Texas Republicans target ‘life-changing’ drag shows as Pride month comes to a close

For queer people, drag shows are a place of acceptance, community and self-expression. To some Republicans, they represent a threat.

By Dominic Anthony Walsh, Houston Public MediaJuly 7, 2023 9:30 am, , ,

From Houston Public Media:

Halfway through Pride month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 12 into law.

While it isn’t a complete ban on drag, the law does take aim at any performance deemed “sexually oriented” in the presence of children.

It could have a chilling effect on an artform that is central to queer expression and community.

Small town drag

Ahead of last year’s Fourth of July parade, three drag queens and an HBO production crew landed in Granbury, Texas.

“Some of the citizens of Granbury let us know immediately that they did not feel like we were welcome there,” recalled Bob the Drag Queen.

He’s a global drag superstar. The HBO reality show “We’re Here” brings Bob and two other famous queens to small towns across the country, where they meet local queer people and allies and organize drag shows.

They also meet people who are not allies. At the parade, the queens were not in drag. But the protestors were still fired up, arguing that kids shouldn’t see a man in a dress.

The attitudes are even entrenched in the local public school system. Before the queens came to town, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica published a recording of the local superintendent arguing that there are only “two genders.”

“There’s male, and there’s female,” he said. “And I acknowledge that there are men that think they’re women. And there are women that think they’re men. And again, I don’t have any issues with what people want to believe, but there’s no place for it in our libraries.”

The opposition to drag shows and books with LGBTQIA+ themes often focus on “protecting children.”

A person dressed in drag strikes a pose. He's wearing a western-themed red, white and blue outfit and heavy makeup. This is Bob, a drag queen.

Greg Endries / HBO

Bob the Drag Queen, on HBO’s We’re Here, in Granbury, TX in season’s 3’s premiere episode.

Bob doesn’t buy that.

“You can’t force anyone to be straight, you can’t force anyone to be gay,” he said. “Limiting a queer person’s access to queer literature and experiences will not stop them from being queer.”

That night, as the fireworks exploded overhead, Bob sat down on the ground and cried.

“You can’t thrive in a town where it feels like everywhere you go someone is against you,” he said.

DeShay Jackson knows what that’s like. They were a music minister at a church in Granbury before being forced out of the congregation.

“There were ways that I felt suppressed, and I was suppressing myself,” Jackson said. “I was masking some things, and when I would do that, I would cause harm.”

Jackson has since become the minister of music and worship arts for The Gathering, A Womanist Church in Dallas. It’s an accepting Christian space — something Jackson struggled for many years to find.

“As someone that grew up in the Christian faith, we talk about Jesus, and we talk about the idea of him being both human and divine,” they said. “But we really lean on that divine side so much that humanity is left out, and there’s a shame that a lot of us end up carrying.”

Jackson was one of the locals who got in drag for the Granbury episode of “We’re Here.” With about three hours worth of makeup, a huge wig, and a bodysuit, they dominated the stage with an Aretha Franklin lip sync.

Three people sit at a table in discussion. From right, an older man speaks across the table to Shangela, a drag queen wearing a sleeveless plaid top, rainbow headband and star stickers around their eyes. In the middle a woman looks on.

Greg Endries / HBO

Adrienne Quinn Martin (center), with drag queen Shangela (right) on We’re Here on HBO.

“It was just a matter of like, I look pretty, I feel as pretty as I’ve wanted to,” they said. “I can bat my eyes and not feel shame, and it just felt like really stepping into ownership of my own body.”

Adrienne Quinn Martin also transformed into a drag queen for the show. She’s the chair of the Hood County Democratic party, and she decided to take her 12-year-old son to the performance.

“I wanted him to see the support of the community,” Martin said. “I always want my son to feel like no matter where we are — middle-class suburban, white people in a traditional family — I want him to support equality for all people. That’s obviously very important to me that he has those values, and I wanted him to see those values. I wanted him to experience what a drag show is — it’s great entertainment, and it’s art.”

Self-ownership, confidence, fierceness, acceptance — all of these are key pillars of drag.

Drag in the city

If you go for a Sunday morning stroll in Houston’s Montrose Neighborhood, you can find all of it at ReBar. Unlike in Granbury, drag is a regular part of life here. Folks take in the performances over brunch.

The ReBar brunch shows are usually hosted by the Bearded Beauty Blackberri, who’s known for her facial hair, witty banter — she asks if patrons are celebrating a birthday, anniversary or eviction — and her Niki Minaj lip-syncs.

A drag performer dressed in multicolor jaguar print, multicolor hair, and a blue-dyed beard speaks. This is Bearded Beauty Blackberri.

Daisy Espinoza / Houston Public Media

Bearded Beauty Blackberri is emcee at ReBar’s drag brunch.

