The latest target of anti-LGBTQ efforts is children's drag queen story hours

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Anti-LGBTQ Republicans have turned their attention to falsely accusing drag performers of 'grooming' children for sexual abuse.

Republican politicians and candidates have recently taken aim at a new target in their ongoing efforts against the LGBTQ community: drag queen story hours for children.

Claiming without evidence that drag performers are "grooming" and "exploiting" children, state legislators in Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Michigan have introduced bills or discussed measures that would ban or criminalize drag shows for children.

Policy and legal experts say that many of these efforts would likely be unconstitutional, and that even if none of the proposed policies are enacted, they can still do serious harm to the LGBTQ community.

On June 6, in response to "Drag the Kids to Pride," a family-friendly drag show to mark the beginning of Pride Month held at a Dallas bar two days earlier, Republican Texas state Rep. Bryan Slaton said he would file a bill in the next Texas Legislature, which begins in January 2023, to "ban drag shows in the presence of minors."

The Los Angeles Blade reported that, according to local media, protesters showed up at the Dallas bar with signs reading "Stop grooming the kids" and "Stop exploiting kids."

Republicans have more and more frequently been making baseless accusations against LGBTQ people and their allies of "grooming," which the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, known as RAINN, defines with regard to sexual abuse as "manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught." 

Slaton said, "The events of this past weekend were horrifying and show a disturbing trend in which perverted adults are obsessed with sexualizing young children." His statement said of the drag show, "Texas children were subjected to inappropriate sexual content by adults."

Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said that assertions by Republican lawmakers and others that drag shows are inherently sexual are entirely without merit.

"The thing about drag performances is that it's all about putting on a show. It's all about entertaining. It's all about expression. It's all about storytelling. And appreciating that is not something that is limited to adults. The sexualization of drag is something that adults do," she said. "There is nothing inherently sexual about drag. That is something that adults impose upon it. And that's not to say that there aren't drag shows that are sexual in nature. Of course there are. But the mere fact that someone is in drag does not make it inappropriate in any way for kids."

Although it's unclear what the proposed bills would look like, Jenny Pizer, law and policy director at Lambda Legal, said some of them would likely be challenged on First Amendment grounds. But many of the politicians promoting the idea of banning drag in the presence of kids don't seem concerned with the constitutionality of their proposals, she said.

"We're observing that some elected officials, politicians, and other folks who want some attention, including some who are campaigning now and want ever more visibility, are proposing outrageous and outlandish ridiculous policy changes, some of which are nakedly unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful," Pizer said.

She added, "Some of what we're seeing is naked pandering without a concern for whether the proposals are legal or not."

Pizer said such bills can be challenged on the grounds that they single out a certain group of people: "The rules just have to be neutral and not target any particular group of people. And so age-appropriate rules or alcohol-restricting rules or safety-restricting rules — those are common, but they can't be discriminatory and they have to be neutral to whoever the people are that are involved."

Even if a proposed bill does not become law in the near future, Pizer said, "It does have a negative impact on people because it's quite hateful and often includes this slanderous language of accusing LGBT people generally of grooming young people, with this insidious charge or just insinuation of inappropriate behavior towards children. That encourages hate crimes and social stigma and behavior that has real consequences."

In Alameda County, California, local authorities have launched a hate crime investigation after a group of Proud Boys disrupted a Drag Queen Story Hour on June 11 at the San Lorenzo Library, the Washington Post reported. Kyle Chu, who goes by the stage name Panda Dulce, told Teen Vogue, "They took seats in the second row behind children and parents. One man had an AK-47 shirt that said 'kill your local pedophile' on it. We stopped the song and the Proud Boys yelled 'who brought the tranny' and started hurling insults, calling me a pedophile and a groomer."

Republicans have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and promise that they will keep kids out of drag shows.

On June 6, Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini tweeted, "Drag Sex Shows aimed at children have come to Florida. I will be proposing Legislation to charge w/ a Felony & terminate the parental rights of any adult who brings a child to these perverted sex shows aimed at FL kids. When will the sexualization of children stop?"

Sabatini, who has proposed a number of anti-trans bills during his time serving in the Legislature, is running in Florida's 7th Congressional District and is a supporter of the state's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and his anti-LGBTQ legislation, including the "Don't Say Gay" law that bans any school discussion of LGBTQ topics before the fourth grade. Sabatini said of DeSantis, "You have a lot of the sort of spineless, moderate Republican types in the Legislature who would have never done anything on this topic if it wasn't for the governor."

DeSantis said during a June 8 press conference that child protective statutes could be used to scrutinize parents who bring their kids to drag shows: "Now it just seems like there's a concerted effort to be exposing kids more and more to things that are not age appropriate." 

 DeSantis hasn't officially announced a run for president in 2024, but news outlets continue to report on the likelihood that he will.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) tweeted, "I'm introducing a bill to make it illegal for children to be exposed to Drag Queen performances."

Tudor Dixon, who is running for governor of Michigan, told the right-wing media outlet Newsmax in response to the drag show in Texas that she would approve such legislation: "I can teach my child that people are different and we love people, no matter what their differences are without sexualizing my child, and I think that's the concern of many parents. ... It's not just being pushed on us. It's being pushed on our children and we're being told this is how you teach your child to accept people's differences. But I don't believe in that, and I think it's criminal activity."

This isn't the first time that Republicans have set their sights on drag performers. In 2020, Missouri state Rep. Ben Baker proposed establishing parental review boards for libraries that would have the final say on whether material is age-appropriate or should be removed from libraries. It would have forced librarians to pay fines or even spend time in jail, for under a year, if they violated the law. 

Baker said at the time, "They've had these drag queen story hours, and that's something that I take objection to and I think a lot of parents do. That's where in a public space, our kids could be exposed to something that's age-inappropriate. That's what I'm trying to tackle."

HRC's Oakley said that in the current political environment, such bills that failed in earlier legislative sessions have a greater chance of succeeding.

"I think the legislative context next year is going to be much more ripe for this kind of legislation," Oakley said. "Clearly we are seeing that people are not interested in the value of a policy in any way and promise to their constituents that they are saving them from a completely invented moral panic. I think it very much would fit into that narrative."

She added, "There are really pressing, urgent, critical legislative concerns that these legislatures could be addressing and every minute that they spend on something as ludicrous as banning drag queen story hour is a minute that they're not focusing on the economy, or housing, or gas prices, or grocery prices, not to mention guns and the pandemic. This is a real statement of priorities that legislators are much more interested in attacking people who are volunteering to read books to children than they are trying to keep those children safe."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.