The Arizona Republic later that the experience of attending the legislative hearing — his first — was not a good one.

He decried the way Republican panelists and other supporters of the bill used the terms "pedophile" and "groomers" to describe some drag performers, even while they claimed to support other such performers as well as the LGBTQ community.

"It was probably one of the most hurtful and depressing, discouraging things that I've ever seen in my life," said Stevens, who captured national attention last year after calling out Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake for what he described as hypocrisy related to drag performers.

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