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Montana lawmakers hear bill that would prevent minors from attending drag events

One of several bills under consideration dealing with LGBTQ community
Drag Show Bill
Drag Show Bill
Drag Show Bill
Posted at 6:07 PM, Feb 09, 2023

HELENA — On Thursday morning, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill intended to keep minors from attending drag shows. It’s one of several bills up for consideration this week that could affect members of Montana’s LGBTQ community.

House Bill 359, sponsored by Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, would prohibit drag performances that “appeal to a prurient interest” at public schools and libraries, and it would designate businesses that host those performances and serve alcohol as “sexually-oriented businesses” that could not admit minors.

“The choice to do that if a private facility so chooses – I might not agree with that, but it is their choice,” said Mitchell. “But taxpayer-funded facilities should not be sponsoring events such as this.”

Much of the testimony Thursday centered on whether drag shows could be appropriate for youth. Supporters of HB 359 said they could not be separated from sexuality, and they pointed to reports of explicit behavior at shows in other states.

“This is not a good, wholesome, fun event,” said Cheryl Tusken.

But opponents said that was a false conflation, and drag can be performed in a way that would be appropriate for minors.

“These events are some of the most positive, happy, accepting events I have ever attended, and I have never experienced sexualized behavior at them,” said Shani Henry.

Drag Show Bill
Elani Borhegyi, a non-binary transgender drag performer, testifies in opposition to House Bill 359, which is intended to keep minors from attending drag performances.

Elani Borhegyi is a non-binary transgender drag performer from Missoula who uses the stage name Jackie Rosebutch. They read to children last year as part of a Drag Queen Story Hour event in Helena, part of Montana Pride. During Thursday’s hearing, they said their clothes and performance at that event were chosen to be child-friendly.

“Drag Story Hour, I think it really speaks to those three values I mentioned – love, community and acceptance,” said Borhegyi. “We really work to show kids what queer joy looks like – and not just queer joy, but what it means to be authentically you.”

HB 359 as written defines a drag performance as when “a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer's gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs for entertainment to appeal to a prurient interest.” Opponents of the bill said that language was overly broad, and would encompass a wide range of performances and venues.

Mitchell told MTN he plans to propose an amendment that would move away from a “gender-based” definition of the affected performances. The text of that amendment would 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.” Mitchell said he expects there may also be other changes to the language.

Similar bills have been proposed or passed by Republicans in a number of other state legislatures, and Mitchell says his updated language is patterned after some of those proposals.

Drag Show Bill
Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, is the sponsor of House Bill 359, which is intended to keep minors from attending drag shows.

After the hearing, the Judiciary Committee voted 13-6 to advance House Bill 361, sponsored by Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage. That bill would prevent schools from disciplining students for referring to another student by their legal name or sex.

Those supporting the bill said they didn’t want students to be subjected to discrimination complaints if they failed to refer to classmates by their preferred name or pronouns. Those opposing it said it would open the door to intentional misgendering of transgender students.

During their Thursday session, the committee added an amendment from Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, that would allow schools to take action if the behavior rose to the level of bullying.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, opposed the bill, saying the amendment wasn’t enough to keep the bill from setting up different standards for treatment of transgender people.

“This isn’t happening if it isn’t bullying,” she said.

But Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, said she believed schools would still have the power to stop students from being hurtful.

“I don’t read this bill as giving permission to anyone,” she said.

Also on Thursday, the full Montana House narrowly approved House Bill 234, 53-45 on a final vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, would remove exceptions for school employees from a state law against displaying or distributing “obscene material” to minors.

Supporters said the bill was a simple change that brings rules for schools in line with other businesses and organizations, but opponents said obscenity complaints were more likely to target media with LGBTQ content.

Other bills under discussion this week included:

  • Senate Bill 99, sponsored by Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, which would ban gender-affirming procedures for transgender youth. It passed the Senate Wednesday, 30-20 on a final vote, after a heated debate on Tuesday.
  • Senate Bill 243, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, which would prohibit real estate brokers’ associations from disciplining members based on “religious or moral beliefs.” It stems from a 2021 case in which a Missoula realtor and pastor faced a complaint under the National Association of Realtors’ Code of Ethics after withdrawing on religious grounds from a program that celebrated gay rights. The bill is set for its first committee hearing on Friday.