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Kentucky GOP lawmakers advance bill that would criminalize some drag performances

A queen in full drag sits at a table with a microphone in a committee room.
Jess Clark
Drag queen Poly Tics testified before a Senate committee Thursday against a measure that would restrict drag performances.

The bill prohibits certain “adult performances” on publicly owned property or at locations “where the person knows or should know that the adult performance could be viewed by a person under the age of 18.”

A Kentucky Senate committee passed a measure Thursday that would criminalize performing drag shows in front of children, if those performances are deemed to appeal to a “prurientinterest.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, of Smithfiled, said she believes many drag shows “sexualize” children.

“There has been an onslaught of attacks on the innocence of our children. And that is why I’m bringing this bill,” she told the Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection.

Opponents, however, say the bill is one of many attacks Republican lawmakers have volleyed against LGBTQ communities this legislative session.

The measure would create criminal penalties for “adult performances,” which would include a “performance involving male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.”

The bill prohibits such “adult performances” on publicly owned property or at locations “where the person knows or should know that the adult performance could be viewed by a person under the age of 18.”

Illegal “adult performances” would carry a misdemeanor for the first two offenses and a felony for the third and any that followed.

The provision also allows the state to penalize any business that “knowingly allows or hosts an adult performance … at which any person under the age of 18 years is present.”

Richard Nelson with the conservative Commonwealth Policy Center testified in support of the bill, saying the state should prevent drag shows in public spaces.

“Drag is inappropriate for children, and parents can no longer trust our institutions to shield children from that age-inappropriate content. Why is this practice of exposing our children to drag and drag shows suddenly so popular, and why are adults going along with this?” Nelson said.

Opponents of the measure say lawmakers misunderstand drag.

“With all due respect, you are so misguided on this issue,” said Bonnie Meyer with the NKY Pride Center. “You've clearly never been to a drag show. You've clearly never taken an opportunity to discuss what this means to our community.”

Performer Poly Tics came from Lexington dressed in drag to oppose the measure. She told the committee it “not only compromises or asks me to explain my humanity, but it also brings into question my livelihood as a drag performer.”

After the committee meeting, Poly Tics told LPM News lawmakers have misconceptions about her artform.

“Coming from someone who has been bullied their whole life and has been constantly told that they’re not enough, they’re not worthy, they’re unnatural … drag was my way to reclaim my life, it was my way to say, ‘I don’t have to listen to that,’” she said. “If I want to wear a sparkly dress and that makes me feel good, I’m going to wear the dress. If a pair of heels makes me feel confident, then I’m going to wear the heels.”

A middle-aged woman on a scooter and a teenager hold up signs on the Capitol lawn. They read: "Hands off my rights;" "Drag is art;" "Drag is beautiful."
Jess Clark
Angel and Zada Henderson came in from Corbin to protest the anti-drag measure. Zada, who is 17, says she and her mother see drag shows together. "It's a space of pure love and hope," she said.

Kate Miller with the ACLU of Kentucky said the bill considered Thursday was "dramatically different,” from an earlier version, which would have made it nearly impossible for any business to host a drag show.

“A lot of our concerns have been addressed,” Miller said. "What remains is, I think, the concern when it comes to who's defining 'prurient.'"

Miller said the measure will create government censorship and infringe on people’s First Amendment rights, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Emma Curtis, a 26-year-old trans woman and musician, told lawmakers she worried that the vagueness of the provisions could put her at risk of prosecution for performing love songs.

“I have frequently performed the song ‘Can't Help Falling In Love with You,’” she said. “That could be considered of prurient interests, due to the fact that it is romantic in nature, and some may view that as sexual.”

Many who testified also worried about the impact of the measure on businesses like performance venues and restaurants that have made drag shows a cornerstone.

Sen. Karen Berg, a Democrat from Louisville, pointed out to Tichenor that parents choose to take their children to drag shows.

“There are laws on the books that protect children when parents make bad decisions,” Tichenor countered.

“So we're back into 'parents’ rights'? Is that what we're talking about here?" Berg retorted, noting Tichenor is behind a so-called “parents' rights” measure, which would make it easier to challenge books and curriculum they find “obscene.”

"You're going to take my right away to decide what is appropriate for my child?" Berg asked pointedly.

The measure passed along party lines, with the committee’s two Democrats voting against.

It heads next to the Senate floor.

At least nine states across the country are considering similar restrictions on drag shows.

This story has been updated.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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