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Texas Pushes Draconian Drag Ban Bills Amid Unprecedented Assault on Trans Rights

Drag performers donned bright pink wigs and makeup to testify against anti-trans bills at the Texas Capitol this week.

LGBTQ rights activists and allies rally in an outdoor rotunda area of the Texas Capitol on March 27, 2023, within earshot of a House Public Health committee debate on a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth.

Austin, Texas—With bright yellow hair and a black blazer splashed with color, transgender artist and performer “Key Ring” leaned into the microphone on the floor of the Texas Senate chamber on March 23 to address members of the State Affairs committee during hearing about Senate Bill 12. “The language of this bill is … incredibly vague when it comes to defining what exactly a drag performer is and most likely to be utilized to accuse potentially any Texan of a sexually oriented performance,” she told the committee members.

SB 12 would criminalize performances by people exhibiting as the opposite sex assigned at birth in front of a minor or in a public space if it “appeals to the prurient interest in sex.” Violators would face a Class A misdemeanor carrying a fine of $4,000, a one-year jail sentence, or potentially both. The bill would also let the state fine businesses $10,000 if they allow minors to attend so-called prurient drag performances.

Key Ring made the three-hour drive down from Dallas to testify at the committee hearing because, she told Truthout, the bill presents a direct attack on her livelihood, as its passage could make it crime to merely perform in public as a transgender person in Texas. She said she already experiences harassment during performances in North Texas. “Truly this bill is an attack on First Amendment rights that are protected by the Constitution and of LGBTQIA-plus people to express themselves the way they see fit,” she told Truthout outside the Senate chamber prior to the hearing.

“Truly this bill is an attack on First Amendment rights that are protected by the Constitution and of LGBTQIA-plus people to express themselves the way they see fit.”

The hearing also took up Senate Bill 1601, which would prohibit city libraries that allow drag performers to read books to minors if “the person being dressed as the opposite gender is a primary component of the entertainment” from receiving state funds — even if the story time event has no “prurient” appeal.

Key Ring was joined in testifying against the bills by an array of colorfully outfitted drag performers, some wearing bright pink wigs, striking makeup and glittering gowns, some sporting false beards and bolo ties. Public testimony was split overwhelmingly against the legislation at a ratio of about five-to-one, with many advocates describing the bills as an attempt to erase transgender people and drag performers from public life entirely. Despite this, the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to advance the bills to the full Senate.

Drag artist Brigitte Bandit poses outside the Senate chamber at the Texas Capitol on March 23, 2023, before testifying against a bill that would ban so-called prurient drag performances.

The bills aren’t the only, or even the worst, anti-drag bills being considered in the state legislature. LGBTQ advocates are calling House Bill 4378 the “drag bounty hunter bill,” since it utilizes the same strategy of state-sanctioned vigilantism Texas lawmakers used to ban abortion at six weeks in 2021, even prior to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and enacting Texas’s trigger law banning abortion outright. HB 4378 similarly encourages citizens to sue for a monetary reward of up to $5,000 anyone who hosts or performs in a drag event in the presence of a minor, up to 10 years after the performance.

HB 4378 defines “drag” as any “performance in which a performer exhibits a gender that is different than the performer’s gender recorded at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs in a lascivious manner before an audience.”

The bills are among at least 140 anti-LGBTQ bills filed by Republican state lawmakers this session, according to Equality Texas, including bills banning gender-affirming care and intercollegiate athletic competition for transgender youth already passed by the Senate this week. Texas lawmakers have filed the most anti-LGBTQ bills across the nation this year so far, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s nationwide count, which is tracking at least 435 bills across the country.

In Texas and across the United States, the rush of anti-LGBTQ bills targeting transgender people and especially transgender youth, are part of a concerted far right propaganda effort to push a false narrative labeling transgender people and drag performers as predatory sexual “groomers” to stoke hatred and violence against the LGBTQ community — in many cases successfully and in some cases, fatally. The words “prurient” and “lascivious” in the Texas bills are a direct nod to such narratives, which in Texas have been pushed by some of the very same individuals who showed up to testify in favor of the bills.

One of those who testified in favor of the anti-drag bills was Kelly Neidert, who heads the so-called Protect Texas Kids (PTK) group, which baselessly claims to be defending children from “grooming.” PTK-led protests targeting drag shows across Texas have drawn support from neo-Nazi, neofascist, extremist militia, and Christian nationalist groups like the Aryan Freedom Network, the American Nationalist Initiative, North and Central Texas Proud Boys, This Is Texas Freedom Force, Patriot Front, and the New Columbia Movement, as Truthout has reported.

Far right activist Kelly Neidert testifies in support of a bill that would ban so-called prurient drag performances in the Senate chamber of the Texas Capitol on March 23, 2023.

Neidert has been spotted chatting casually with at least one apparent member of Patriot Front and has called for people who attend Pride events to be rounded up. While she claims PTK is a nonprofit, neither a federal 990 form nor Internal Revenue Service letter granting tax exemption can be found, and it remains unclear exactly where the group’s funding comes from.

While Neidert previously told Truthout she was being facetious when she referred to herself on Twitter as a “Christian fascist,” she also said she’s part of the New Columbia Movement’s “Women’s League.” The extreme Catholic traditionalist New Columbians want to refound the U.S. as a Christian theocracy, according to their manifesto, which calls “unnatural equality” “evil” and describes democracy as a “failed experiment.”

She described PTK’s activity before Texas Senate State Affairs Committee members, ending her testimony by saying, “Bringing children around sexual content as a targeted assault on their minds and bodies that should never be tolerated in a civilized society.” Tellingly, PTK does not protest or target parents who bring their children into R-rated movies with sexual content or target sexually suggestive businesses like Hooters frequented by families.

