This story originally published online at NC Newsline.
Public drag performances could become illegal under a bill filed Tuesday in the NC House.
H673 would classify as “adult live entertainment” any “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest,” making it illegal for drag performances to take place on public property in the presence of anyone under age 18.
The bill, filed by State Rep. Jeff Zenger (R-Forsyth) does not define “prurient interest.” The phrase has been heavily legally debated in the U.S. for decades, but generally refers to materials or performances that inspire sexual thoughts. The bill species that it is immaterial whether the performance is “for consideration,” meaning there would be no distinction between paid and free performances. The bill places drag in a category with, according to the text of the bill, “topless dancers, exotic dancers, strippers” and makes a first offense a Class A1 misdemeanor and a second offense a Class I felony.
The bill is part of a national wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, including bills that would criminalize drag filed in at least 16 states so far this year. Last month, Tennessee became the first state to pass such a bill into law, though a federal judge in Memphis temporarily blocked it earlier this month, saying it was “vague and overly broad” in its restriction of speech.
In North Carolina, Republicans have taken aim at drag performances in private businesses and public spaces like libraries.
Last year, Newsline reported on Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the highest elected Republican in the state, bemoaning that more Christians are not willing to threaten assault to enforce their religious principles in public spaces.
“No longer is a Christian willing to grab that whip and walk into the public library,” Robinson said at a church event in October. “And tell them, ‘In this library you will not use my tax dollars to promote sin to these children, and if I have to come in here and tear these books out myself and run that drag queen out of here myself, I will!’”
Protests and threats against libraries for carrying books and holding events to which conservatives object are also on the rise the last few years. One group taking the steps Robinson suggests: neo-Nazis. Last July about 20 members of a neo-Nazi group in Boston mounted just such a library protest, leading to the arrest of their leader.
Closer to home, the Forsyth County Republican Men’s Club protested a Drag Queen Storytime event last June — not at a public library but at Bookmarks, a privately owned independent bookstore in Winston-Salem. Messages promoting the protest called it “perversion” and the chairman of the county GOP called it the work of “militant gay leftists trying to separate children from their parents.”
The incident, an assault on the right of private businesses and their customers to peaceably hold legal events on their own property, was the sort of escalation the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented and explored through recent studies on the rise of extremism in America.
“We knew it was coming,” Kendra Johnson, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC, told Newsline shortly after the anti-drag bill was filed.
At the time, Johnson and other LGBTQ advocates from across the state were in the Tuesday morning hearing on S631, which would prohibit transgender students from playing on school teams for the gender with which they identify, codifying that “a student’s sex shall be recognized based solely on the student’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”
Both bills are part of a raft of new anti-LGBTQ legislation filed this session. Their passage appears to have been made more likely by the defection of Rep. Tricia Cotham from the Democratic party to the GOP, giving Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in both the House and Senate.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Johnson condemned the bill as “a discriminatory and undemocratic attack on our most fundamental rights.”
“Attacks on drag shows aim to stop LGBTQ+ people from being who we are and expressing ourselves freely,” Johnson said. “Drag bans are part of broader attacks on queer and transgender people, alongside coordinated efforts to police gender expression. Drag performances are one of many diverse art forms that the LGBTQ+ community has contributed to American culture, and this form of expression should be protected under the First Amendment.”
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