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Republican states target drag performers

Bills seek to restrict shows, label venues as ‘adult-oriented businesses’

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Steven Raimo performs as Veronika Electronika. (Photo courtesy of Steven Raimo)

A number of bills targeting drag performers are popping up in majority-Republican states across the nation. 

At least 14 states have introduced bills that would restrict drag queens from performing in public spaces and in venues viewable by minors. Some of the proposed legislation would require venues that host drag events to register as “adult-oriented businesses.”

These bills are the latest legislative attempts targeting LGBTQ rights, particularly transgender rights. Other proposed legislation across the country includes access to gender-affirming health care and banning kids from being able to play gender-affirming sports. 

Shawn Stokes, a drag queen who performs as Akasha Royale and is based in St Louis, said he’s “embarrassed” these bills have been introduced in his home state and across the country.  

“We have plenty of other things to do. We have a failing educational system,” he said. “We are just wasting a lot of time.” 

In Missouri, legislators are considering several bills, including one described as changing “the definition of a sexually oriented business to include any nightclub or bar that provides drag performances.” Another bill would classify “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” as adult cabaret performances. Performances on public property or viewed by minors could result in a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a hefty fine.

Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has endorsed a similar bill in her state.

In Tennessee, a bill would classify “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” as adult cabaret performances and would ban performances on public property. Shows would also be banned where minors could be present. 

A rural county in Tennessee has already approved regulations on drag performances — the Giles County Agri-Park Board Committee passed a slew of restrictions in early January, including banning “male or female impersonators” from the park, the Tennessean reported. 

Steven Raimo, a Nashville-based drag queen who performs as Veronika Electronika, said legislators are trying to “eliminate the art of drag.” 

“They want to put fear in entertainers,” Raimo said. 

Raimo predicts venues will stop hosting drag performers because of the risk of retribution. 

“One of the restaurants that I do our brunch and bingo show has big glass windows that look onto a public street,” he said. “I could potentially be arrested in violation of this law because anybody of any age could walk past the windows and see the show.”

Raimo added he would be much more careful in choosing where he performs because of the ambiguity of the bill as it stands. 

And it’s likely the bill will pass in Tennessee, according to Kathy Sinback, the executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. The Tennessee Senate passed the bill Feb. 9, and the state House of Representatives also has a companion bill in motion that would require drag performers to obtain a permit. 

“It is moving so quickly,” Sinback said. “These [anti-drag bills] are their top priorities this session.” 

Bills could target transgender people 

Because of the vagueness of the bills and classifying drag performers as “male or female impersonators,” advocates fear this proposed legislation could attack transgender people. 

“This is in fact a transphobic bill, even more so than it is a drag-phobic bill,” Raimo said. It’s a very important piece of this story that I don’t want to be lost.”   

Trans people in Tennessee could be viewed as “male or female impersonators” by law enforcement because people cannot change the gender marker on their birth certificate, Raimo said. 

“So if someone’s singing karaoke in the bar, and they do a little twerking, maybe that’s harmful to minors all of a sudden. It can be interpreted so broadly,” Sinback said. 

Even in states where it’s unlikely to pass, ‘damage’ is still done

Richard Stevens performs as Barbra Seville. (Photo courtesy of Richard Stevens)

The Arizona Senate is considering legislation that would prohibit federal or state funds from being allocated to places where drag shows are hosted. Another bill, similar to those in Tennessee and Missouri, would classify drag as “adult cabaret performances,” and would ban shows on public property. 

It’s unlikely the bills will be passed into law in Arizona given Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is in power, according to Richard Stevens, a Phoenix-based drag queen who performs as Barbra Seville. But still, “even if it’s not made into law, damage has been done,” he said. 

“Their mission in a lot of ways is accomplished,” Stevens explained. “They’ve now connected grooming and pedophilia and attacks on children to drag. People who weren’t thinking about drag a year ago are now paranoid of drag.”

