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Columbia Falls legislator drafts bill to ban children from attending drag shows

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | December 29, 2022 12:00 AM

A state legislator from Columbia Falls wants venues hosting drag shows prohibited from allowing minors to attend under penalty of fines and the possible loss of business licenses.

The draft bill, known as LC1471, is the creation of Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, and is one of several affecting the LGBTQ+ community expected to go before the 2023 Legislature, which begins on Jan. 2.

Mitchell requested the legislation be drawn up in November.

Under the bill, minors would be barred from attending drag shows or entering a “sexually oriented business.” It also prohibits drag performances in publicly funded schools and libraries.

Reached by email, Mitchell wrote that he took up the bill after constituents reported incidents involving minors at drag events to him, though he did not offer specifics.

“My constituents and I believe in age appropriate education and activities,” he wrote.

Mitchell’s bill defines a drag performance as one where “a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth by using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers” who performs for a “prurient” or excessively sexual interest.

The bill defines a “sexually oriented business” as a commercial enterprise that allows the consumption of alcoholic beverages — such as a restaurant or bar — while also providing live nude entertainment or drag performances for an audience of two or more individuals.

Were Mitchell’s bill to become law, a sexually oriented business may not allow anyone under 18 to enter. First and second offenses come with fines of between $1,000 and $5,000. A third offense carries a penalty of up to $10,000 and could possibly see the loss of licensure for the venue.

A state-funded school or library that allows a drag performance can be fined $5,000 with the possibility of suspension or expulsion for the offender.

Mitchell held his legislation up as a way to bolster parental rights.

“From religion to entertainment, parents have always made these decisions in their home according to their values,” he wrote. “This bill will cement that right for Montana families.”

Critics of the draft bill question the need for the proposed legislation.

“They’re really trying to solve for a problem that does not exist,” said Donald Stuker, a Bozeman attorney, drag performer and advocate, and drag production company owner.

Andy Nelson, executive director of the Western Montana LGBTQ+ Community Center in Missoula, points out that most drag shows across the state take place in bars or other venues that are limited to patrons who are age 18 or 21 and older. In Montana, minors are allowed to enter bars, though ownership can set rules on the presence of minors in their establishment.

“First of all, [this bill] is creating a problem where a problem doesn’t exist in general,” Nelson said.

Stuker helps organize drag performances across the state for pride events and more. According to Stuker, no young children are showing up to the shows unaccompanied. Stuker said that while the bill makes it sound like drag performers are bringing sex clubs into schools and libraries, that “simply is not happening.”

Nelson says that the bill works to vilify drag performers and queer people.

Many of Montana’s drag shows are put on by the Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana (ISCSM), a Missoula-based nonprofit. The ISCSM uses the shows to fundraise for at-risk children, with donations going to organizations like the Watson’s Children Center and the Ronald McDonald House. According to Diana Bourgeois, the president of the ISCSM, they put on a minimum of one show a month. There are two scheduled for January.

“I am a mother, I am hetero, I am cis, I am a disabled veteran, I am a United States Marine, we are all diverse,” Bourgeois said. “For someone to assume that we are all just gay men trying to indoctrinate children is a farce.”

Mitchell’s bill follows efforts elsewhere to restrict drag performances in the presence of children. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has spoken against minors attending drag shows in the past. Similar efforts claiming to be against the sexualization of children are underway in Texas and Arizona, according to NPR.

The proposed legislation in Montana comes on the heels of confrontations related to drag shows in Montana. In June, ZooMontana in Billings held a drag queen story hour that drew hundreds of attendees — and protestors.

Three drag queens attended, including Hexx Shadow — Stuker’s drag name — taking turns reading family-friendly books to children and taking pictures with guests during breaks. Nelson believes it is activities like the story hour that Mitchell’s bill is targeting, yet those activities do not reflect the language in Mitchell’s drafted bill. For instance, ZooMontana is not publicly funded.

Story hours, like last summer’s event in Billings, are “in no way sexual in nature,” Nelson said. Rather, the voluntary events — Mitchell’s bill omits any penalties for guardians who take their children to such gatherings — are an opportunity for children and their parents to listen to stories about inclusivity and kindness.

“By no means are they trying to sexualize, or ‘groom’ as they’ve been saying, children with these stories hours,” Nelson added.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at 758-4459 or kheston@dailyinterlake.com.