HELENA — Thursday at the Montana State Capitol, advocates organized drag performances, as a protest against a bill moving forward in the state Legislature that would limit where those performances can be held.
Starting at 11 a.m., more than a dozen drag and transgender performers held a show on the front steps of the Capitol, dancing and lip-syncing to popular songs – despite heavy snow. In the afternoon, several performers gathered in the rotunda to hold a “Drag Story Hour,” reading picture books to children.
“I speak for myself and the rest of the drag community, that we are here to support the Montana queer community, we are here to support the Montana community at large – and nothing more than that,” said Anita Shadow, a drag performer from Bozeman. “We are here to provide love and support.”
Those actions might not be allowed in these spaces in the future, if House Bill 359 becomes law. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, is intended to keep minors from attending drag shows and stop them from happening in government-funded facilities.
Supporters have argued these performances can’t be separated from sexuality, and they highlighted reports of explicit behavior at shows in other states. Mitchell said earlier this year that he believes there is “no such thing as a family-friendly drag show.”
Anita Shadow disagrees. She argued many people have misconceptions about drag performances, and said there’s not a goal of exposing children to sexual content.
“Obviously I'm standing here in front of you in something that's far from inappropriate, and so is the rest of our drag community,” she said. “We don't show up to all-ages events, we don't show up to the Capitol, we don't do any of those things in something that would be inappropriate. Just like any other setting, it’s a matter of understanding the audience that you’re working with.”
HB 359 passed through the House in February. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to advance the bill to the full Senate for consideration.
Committee members added an amendment, supported by Mitchell, that makes a number of revisions to the bill. It now defines a “drag performance” as an “obscene performance that features drag queens” or other sexually oriented entertainers, and that “appeals to a prurient interest in sex.” Businesses would not be allowed to admit anyone under 18 when holding such a drag performance. In addition, schools, libraries, museums and any other facilities that receive at least 10% of their budget from state or local government funding would be specifically prohibited from hosting drag performances or drag story hours.
Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, had offered an alternate amendment, which would have removed the specific references to drag and instead referred to all “adult-oriented” performances. He said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the amendment from Mitchell, but that similar language enacted in Tennessee is being challenged in court. He said his proposal was based on a law in North Dakota that hasn’t yet been challenged.
“I wanted to make the bill stronger, so that if it did leave this Capitol, that the Attorney General that will have to defend this in court would have a very defensible method to do that,” said Friedel.
Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, said this language would be different from what Tennessee passed.
“This is only for public properties, government properties; the other one had public and private, so that’s a huge difference,” he said.
Usher also said the North Dakota bill only recently passed, and that could explain why it hasn’t faced a lawsuit.
HB 359 will now go to the Senate floor for debate. If it passes the Senate, it will have to return to the House, where representatives will decide whether to accept the Senate’s amendments.
Anita Shadow says, if minors are barred from drag shows, it would be a loss.
“They would not be able to see us perform; they would not be able to be surrounded by a community where they could finally see – maybe for the first time – that people will love them, people will support them,” she said. “So I think it takes away hope from our youth, and I think it takes away power, really, from those of us that have fought for it for so long.”
Those in attendance at Thursday’s event described HB 359 as one of a number of bills putting restrictions on the LGBTQ community this session. Another of those bills is Senate Bill 458, which had a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Thursday morning. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, would codify a definition of sex into state law based on reproductive systems – male and female.
Glimm and other supporters described the change as a relatively simple one, and said it’s needed to prevent courts from conflating sex as a biological concept with gender identity. Opponents argued the bill would have the effect of “erasing” legal recognition for transgender Montanans and others who don’t fit exactly into the two categories.
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