Stevens was once friends with Kari Lake, a Republican who continue to claim she won last November’s Arizona’s gubernatorial election. Stevens subsequently became a vocal Lake critic after she criticized drag queens and claimed they are “grooming” children.

The classification of drag performances as “sexual” is also an archaic perspective, Stokes said. 

“This narrative that drag queens are predators or groomers is absolutely false,” Stokes said. “Going to a drag show with your kid in a public place is no different than taking your 12-year-old kid to a PG-13 movie.”

“It’s 100 percent fearmongering. It’s demonization,” Stevens said. 

This is a common thread in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric — the false narrative that all LGBTQ people are out to get children, said Misty Eyez, the director of the women’s program and transgender services, and the manager of LGBTQ competency training at SunServe, an LGBTQ services organization based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

“It’s not a new story that LGBTQ individuals are stereotyped as … a threat to traditional values or morality,” she said.  

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The White House

Press secretary addresses ‘gut-wrenching’ death of Nex Benedict from the briefing room

‘Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported in school’

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White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre delivers a briefing on Feb. 23 2024 (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre began Friday’s press briefing by expressing how “absolutely heartbroken” she was to learn about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported in school,” she said. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, friends, entire school community in the wake of this horrific and gut wrenching tragedy.”

Jean-Pierre added, “I know that for many LGBTQ+ students across the country this may feel personal and deeply, deeply painful. There’s always someone you can talk to if you’re going through a hard time and need support.”

“The president and his administration launched the 988 line to help, and we have a line dedicated to serving LGBTQ+ young people that can be reached by dialing 933 and pressing 3,” she said. “Through devastating tragedies like these we must support each other and lift one another up.”

Authorities are still investigating the circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death on Feb. 8, which allegedly came the day after they were attacked in a restroom at Owasso High School, which followed months of bullying from peers.

This week, political leaders including Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Jean-Pierre issued statements on X, formerly Twitter.

In recent years the state of Oklahoma has become a hotbed of anti-LGBTQ legislation, including an anti-trans bathroom bill signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2022.

Many LGBTQ advocates responded to news of Benedict’s death by calling out the escalation of hostile policies and rhetoric targeting transgender and gender-diverse communities, which advocates have warned can carry deadly consequences.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson has urged federal investigators at the Justice and Education Department to get involved in the case.

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Oklahoma

White House, national groups respond to nonbinary Okla. teenager’s death

Nex Benedict died after reported assault

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and national advocacy groups issued statements on Wednesday about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a high school restroom.

Benedict died on Feb. 8. According to ABC News, officials investigating the incident said they will be interviewing students and staff “over the next few weeks” and plan to share findings with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

The victim’s mother told the Independent that Benedict had suffered bullying over their gender since the start of the 2023 school year, shortly after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill to prohibit students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported at school,” Jean-Pierre said in a post on X. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, their friends, and their entire school community in the wake of this horrific tragedy.”

Calling Benedict’s death a “gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-trans hatred,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “We are reaching out to the DOJ, we are encouraging the community to speak out.”

Along with Robinson’s remarks, HRC’s Press Team included a link to the organization’s blog post about Benedict and a statement from Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the HRC Transgender Justice Initiative:

“Extremist anti-LGBTQ+ hate accounts, like online troll Chaya Raichik, the woman behind ‘Libs of TikTok’, who was recently appointed to Oklahoma’s library advisory board, are perpetuating a vile and hateful narrative that is permitting these types of public attacks,” she wrote.

State schools superintendent Ryan Walters, who last year called transgender youth using public restrooms “an assault on truth” and a danger to other kids, was responsible for naming Raichik to the library media panel.

“The assault on Nex is an inevitable result of the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory legislation targeting Oklahoma trans youth,” Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma wrote in a joint statement.

“We are deeply troubled by reports the school failed to respond appropriately to the altercation that preceded Nex’s death and demand a thorough, open investigation into the matter,” the groups wrote.

Their statement also notes the organizations’ lawsuit challenging Oklahoma Senate Bill 615, the bathroom bill signed by Stitt last year.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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