HELENA — The Montana House has endorsed a heavily debated bill that would prohibit minors from attending drag shows, after a lengthy and sometimes emotional discussion on the House floor.
House Bill 359, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, passed a preliminary vote Thursday, 66-33. All but one Republican supported the bill, while all Democrats voted against it.
“Our Republican caucus believes strongly that there is no such thing as a family-friendly drag show,” said Mitchell.
The bill was amended significantly in the House Judiciary Committee, after a hearing earlier this month. It would now define “drag performance” with a list of sexually oriented acts, as well as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.” It would prohibit a business from admitting anyone under 18 while hosting a drag performance, and it would prohibit those performances at public libraries and schools, at any location owned by an entity that receives state funding, and “on public property in any location where the performance is in the presence of an individual under the age of 18.”
“Prurient interest” is defined in the bill as “having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.”
Supporters of HB 359 have said drag performances can’t be separated from sexuality, and they have pointed to reports of explicit behavior at shows in other states. They said Thursday that it was appropriate to limit these performances in taxpayer-funded locations.
“Instead of using this as a political prop, we need to protect our children’s innocence,” said Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings.
But Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, said she attended an all-ages drag show in Helena over the weekend, and felt there had been “misinformation” about what those events are like.
“I enjoyed seeing how performers carefully consider and craft their attire, appearance, song selections and overall performance to the appropriate audience,” she said.
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, said drag was a meaningful form of expression for the LGBTQ community.
“If you would have come to the drag show on Saturday, what you would have seen is people in full length dresses, in beautiful gowns, celebrating our art, our history and the fact that we're alive today,” she said.
The debate was marked by leadership from both parties objecting to lawmakers’ statements. House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, protested Mitchell referring to a “sick agenda,” and to other statements she said equated drag shows to sexualizing children. House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, objected to Zephyr saying the bill could affect transgender performers and bringing up testimony from the committee hearing that referred to “groomers.”
Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, proposed an amendment to the bill that would have removed any specific references to drag and instead prohibited “adult-oriented performances” in the same places. She said that change would still accomplish supporters’ goals of not exposing children to adult content without singling out drag performances. Opponents said it would have weakened the bill by only saying performances were prohibited if they “intended to appeal” to a prurient interest.
The amendment proposal failed 42-58.
HB 359 will have a final vote in the House on Friday. If it passes, it will move on to the Senate.