As LGBTQ Pride Month approaches, anti-drag bills are endangering pride events and businesses that serve LGBTQ people across the country, LGBTQ organizers have warned.
Just since April, Port St. Lucie, Florida, canceled its pride parade after Florida lawmakers passed a bill targeting businesses that host drag performances; the largest performing arts center in northwest Arkansas announced that it would no longer be hosting a pride event; and the only lesbian bar in Houston, Texas, was denied insurance because the bar hosts drag shows, which may force the business to shutter its doors.
“This is the goal, they want to eliminate LGBTQ people from public life,” said Alejandra Caraballo, a trans rights activist and civil rights attorney.
While at least fourteen states have introduced anti-drag bills, Tennessee is the only state where a drag ban has been signed into law. Though Tennessee’s law is temporarily blocked, police in the state have been documented threatening artists — including Hayley Kiyoko — with legal action for bringing drag queens on stage. Musicians, including Lizzo, have spoken up against the ban.
Though legislatures in Florida, Arkansas and Texas have yet to sign anti-drag bills into law, the proposal of such legislation has led to the preemptive cancellation of pride events and the targeting of LGBTQ businesses. This year alone, Florida has introduced 10 anti-LGBTQ bills, Arkansas has introduced nine, and Texas has introduced an overwhelming 52.
Pride organizers in Florida have warned that Senate Bill 1438, which has been passed by both chambers of the state legislature, is so vaguely worded that “this might be the last Pride as you know it.” The bill would fine venues and potentially suspend or revoke businesses’ alcohol licenses if they admit children to drag shows. It would also allow misdemeanor charges against anyone who knowingly admits children to an “adult live performance.”
The bill is likely to be signed by the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis (R), who has made attacks on LGBTQ people a cornerstone of his administration. In anticipation of the law’s passage, the Pride Alliance of the Treasure Coast has preemptively canceled its pride parade and restricted its other pride events to people ages 21 and older. Despite the fact that the governor hasn’t yet signed anti-drag legislation into law, the DeSantis administration filed a complaint in March against the Hyatt Regency Miami hotel for holding a drag show, arguing that the hotel’s liquor license should be revoked.
“This is the law working as intended: forcing queer people back into the closet,” said New York Times columnist Lydia Polgreen.
Meanwhile, though Arkansas’s anti-drag bill was stripped of language specifically targeting drag shows — instead restricting “adult-oriented” performances — an arts center in the state has refused to host a youth drag event for pride because of the law. As a result, Northwest Arkansas Equality, a nonprofit that organizes annual pride events in northwest Arkansas, has ended its long-standing relationship with the art center, citing its “censorship of Queer performance art.”
At least one employee of the arts center, Savannah Hanna, quit their job because of the center’s decision.
“It just feels like I was fooled, to be honest,” Hanna told The Arkansas Times. “When it [came] time to put your money where your mouth is and do the right thing for a community that you would not exist without, then you shut up and close your doors and say, ‘Not this year; it’s too divisive.’ That’s gross.”
Meanwhile, a drag ban is advancing in the Texas legislature despite massive public outcry. While the ban has not yet been passed into law, a lesbian bar in the state has already been affected by the potential legislation. Julie Mabry, owner of Pearl Bar — one of just a few dozen lesbian bars left in the country — told Click 2 Houston that the bar has been denied insurance because it hosts drag events. While the bar will remain open under its current coverage, Mabry is concerned that she may not be able to find coverage in the future and the bar will be forced to close.
“I’ve worked my whole life to have my dream come true. I honestly can’t believe we are here in 2023 but you’ve seen the posts; Big-name performers in Tennessee posting about how they’ve been warned that if they have drag queens they will be legally reprimanded,” Mabry said. “Well — think about the BARS! Not some big show that happens in a city once a year, but somewhere where people go every single day.”
As pride month approaches, festival organizers across the country are monitoring various bills to ban or restrict drag performances, and some are struggling to obtain the permits needed to host their events.
“The idea that we wouldn’t allow a pride event in the year 2023 is a little bit hard to fathom,” Clayton Klutts, the president of Tennessee’s Franklin Pride organization, told NBC News. “It feels like we’re going backwards.”