Arizona mulls banning children from drag shows

By: - June 21, 2022 9:23 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Arizona State Senate Republican leaders announced last week that they want to make it illegal for anyone under 18 to attend drag shows in Arizona, though the actual details of what will be proposed are a “work in progress,” the measure’s likely sponsor said.

“In a civil society, you don’t bring your children up like that,” said Sen. Vince Leach, a Republican from Saddlebrooke.

Leach said he has been mulling legislation barring children and teenagers from drag shows since last year, when he learned of a University of Arizona drag show for children. Then in March, Tucson Magnet High School held a drag show for students. But each time, other legislative concerns prevented action, he said.

The final straw, Leach said, was seeing an Indigenous drag show at the Heard Museum in Phoenix earlier this month. 

He said images of drag shows circulating online have shown performers with their “crotch wide open” in front of young children.

Exactly what form the proposed ban will take remains to be seen, as Leach acknowledged that he hasn’t begun drafting the legislation yet. He said his desire is to implement a statewide ban, but conceded that doing so would run up against “free-market concerns,” so it might only be limited to public institutions, like schools.

The effort would capitalize on a growing movement that has been spurred on by a group of self-described “Christian fascists” and broadcast right-wing media outlets.

And the proposed Arizona ban comes on the heels of an event in Dallas this month that was overtaken by far-right extremists associated with the America First and groyper movement who identified themselves as “Christian fascists.” 

The group was protesting at a family-friendly drag queen brunch and was led by white nationalist John Doyle, who at one point encouraged the local police to enter the establishment and “put bullets in all their heads.” 

Multiple right-wing media outlets claimed that the event was “grooming” children in a scheme similar to conspiracy theories such as the ones that circulated with QAnon and “pizzagate,” which both center on global networks of pedophiles and child traffickers.  

Within days, a Texas GOP lawmaker had issued a press release announcing that he would introduce legislation to ban drag performances in the presence of minors. Later that evening, a Florida Republican legislator said he would introduce a measure to terminate the parental rights of any parent who allows their children to attend a drag show. 

Leach didn’t cite the Dallas event in an interview with the Arizona Mirror, but he wrote on Twitter that it was “Disgusting!!”

“This is a national trend that we have been seeing pop up very quickly,” Jeanne Woodbury, policy and communications director for Equality Arizona, told the Mirror. Equality Arizona is a non-profit organization that advocates for the LGBTQ+ community in Arizona. 

“There is no violence associated with drag,” Woodbury said. “Drag isn’t something that is violent. This is an agenda that is set out to drive gay people and queer people into the margins and prosecute trans people just for living.”

Woodbury said she is concerned about what the future legislation may look like, as the LGBTQ+ community has been the past target of policies that have criminalized their existence, and this new legislation could lead to that again. 

In the 1960s, it was illegal for same-sex couples to hold hands, kiss or dance, leading for many in the community to seek refuge in gay bars like the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The Stonewall Inn is most famous for the “Stonewall Uprising,” when police raided the establishment and protests erupted, resulting in a watershed moment for the LGBTQ+ rights movement.  

“Pride is a month that we celebrate and commemorate the Stonewall uprising,” Woodbury said, adding that the community and lawmakers need to reflect on that fact. “We need to look at this legislation as something that affects all of us, as something we can push back on collectively about being honest about what it is going to mean.”

Woodbury said she is concerned about the potential breadth of the legislation. If it’s written too broadly, she said, it’s possible that a transgender individual could face criminal charges for simply being in public near a minor. 

Leach said he wants to avoid infringing on free speech and parental rights in trying to “protect our children” from being exposed to sexualized content at drag shows. 

“Parents know best, but we know that giving marijuana candy to a 6-year-old will get you a visit from DCS,” he said, referring to the state’s Department of Child Safety. 

At other points, Leach likened banning youth from drag shows to existing laws prohibiting children from entering bars, going to strip clubs and doing heroin. He said the comparisons were fair, though he conceded there’s a “fine line” in making them.

Woodbury hopes that Republican senators she has worked with throughout the session will not support the bill. 

“I know that there are Senate Republicans of good will that I have enjoyed working with over the course of this session and I would like to think that they would look at this for what it is and what it would mean that they would not support it,” Woodbury said. 

It is unclear what other states Leach is working with or if he is working with any stakeholders to craft the legislation. The Mirror reached out to the Center for Arizona Policy, an anti-LGBTQ+ organization that frequently works with lawmakers in the state on similar legislation, but did not get a response.

This story was originally written and produced by the Arizona Mirror which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.

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