Drag performers, LGBTQ advocates testify against bill targeting Drag Story Hours

By: - February 9, 2023 7:40 pm

Anatheia Smith, a cisgendered woman who performs in drag as Diana Bourgeois, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee, as Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, sits behind her on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Anatheia Smith, a cisgendered woman who performs in drag as Diana Bourgeois, stood before the House Judiciary Committee in bright pink wig, pendant costume earrings and bedazzled sneakers.

“No one wants to get up at zero-dark-30, put on 50 pounds of makeup and get into child-appropriate clothes, perform G-rated, but we do it because our community asks us to,” Smith said.

Anatheia Smith, a cisgendered woman who performs in drag as Diana Bourgeois, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Smith was one of the drag performers and advocates for the LGBTQ community who packed a committee room Thursday to testify in opposition to a bill that aims to ban minors from attending drag shows. The bill would ban drag performances in schools and libraries and bar minors from some businesses.

Proponents for the bill voiced concern during the hearing for children attending events featuring drag performers, which they said they saw as sexual in nature — a claim opponents staunchly said was not true.

“The LGBTQ community is tired of being assumed as sexual predators or groomers or people who are looking to harm your children,” said SK Rossi with the Human Rights Campaign. “There are definitely predators in every community, and conflating those two groups is insulting and demeaning, and hurtful.”

House Bill 359 would define drag performance as “a performer who exhibits a gender identity different from their gender assigned at birth” who lip syncs or dances as an “appeal to a prurient interest,” which was defined in a proposed amendment as “exciting lustful thoughts.”

Transgender activist and former lobbyist Adrian Jawort read this section of the bill and swayed in a little dance.

“So me doing that would technically be illegal right now,” she said.

Transgender performers who participate in theater in the state testified that the bill would limit their ability to perform in live action theater, while community theater directors testified the bill would be “catastrophic to the arts.”

The bill was introduced by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, along with 70 co-sponsors, all Republican. Co-sponsors include 12 members of the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill was heard Thursday — more than enough supporters needed to pass the measure out of the 19-person committee.

Superintendent Elsie Arntzen was among the proponents, who showed up in numbers but were still overshadowed by opponents in person and online. Arntzen said she was “concerned for our children’s learning.”

The bill says if a public library or school allows a drag performance during or after regular hours, they could pay fines up to $5,000.

“Drag is not essential in schools, and access to venues with it are non-essential to minors,” Mitchell said in an email to bill drafters obtained by the Daily Montanan outlining his intent behind the bill. “These are in some cases individuals who are strippers – and trans strippers should not be around minors.”

Mitchell said in the email the problem of trans strippers near minors was “not just some imaginative conspiracy by conservatives” because it was the goal of groups like “Drag Story Hour,” formerly known as “Drag Queen Story Hour.”

“I want to go against everything on this site: https://www.dragstoryhour.org/,” Michell wrote.

The site explains the event is about “Storytellers using the art of drag to read books to kids in libraries, schools, and bookstores.”

“DSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models,” the website reads.

“Let kids be kids,” Mitchell said in an interview with the Daily Montanan. “Why do we want kids at drag shows?’

There has been backlash to Drag Story Hours around the country and in Montana. Mitchell included links to similar legislation out of Tennessee and Texas in his email to bill drafters.

Last summer, police monitored the event in Helena after one person threatened violence, and opponents of an event in Billings hurled accusations at one of the leaders. But the respective communities largely embraced the events.

ZooMontana hosted last June a Drag Story Hour in collaboration with 406 Pride, an LGBTQ resource center in Billings, that Executive Director Jeff Ewelt told the Daily Montanan was well attended and a “wonderful family friendly day.”

However, in the lead up to the event, Ewelt received threats from people opposed to it who said they knew where he lived, which also contained false accusations about him personally. Parents who brought their children to the event told the Daily Montanan protesters spat on their car on their way in.

At the hearing Thursday, Director of Family Engagement at the Office of Public Instruction Jenna McKinney described the Drag Story Hour event as partly innocent, reading a book, “mixed with a sexualized topic highlighting a queer lifestyle.”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, the first trans woman elected to the Montana state legislature, objected.

“Sexuality is not inherently a sexual topic,” Zephyr said. “Please don’t refer to me as having a sexual lifestyle just because of who I am.”

Ewelt told the Daily Montanan in an email Thursday legislators need to understand one thing.

“Drag Queen Story Hour is not a drag show. It is literally an individual reading books about acceptance and inclusion to children,” he wrote.

Ewelt continued that there’s been “gross and negligent information shared by our state and federal politicians about what occurred here at ZooMontana.”

“We rented our facility to a group that held an innocent event that many within our community found helpful. However, because of our decision, our staff has endured a lashing from the mouths of our state representatives themselves; in one instance, calling our organization gross,” he wrote. “This bullying, nonsensical fear and hate needs to stop.”

Ewelt said ZooMT will offer a Pride day in June and will be partnering with 406 Pride again, but he so far doesn’t know what their day will include.

“It is an embarrassment to our state that those we elect cannot understand the simple concept of inclusion and diversity,” he said.

A “sexually oriented business” could also be on the hook for up to $5,000 per violation under the measure, with a $10,000 fine for third offenses.

“Sexually oriented business” is defined in the bill as a nightclub, bar, restaurant, or similar commercial enterprise that provides nude entertainment or drag performances and authorizes alcohol consumption.

But Mitchell said the bill was specifically for taxpayer-funded facilities, such as libraries or schools, and not private events.

Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, responded that wasn’t entirely accurate given the definition in the bill for “sexually oriented business.” The definition, as with the definition for drag performance, was taken from bills out of Texas.

“But businesses aren’t publicly funded with taxpayer money, right?” Smith asked Mitchell.

Opponents expressed concern that children wouldn’t be allowed to enter a restaurant that hosts a drag show once a year or that campuses that sell alcohol at sporting events wouldn’t be able to host drag events.

Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, asked transgender non-binary drag performer Elani Borhegyi, who performs under Jackie Rosebutch, if they had to deliver their message of love and acceptance to children in drag.

Elani Borhegyi, who performs as Jackie Rosebutch, speaks before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Borhegyi said drag is just one way to deliver those messages, but that it’s “super fun and engaging.”

Borghegyi was invited by the drag troupe the Mister Sisters to join them in reading to kids in Helena last summer.

“To see the kids – just how their faces lit up as they saw themselves seen and heard, that they were enjoying how fun the story hour was, I really want to have that experience again,” they said.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.