In November, Republican State Rep. Tony Tinderholt hired Neidert’s twin brother, Jake Neidert, as his office’s legislative director. Jake Neidert has called for the public execution of those who take their children to drag shows and has been funded by Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a fundraising group tied to West Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks that has poured millions into far right causes across the state. Jake Neidert’s job as a legislative director for State Representative Tinderholt has allowed him broad influence over what bills Tinderholt supports.

“The Republicans have written into these same anti-trans bills blocking gender-affirming care, that these same surgeries and hormones they are trying to prevent for children and adults who want them, that you continue to force them onto bodies like mine who have not asked for them.”

Indeed, Tinderholt has been one of the most outspoken opponents of expanded LGBTQ rights in the Texas Legislature and was vocally supportive of House Bill 1686 this week during a House Public Health committee hearing on the bill. HB 1686 would bar physicians from providing gender-affirming care including puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgery to treat gender dysphoria in patients under the age of 18. The bill would also require the state medical board to revoke the medical licenses of violators, and withhold taxpayer money to individuals and organizations that provide gender-affirming treatments to minors.

During the hearing, Tinderholt directed questions to the bill’s opponents, including Louis Appel, who is president of Texas Pediatric Society, the main state organization representing physicians specializing in treating youth. Appel told the committee that surgical treatment for gender dysphoria is not typically done prior to the age of 18, but that medical decisions for youth experiencing dysphoria should remain between doctors and families.

HB 1686 does not prohibit the same treatments for intersex youth, or for cisgender youth experiencing issues like precocious puberty, when puberty begins unusually early.

“I unfortunately was sterilized as an infant when doctors removed my testes to force my body to fit the [gender] binary,” said intersex activist Alicia Roth Weigel at a rally just outside the committee debate. “These non-consensual surgeries continue to happen on intersex children across this state, across the country and around the world. And you know who knows about that? The Republicans. The Republicans have written into these same anti-trans bills blocking gender-affirming care, that these same surgeries and hormones they are trying to prevent for children and adults who want them, that you continue to force them onto bodies like mine who have not asked for them.”

Intersex activist Alicia Roth Weigel speaks during a LGBTQ rights rally in an outdoor rotunda area of the Texas Capitol on March 27, 2023, within earshot of a House Public Health committee debate on a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth.

Hundreds of LGBTQ rights activists joined Roth Weigel in rallying at an outdoor rotunda area of the Texas Capitol within earshot of the hearing room this week, filling all three levels of the building. Protests continued throughout the week, with activists and advocates hosting drag performances and prayer vigils in the rotunda area.

Transgender Austin resident Loren Perkins was among those protesting this week. Perkins’ testimony against the anti-drag bills SB 12 and 1601 drew condemnation from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick after a separate activist physically obstructed the Senate sergeant-at-arms to allow Perkins to speak beyond her allotted time.

She told Truthout she showed up to the Capitol to testify again in opposition to HB 1686 because she has a 14-year-old transgender child. She says she knows six other families who have left Austin for safer states for transgender people and youth after the state began conducting child-abuse investigations of families facilitating gender-affirming care for transgender children, and that her family has considered leaving as well.

She said that while her family has so far avoided any such investigation, she’s worried about what might happen after the court of appeals determines whether a current legal injunction against the investigations may continue to stand. “We decided [that leaving is] not for us. This is our home. We deserve to live here and stay here,” Perkins told Truthout outside the overflow room for the Public Health committee hearing.

“We decided [that leaving is] not for us. This is our home. We deserve to live here and stay here.”

Perkins was one of a total of 479 people who had signed up to speak on HB 1686, according to The Dallas Morning News. The committee heard from fewer than 50 before ending public debate at midnight. Dozens of activists who’d waited hours to testify against the legislation staged a die-in just after debate ended at midnight. Ninety-six percent of the nearly 3,000 people who registered their stance were opposed to the bill.

Across the country, at least 25 anti-trans bills have already passed state legislative chambers, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker. The volume of anti-trans legislation so far in 2023 breaks previous records, with proposed restrictions becoming more far-reaching. Georgia became the 10th state to pass a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth earlier this month, and the first state that voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 general election cycle to do so.

This year’s flood of anti-trans bills is increasingly relying on the criminal legal system to punish not just transgender and gender nonconforming people themselves but those who support and affirm them. Some recent bills threaten felony charges against doctors and parents who provide gender-affirming care for trans youth. Other bills criminalize parents for allowing their children to attend drag shows.

LGBTQ rights activists and allies rally in an outdoor rotunda area of the Texas Capitol on March 27, 2023, within earshot of a House Public Health committee debate on a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth.

The bills also peddle misrepresentations of transgender health care and include measures that LGBTQ rights advocates and researchers say are impossible to enforce, such as a North Dakota bill that would ban public agencies from referring to people by pronouns that don’t correspond to their sex assigned at birth. The attacks on trans people have moved far beyond restrictions on gender-affirming care for trans youth, and now include measures that would force school officials to use trans kids’ birth names and pronouns; ban insurance coverage for gender-affirming care for adults; and weaponize obscenity laws to ban drag performance writ large, such as Texas’s SB 12.

At the Texas Capitol this week, Perkins pointed out the stark difference between this year’s state-level legislative sessions across the U.S. and the anti-LGBTQ bills from previous years, such as North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” banning transgender people from using the public restroom that aligns with their gender identity. The bill sparked a statewide boycott from the National Collegiate Athletic Association as well as several companies and celebrities.

“I don’t know if it’s because now [anti-trans bills] are happening all over simultaneously everywhere that [companies and organizations] feel like that’s not a possibility to pull out, or they just don’t care anymore,” Perkins told Truthout. “But this seeming lack of support from the larger American population as a whole is very terrifying.”

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