Texas Senate votes to defund libraries where drag queens read to kids

ByAlex Nguyen, The Texas Tribune
Wednesday, April 5, 2023
Texas Senate votes to defund libraries where drag queens read to kids
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The Texas Senate voted to defund libraries where drag queens read to kids hours before two Democrats joined Republicans in advancing it.

For months, Texas Senators have said their bills targeting drag shows are meant to protect children from sexually explicit performances.

Some Democrats, drag performers, and businesses catering to LGBTQ Texans have fiercely pushed back against the implication that all drag performances are inherently sexual. They've also said some bills restrict free expression enshrined in the First Amendment as they've testified against bills in legislative hearings and rallied in opposition at the Texas Capitol.

And, bill opponents say, the Republican proposals are helping to fuel an overall backlash against drag - as performers have increasingly seen protests and threats coordinated against them by activists and extremist groups.

"We just need to understand that drag is not inherently sexual, and queer expression is not inherently sexual," Austin-based drag performer Brigitte Bandit told The Texas Tribune last month.

Amid some of the criticism, Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who was the architect of some of Texas' most conservative legislation in 2021, narrowed his legislative push to restrict drag shows. And on Tuesday, he secured initial Senate approval for his Senate Bill 12, which bars kids from drag shows only if the performances are overly lewd and lascivious.

But moments later, the Senate also preliminarily voted 20-9 from the chamber floor to defund public libraries where drag queens are allowed to read to children. Senate Bill 1601 does not tie its financial penalties to the performers' behavior - and essentially targets all libraries' drag queen story hours, which are aimed at promoting literacy and encouraging children to read.

"It's a very short bill, very straightforward bill," Hughes said.

Hughes didn't explicitly say what SB 1601 would protect kids from. Instead, during the bill's Senate and committee debates, he brought up an example of the Houston public library hosting a registered sex offender as one of its storytime program's drag queens because the library didn't do a background check as evidence for backing the bill.

On the other hand, drag performers and their allies pointed out during the bill's committee hearing that kids are more likely to be harmed by gun violence or sexual abuse perpetrated by church members.

RELATED: West Texas A&M University president cancels student drag show, saying it degrades women

Sen. Royce West of Dallas is the only Democrat to approve SB 1601. Democratic Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen voted in support of the measure from the Senate floor but later said he actually opposes it and will be switching his vote.

Sens. Borris Miles, D-Houston, and Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, were present in the Senate chamber but didn't vote on SB 1601.

Lawmakers, most of whom are Republicans, are pushing a bevy of bills during this legislative session that threatens to upend the lives of many LGBTQ Texans. The Senate last week approved a bill that would prohibit transgender kids from updating their birth certificate so that it matches their gender. GOP lawmakers want to limit classroom instruction, school activities and teacher guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. And also on Tuesday, the Senate gave final approval to a proposed ban on transgender kids accessing puberty blockers and hormone therapy.

Republican Sen. Drew Springer of Muenster successfully broadened SB 1601 to bar libraries from receiving any public money the year following any events in which drag performers read to kids. This means facilities violating the proposed restriction could lose revenue streams from their local governments - a crucial part of their budgets.

The Texas Library Association declined to comment on the expanded version of SB 1601.

Several Democratic lawmakers attempted to add a clause limiting the bill to only drag shows that exhibit a prurient interest in sex, mimicking the language that Hughes has pushed for in SB 12. But that effort failed.

During a Senate committee hearing last month, Baylor Johnson, an Austin Public Library spokesperson, said the drag story time events hosted by his employer were age-appropriate and well-received by families.

The vote on SB 1601 immediately followed the long debate on SB 12, which restricts drag performances in private business and public spaces. SB 12 bars kids from lewd drag shows and is a scaled-back version of other legislation that would have defined anyone in drag as being sexually explicit. Still, dozens of drag performers and their supporters overwhelmingly opposed the measures during the legislative hearing last month.

The Senate voted 21-10 from the chamber floor Tuesday to give initial approval to SB 12, which is a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick this session. All Republicans voted for the bill. West was also the only Democrat to join them. Hinojosa voted in favor of the bill on the Senate floor, but later said he also plans to change his vote.

