Home Arts US drag show laws are a threat to artistic freedom and an attack on LGBTQ communities, critics say

US drag show laws are a threat to artistic freedom and an attack on LGBTQ communities, critics say

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Of all the targets of the “culture war” of recent years — from teaching critical race theory to discussing gender identity — drag shows that can be watched by minors would seem like a very small battle. in a larger war. But legislatures in 13 states (Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) found the topic compelling enough to introduce and, in many case, pass laws. that criminalize programs in which men impersonate women and women impersonate men in public places where minors may be present. Penalties can include fines and possibly jail time.

A drag show is defined in Texas law, for example, as a “performance of a sexual nature” from which an “individual under the age of 18” would be prohibited, and organizations that hold drag shows could do facing fines of $10,000 for each minor. witness such a spectacle. A similar law enacted earlier this year in Florida defined drag as any performance before a live audience that depicts lewd conduct or the obscene display of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts. Businesses that hold drag shows in Florida could face fines of $5,000 or $10,000 and have their liquor licenses revoked if minors are admitted.

The visual and performing arts communities are concerned about whether these laws, and the more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in state legislatures so far this year, represent a potential criminalization of speech. artistic, particularly when the content of an exhibition or performance involves issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Marjorie Heins, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arts Censorship Project and author of Not in front of children: indecency, censorship and the innocence of youththe worries they might.

“The law that was just passed in Texas started with a ban on drag performances that a minor could see and evolved into a ban on anything ‘sexually’ that a minor could see,” Heins said. “It’s pretty vague, covers a lot of ground, and is blatantly unconstitutional, but it doesn’t stop legislatures from enacting such laws, and the chilling effect will likely be significant.”

Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, says the language used in many state bills is quite broad and “can easily reach the art performance, plays, comedy sketches and other works of art or entertainment featuring gender-nonconforming dress or behavior”. Movies such as Mrs. Doubtfire or classic stagings of Shakespeare plays where men play both male and female characters could be identified as violating these laws, he warns. The US Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech must not be violated simply “because some people find [a particular work of art] indecent or see no value in it,” he says.

One of those laws was struck down in early June by a federal judge who found Tennessee’s law limiting drag performances to be “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.” Judge Thomas Parker, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, ruled the law could “criminalize — or at least chill — the expressive conduct of those who wish to impersonate a different sex than the one they are with. were born in Shelby County. ”. He added, “Such speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Lucian Pera, an attorney in Memphis, Tennessee, welcomed Judge Parker’s ruling, adding that the state’s anti-drag law, like the recently passed measure banning gender-affirming care for minors, was “directed at people gays, lesbians and trans, motivated by the opinion of the qualified majority of the legislator on them”.

Definition a tricky question

Judicial rulings and varying levels of support do not necessarily prevent lawmakers from reintroducing these types of bills or trying to change laws that have been found to be unconstitutional so that they can survive judicial review. The subject of obscenity and the types of material that should not be disclosed to minors is a long-standing debate in American politics. The Supreme Court struggled in the 1960s and 1970s to come up with a definition of obscenity that would inform people about what is constitutionally protected and what may be prohibited. The current definition (since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California) has three parts: the average person, applying “contemporary community standards”, would find the work appealing overall to “lustful interests”; depicts or describes specific sexual behavior in a patently offensive manner; and lacks “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value”.

Heins says this definition is “incredibly vague and subjective. Nevertheless, this is what we are stuck with. As for what might be considered “harmful to minors,” she says, the Supreme Court had no more trouble arriving at a clear standard.

There are no studies or evidence showing that drag shows harm minors. “Halloween doesn’t inspire kids to become what they dress up,” says Jordan Budd, executive director of Colage (Children Of Lesbians And Gays Everywhere), a Rhode Island-based organization for people with one or more LGBTQ parents. tutor or caregiver who has included drag performances at events. Drag shows represent “an easy target,” Budd says, “since most people aren’t familiar or comfortable with drag shows,” and they’ve become another area of ​​contention for those struggling against LGBTQ acceptance.

Efforts to restrict drag show audiences have been seen by some in the arts community as an attack on many of its members. Steffan Schlarb, owner of the Schlomer Haus gallery in San Francisco’s Castro district, which specializes in exhibiting works by queer artists, identified the anti-drag show legislation as “a dog whistle.” Drag is used as input into the whole queer experience. The broader view is that the queer experience needs to be regulated because it is a threat to society. Protecting minors, he says, is only a pretext to crush a whole section of the population.

Erica Dubno, a New York lawyer and member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, says, “There is nothing inherently sexual or obscene about drag. Nevertheless, it has often been linked to adult entertainment and erotic expression. She says the town of Hempstead on Long Island has included “male or female impersonators” in its definition of adult entertainment cabarets for decades. “This definition connects impersonators in the same sentence as topless dancers, strippers, and exotic dancers.”

Kevin Sabo, who often plays with queer identities in his art, fears laws will be expanded to censor his work

Photo: Lightpainterr. Courtesy of the artist

Besides how lawyers and LGBTQ activists view the new round of anti-drag show laws and other efforts to protect young people from supposed harm, artists are feeling increasingly under siege. “The targeting of black history in schools is unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg that we are experiencing. It’s extremely scary,” says Kendrick Daye, a New York-based multimedia artist who describes himself as “a black queer person.” “People lump anti-drag and anti-trans laws into one thing and think they’re exempt. But history has shown us that it is a way to put all marginalized people under surveillance and control.

Kevin Sabo, a painter based in Richmond, Virginia, and whose work frequently depicts “queer bodies and drag queens” is also alarmed, he says. “The laws are so vague that they can’t even define drag, so it’s all subject to interpretation. I don’t know how this could happen, but I’m very concerned that these anti-drag laws will be extended to censor this genre of expression.

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