“To me, drag is expressing the character or artistic vision that you have in your head,” Blackberri said. “So for me, Blackberri is a drag entertainer, but Blackberri is more than just drag. Like a lot of things that I do, or the way I talk, or the way I act in drag is how I wish I would have acted when I was growing up, or I wish I would have seen someone like that.”

In the audience, Mikey Luna wore vibrant green eyeshadow. He came to his first “life-changing” brunch at Rebar about two years ago, and he found community in the open expression that is a drag show. He felt like he could be open, too.

“I was barely coming out,” Luna recalled. “I knew I had been gay for a long time. I had never been to a gay bar. So when I came to the first drag brunch, I was like, ‘Wow, my people are here.'”

The performances are geared towards an older audience. Most patrons at ReBar are 21 and older.

Blackberri has also done drag queen storytimes at a public library in Houston. The skin-tight body suit is replaced by a frilly dress, and she trades in the R-rated banter and Nicki Minaj lip syncs for a children’s book. But the events still faced protests.

The furor over drag queens and kids even reached the State Capitol in Austin this year.

Daisy Espinoza / Houston Public Media

Attendee at ReBar’s drag brunch accessorizes with a neon fan that says “DRAG IS NOT A CRIME”

Drag shows become a legislative target

“Drag shows are sexually explicit and expose children to issues of sexuality and identity that should be reserved for adults,” said Republican State Senator Brian Hughes, who authored Senate Bill 12.

The final version of SB 12 imposes a $10,000 fine and criminal penalties for “sexually oriented performances” in the presence of children. The bill specifies that the performance must appeal to the “prurient interest in sex” — so, even according to Hughes, it’s not a complete ban on drag in front of children.

“Two men are wearing dresses and holding hands — holding hands. Does that violate the law?” asked Democratic State Senator Roland Gutierrez.

“Senator, that does not appeal to the prurient interest in sex under any case, that I’m aware of,” Hughes responded. “If you have one, I’d love to see it.”

“The same two men dressed in women’s clothing, they’re in the parade and they kiss each other with their tongues,” Gutierrez responded. “Does that violate the law?”

Hughes didn’t directly answer the question.

“Senator, the cases on prurient interest in sex have been around for a long time,” he said. “Courts have dealt with this for a long time, and that is an essential element to qualify under this bill — appealing to the prurient interest in sex.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the courts to decide what does or does not appeal to the “prurient interest in sex.”

But many SB 12 supporters do want to erase drag from public life entirely. Governor Greg Abbott even incorrectly claimed when he signed the bill last weekend that it would do just that — ban drag in public.

It’s not just about sexuality. Every time Hughes laid out the bill, he argued that drag shows “expose children to issues of sexuality and identity (emphasis added) that should be reserved for adults.”

Nino Testa is associate director of professional practice in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

“Drag, as a performance practice, aestheticizes and theatricalizes certain ideas about not just gender, but about identity,” Testa said. “And it does so with a kind of an eye toward an understanding of power, and of how these identity categories have kind of come to be, what they mean, how they’re used in the world, and it kind of pushes back on some of the expectations around those identities.”

“It creates and carves out space for queer people, in particular, to understand themselves, maybe not outside of those norms but differently positioned within those norms.”

He thinks the debate is really about whether kids should be allowed to see joyful expressions that go beyond traditional gender conventions.

“When children see that people can exist in that world and find joy and pleasure in community, I think that really scares folks who don’t want that to happen,” Testa argued. “Which is why I think drag, because it is such an exciting and spectacular art form, is such a target.”

Transgender people swept up by SB 12

Attacks on drag sweep don’t just affect drag queens, as Bob the Drag Queen points out.

“I think that the attempts at the drag ban really have very little to do with the drag as much they actually have to do with blanketed transphobia, and attempts at stopping trans people from being able to exist and live out in public,” he said.

In Austin, a pop musician known as p1nkstar is about to go on tour just as those types of bans ramp up.

“I write about trans joy and queer joy,” p1nkstar said.

She is trans, and she performed at SXSW this year. It’s hard to know if that performance would be legal under SB 12. The law calls out certain movements deemed sexual — like twerking — as well as prosthetics or accessories that quote “exaggerate male or female sexual characteristics.”

“It’s hard for me to see what it’s going to be like — to actually understand the repercussions and how that’s going to affect, like, music and nightlife,” p1nkstar said.

“You see a p1nkstar show, and it’s a music performance,” she continued. “It’s not like a sexualized show. Yeah, I look hot on stage because I’m a pop star, but literally anyone — like Taylor Swift looks hot on stage, and she’s very PG. So I don’t know.”

spectrum of drag bans are in the works in other GOP-controlled states. In Texas, the drag crackdown comes as gender-affirming care for trans youth is also outlawed.

P1nkstar wants young queer people to know that life gets better.

“I just hope that they can hold on and stay alive,” she said. “Stay alive for a couple more years.”

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and Houston Public Media. Thanks for donating today.