House forwards bill targeting drag shows along party lines

By: - February 23, 2023 7:10 pm

Adrian Jawort, who performs as Anastasia Steele, participates in an all ages drag show as part of Montana Pride Org’s Former Felon’s Ball in Helena on Feb. 18, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, said she is tired of having to stand up for bills that impact her community.

Zephyr, the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature, gave an impassioned speech on the House floor in opposition to a bill that aims to ban minors from attending drag shows.

“I clearly am impacted by this and hurt strongly. I also worry for the rest of my community who has to see bills like this brought forward,” Zephyr said. “I had to take a call from a 14-year-old child who tried to take her life after listening to testimony.”

Republican proponents said the bill was about protecting kids and taxpayer dollars. Democrats said the bill was harmful to the LGBTQ community and went against parental rights and the First Amendment.

House Bill 359 sponsor Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, said he brought the bill because a “sick agenda” was being pushed via drag shows.

Democrats rose in opposition to his statement and a handful of others made during debate on the bill. Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, asked there not be assumptions voiced about the people performing and their intentions, saying that the all-ages events are family friendly.

Mitchell said the Republican caucus does not believe there is such a thing as a family-friendly drag show.

Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, speaks on the House floor on Feb. 23, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

“Why should children be at these drag shows?” Mitchell said.

The bill passed second reading in the House on a 66-33 partisan vote with Republicans – save for Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge – in favor.

As of Thursday morning, 149 constituents had messaged legislators in support of the bill and 270 constituents had sent messages in opposition. Opponents outweighed supporters when the bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

When questions arose as to why children are coming to drag shows now, Zephyr said it was because the LGBTQ community that survived the AIDS epidemic has families now.

“And now we’re taking some of our children and sharing an art form that’s valuable to our community in a way that is age appropriate to them,” she said. “And to answer the sponsor’s question directly, ‘Why should children be there?’ That’s why. Because it matters to us and our community. Because we lived.”

Zephyr said the bill could be interpreted to target the transgender community, as the bill’s language bans male or female impersonators but does not explicitly define them.

Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, rose in opposition to Zephyr’s comments, saying the bill has nothing to do with the transgender community.

Speaking against the bill, Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, echoed an argument he made during executive action in the House Judiciary Committee — posing the question, “What if strippers started a stripper story hour?”

Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, said this bill was about protecting children’s innocence.

“When they’re exposed to people who are gyrating in front of them, that’s not kid friendly,” she said.

Democrats rose in opposition.

“I’m going to object today every time we’re equating a drag performance to sexualizing children,” Abbott said.

Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, said she wanted to correct misinformation surrounding the bill. She told the House she attended her first drag show last Saturday – an all-ages event in Helena.

“I find it irresponsible to create law based on a complete lack of understanding and determined willful misrepresentation of what drag actually is. I discovered, just Saturday night, that drag is a form of creative expression, like music, dance, and theater,” she said. “It is part of the cultural fabric of the LGBTQ+ community and has been around for centuries.”

Also in attendance at the show on Saturday were House Judiciary Committee members Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte, and Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula.

Rep. Sherry Essmann, R-Billings, said she did not see hate in the legislative body and that the bill has nothing to do with how she feels about anybody in the chamber.

“I hope that the rest of you can take that into your hearts and your minds and forget all the silly arguments about what this bill is not doing and address what this bill is doing. And that is protecting taxpayer dollars,” she said.

The bill would prevent drag performances on any public property in the presence of someone under age 18 and at any location owned by an entity that receives any state funding.

Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, tried and failed to amend the bill by striking the word “drag” and replacing it with “adult-oriented.” Mitchell said in opposition to the amendment that Buckley wasn’t going to vote for the bill anyway and that the proposed amendment derailed the bill’s intent.

The bill will need to clear third reading in the House before being sent to the Senate.

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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.