SB 12 is not an outright ban on drag performances and would not automatically classify all drag shows as lewd. Instead, the bill would levy a $10,000 fine on businesses that host drag shows considered sexually oriented in front of children. Performers violating the proposed restriction would also face a Class A misdemeanor, which could result in up to a year in jail, a $4,000 fine or both. The bill describes sexually oriented performances as including someone who is naked or in drag and "(appealing) to the prurient interest in sex."

RELATED: Public drag performances restricted in Tennessee

The bill, also filed by Hughes, doesn't clarify what prurient means - though the U.S. Supreme Court has defined it as "erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion."

During the debate, Hughes successfully introduced an amendment that scales down the bill's proposed restriction for performances on public property. Under the new version, SB 12 would also apply to any sexually explicit performances - not just lewd drag shows.

"This amendment will accomplish the purpose of making sure that all obscene performances - any sexual performance inappropriate for a child, regardless of who is the performer, regardless of how they're dressed - will be affected by the statute," he said.

SB 12's backers - many of them social conservative groups - say the bill is needed to protect kids from seeing sexually explicit content. During the Tuesday Senate debate on the bill, Hughes echoed that reasoning.

"What adults do is a separate matter - this bill is about protecting children," Hughes said Tuesday.

SB 12 is more narrow when compared to other Republican proposals for restricting drag shows. For instance, Hughes' other proposal, Senate Bill 476, defines drag shows more broadly as individuals wearing outfits or makeup that indicate a gender different from their gender assigned at birth while performing in front of an audience for entertainment.

This wider definition could have covered activities unrelated to drag, such as a transgender person singing karaoke with friends in a bar, for example, or an actor wearing a costume as part of a Shakespeare play that involves wearing clothes traditionally associated with a different gender.

RELATED: Texas Republicans filed dozens of bills affecting LGBTQ people: Here's what they'd do

Drag performers insist that SB 12 is an attack on their First Amendment rights and say the bill's language is imprecise, opening it up to multiple interpretations. During the Tuesday Senate debate, some Democratic lawmakers also characterized the bill as "overly broad."

"The language in the bill is so purposefully vague that it could encapsulate many forms of queer art and try to shut them down," Austin-based drag performer Lawrie Bird told the Tribune last month.

The bill's opponents added that it would harm restaurants and bars that use drag shows to draw in more customers or charities that host these performances as fundraisers. The measure could particularly impact businesses owned by LGBTQ Texans, they said.

"We are small-business owners in Texas trying to make our living just like everybody else," Bird said. "And we're a huge part of the tourism and entertainment economy here."

During the SB 12 debate Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers peppered Hughes with questions about what kind of performances the bill could ensnare. Democratic Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio prompted a long back and forth that raised questions about whether various scenarios could be considered sexually explicit. That included Gutierrez's question about whether two men in drag kissing while walking in a Pride parade would be considered sexually explicit under the bill.

Hughes didn't directly answer.

"Prurient interest in sex is well defined by the courts. You know that. Anybody on this floor, you and I both know - and that's my answer," he said. "It's about protecting children."

Gutierrez retorted that lawmakers should focus on gun violence instead if they want to protect kids. The San Antonio Democrat's district includes Uvalde, where the deadliest school shooting in Texas occurred last year. Gutierrez has filed various bills this session seeking to limit access to guns.

"Listen, we could talk about protecting children all day long," Gutierrez said. "You haven't done a whole lot there."

Gutierrez's repeated comments about the lack of traction for his gun legislation drew a rebuke from Patrick, who presides over the Senate. At one point, Patrick told Gutierrez that if he didn't keep his remarks limited to the drag performance bill, the lieutenant governor may not continue letting him speak.

As bills focused on the LGBTQ community have moved through the legislature this year, drag performers, transgender Texans, and community advocates have also questioned the sincerity of lawmakers' claims that they're trying to protect children. Many say legislators are further stigmatizing people.

"I've had shows canceled. We've had people show up with guns - that's more terrifying to kids than me looking like this right now," Bandit said last month while donned in a bright pink floor-length gown and a big pink wig inside the Texas Capitol.

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