Anti-Drag Laws-Analysis

Matt Aukamp, Communitarian Feature Writer

On April 5, a lawmaker in the PA House of Representatives published a memorandum seeking to ban drag shows “on public property or in areas that can be seen by minors.”

Aaron Bernstine, who ran unopposed in PA’s 10th district in 2022, claims the legislation is a response to an “alarming” increase in drag performances that appeal to children.

This proposal comes on the heels of a long rash of Anti-Drag bills across the US. So far, over 40 bills in 15 states have been proposed this year.

The sudden firestorm over drag performances comes as a surprise to many people in the theater world. Stephen Smith. Assistant Professor of Theatre at DCCC, said, “Drag is actually one of the oldest forms of theatrical performance in the world.” Female performers were forbidden in many parts of the world, so men or boys had to play the female roles.  This was true in ancient Greece and even up through the time of Shakespeare.

The term “drag” has been in use since at least 1871, originally referring to a male performer dressing in women’s clothing. The term has since been expanded to label performances in which the performer adopts a persona with an exaggerated gender expression.

The first anti-drag bill, in Tennessee, includes “male or female impersonators” in its definition of “adult cabaret entertainment,” along with topless dancers, strippers, and go-go dancers.

Governor Bill Lee, who was once photographed in drag at his public high school in 1977, signed the bill that would criminalize such acts. The bill has since received a temporary Federal injunction for violation of the First Amendment.

So why has drag suddenly become a flashpoint for conservative politicians across the United States? Many believe that this is just one tactic in a larger crusade against the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans.

On the ACLU’s podcast, At Liberty, former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant, Peppermint, spoke about the connection. “Trans issues, trans rights, anything having to do with gender and sexuality… They’re trying to dismantle any of the progress that we’ve had and turn us into the boogeyman.”

Dr. Kelly Landman, Associate Professor of Psychology at DCCC, is hesitant to even discuss the topic, out of concern that “paying any attention to this unfounded correlation gives the idea credence.”

While Dr. Landman stresses that minors being preyed on by adults are affected in alarming numbers, she thinks a drag performer “is no more likely to be a perpetrator of child sexual abuse than is any other adult in society. In fact, members of the LGBTQ+ community are significantly more likely to be targets of abuse than perpetrators.”

Professor Smith adds, “The art of drag really had nothing to do with sexual orientation or ‘grooming’ or any of the other controversial elements that are being used today about drag. It was and still is primarily a performance art for entertainment.”

Jason Stansberry, DCCC Counselor, and LGBTQ Student Club advisor, says the preponderance of anti-LGBTQ laws could cause real harm to LGBTQ+ youth who are watching these arguments unfold on a national stage. “If they don’t feel like they can be who they are and they just push it down, inevitably, over time, it can be very confusing.”

As the laws pile up, the question becomes when will the public come to realize that threatening First Amendment rights has become a key motivator for some politicians.

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