Arizona Senate Committees Pass Two Bills in GOP Push to Criminalize Drag and Place on Sex Offender Registry

A group of Republican state lawmakers focused on attacking LGBTQ Arizonans passed two bills that would criminalize drag shows, businesses that host them, and parents who take their children to see them.

SB 1698, sponsored by Senator Justine Wadsack, would make it a felony for parents to take their child to a drag show. The parents would have to register as sex offenders, too. SB 1030, sponsored by state Senator Anthony Kern, would make it a felony for some businesses to host drag shows.

Republicans in the Arizona Senate can’t decide if they want to label drag performers as sex workers or sex offenders. So, why not both?

SB 1698 would add drag shows to a state law about “dangerous crimes against children.” The bill defines drag shows as adult-oriented performances and compares them to bestiality, child sex trafficking, second-degree murder, and sexual assault.

Under the proposal, adults who allow children to see drag shows could receive prison terms of five years and be required to register as sex offenders.

Wadsack said the idea for the bill came from conversations she had with the Log Cabin Republicans and Gays Against Groomers, two gay yet anti-trans conservative groups.

By a 3-1 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill on February 16. Its next step could be a vote by the full Senate.

Kern, Wadsack, and fellow Republican Senator Wendy Rogers voted to advance the bill. Democratic Senator Anna Hernandez cast the lone vote against it.

Republican Senator John Kavanagh did not vote. Democratic Senators Christine Marsh and Mitzi Epstein also did not vote. Why not? Because Kern, the committee chair, asked lawmakers to leave the hearing in shifts for lunch so members could continue considering legislation on the agenda. Kavanagh, Marsh, and Epstein were the first to leave, along with several people in the audience scheduled to testify.

Then, the bill passed with virtually no testimony or discussion in mere minutes.

SB 1030 would require permits for drag shows and zone businesses that host them as an “adult-oriented business,” citing the shows as “sexually explicit.” The bill lumps drag shows in the same category as cabaret, adult entertainment, and even sex work.

Under the proposal, drag queens wouldn’t be allowed within a quarter-mile of any school or playground.

By a 5-3 vote, the Senate Government Committee passed the bill on February 16, and it can now be considered by the full Senate. Wadsack, Rogers, and fellow Republican Senators David Farnsworth, Janae Shamp, and Jake Hoffman voted to advance the bill. Democratic Senators Juan Mendez, Priya Sundareshan, and Eva Diaz voted against it.

The proposal defines a drag show as one in which drag performers “engage in singing, dancing, or a monologue or skit in order to entertain an audience of two or more people.” Critics of the legislation said the broad definition was problematic.

“The definition of drag shows doesn’t actually say anything about sexually explicit content. This bill would include a lot of things that aren’t even drag,” Jeanne Woodbury, interim executive director for Equality Arizona, told Phoenix New Times. “That creates a huge problem that isn’t within the scope of actual adult-oriented businesses.”

Business owners who host drag shows are worried that the bill threatens their livelihoods.

“Bars like mine are only open to people over 21 and are already highly regulated,” said Jeff Parales, owner of Kobalt in Midtown. “This new regulation will put an undue burden on businesses like mine.”

Parales said that labeling all drag queens as sexually explicit is a “red herring.” The bill is similar to “what they’re doing in Communist China and totalitarian regimes like Iran,” he said.

Hoffman, the committee chair, interrupted Parales’ testimony. “In those countries, they throw homosexuals off of roofs and kill them. You are out of order. If you continue speaking, you will be removed,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman then admitted that he has never been to a drag show.

Parales pointed out that drag entertainers help raise money for charities and nonprofits in Phoenix and statewide.

“Instead of focusing on real issues like funding education, you’ve insisted on targeting an already marginalized community,” he said. “Your rhetoric has led to mass shootings and attacks at small businesses like mine and the people who go to them.”

Lydia Burton, a gay mother from Phoenix, has been taking her 8-year-old daughter to drag story hour at a public library since the child was in preschool.

“Because of drag, my child has learned to be brave and kind, colorful and creative, and that art has purpose,” Burton testified. “Drag is not defined by adult content. Drag is art. Drag is family. Drag is our church.”

Burton reminded the committee that, last year, Arizona Republicans passed a parental bill of rights that then-Governor Doug Ducey signed into law. The measure states that parenting decisions are “exclusively reserved to a parent of a minor child without obstruction or interference from this state.”

“Whether you understand my family and my culture is not relevant,” Burton said. “We should all agree that I should parent my child in accordance with my values. I have the right to direct the upbringing of my child, and the government shall not infringe on that.”

Elijah Watson, a local Democratic activist with Keep Arizona Blue, called the bill a clear and divisive attack against queer people and drag performers by subjecting drag shows to the same prohibitions as strip clubs.

“It perpetuates the myth that has been pushed this legislative session by Republicans that drag is a form of sexual entertainment and that drag is an art form that promotes pedophilia and the grooming of children,” Watson said. “It does not. To say that this bill is offensive is an understatement because it is very clearly discriminatory.”

Nobody testified in support of the bill.

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