TALLAHASSEE — The “public outrage” over a Miami drag show can be traced back to a well-known Canadian conservative influencer, who in early July received a Twitter message from a tipster who wanted her to “draw attention” to it.
“They were sharing it with me specifically so I could draw attention to it because they, like I am sure most of you, were horrified by what happened,” Lauren Chen said in a July 4 video posted on her YouTube channel, which has half a million followers.
The video, originally posted on TikTok, showed a drag queen clad in a bright yellow G-string and nipple covers leading a young girl around R House, which has hosted a drag queen brunch in Miami’s Wynwood district since 2017. The child had a dollar bill in her hand, and the performer had several bills fanning out of her bottoms.
“I actually want something to be done about this,” Chen said.
And something was done.
Twenty-two days later, the state filed a complaint against R House, which could lose its liquor license if it is found to be in violation of state laws. The claims made in the state complaint mirror many of Chen’s concerns, including the allegation that the performance in the presence of young children “corrupts the public morals and outrages the sense of public decency” and that the “sexualized” behavior in front of children constituted “lewd activity” by the establishment.
In her video, which drew nearly 40,000 views, Chen said the event is an example of “how much the morals of our culture have degraded” and “become non-existent entirely” as a result of the progressive moment. She said people in charge of the event should be “jailed” and called on Floridians to contact their elected officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, to take action.
“Obviously the federal government is not going to do anything because they are leftist as hell,” Chen said. “But hey, somewhere like Florida, hey DeSantis, you need to be on top of this. I absolutely want to see these people thrown in jail.”
DeSantis taking action against a single Miami restaurant over the drag performance is unusual. It is the first time his administration has publicly fought such an act, but it comes as a largely conservative-led movement amps up the pressure on elected officials to go after what they perceive to be “gender ideology” or the “sexualization of children.”
Similar videos emerged and were amplified by conservative influencers like “Libs of TikTok” after the Florida Legislature approved the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed by opponents the “don’t say gay” law. DeSantis’ own press secretary, Christina Pushaw, has accused critics of the law of being “groomers,” a term Chen used to describe those who support bringing children to Miami drag queen shows. “Grooming” refers to the process by which pedophiles lure children into trusting them so the predator can take advantage of the child sexually, but in recent months many conservatives have turned it into a catch-all phrase to attack LGBTQ advocates.
Chen did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Other conservative influencers who have the ear of DeSantis’ circle include Christopher Rufo, who called on fellow conservatives to “unite behind the phrase ‘radical gender theory’ as the catch-all” for messaging on gender identity issues. Pushaw responded to Rufo, saying it’s “a good phrase and I’ll use it.”
State complaint cited influencer’s concerns
While several people reacted to the video on social media, Chen’s comments can be directly linked to the state’s actions because they were included as evidence in the complaint the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation filed against R House.
The weight given to Chen’s comments in the official complaint shows the reach and impact some out-of-state conservative influencers have on state policies and action taken in response to nationally watched, so-called “culture wars.”
The state’s complaint notes that it launched its investigation in early July after a “video was widely circulated on the Internet and social media, and it elicited public outrage.” As evidence, the state agency cited a Daily Mail article that heavily relied on Chen’s reaction to the TikTok video of the drag queen performance.
The user who posted the TikTok video was supportive of the event, saying: “Children belong at drag shows!!!! Children deserve to see fun & expression & freedom.” But the reactions posted on the Daily Mail article were mostly negative.
The Daily Mail article is the only evidence the state presents to show the video led to public outrage. In addition to Chen, the only other people the article cites are social media users who called on DeSantis to take action against the restaurant.
“Time to prove your worth Ron DeSantis. Make sure this person gets arrested and the venue is shuttered,” one user who identified himself as Aaron R. tweeted, according to the article.
In her YouTube video, Chen also called on DeSantis — who is widely seen as a potential Republican presidential contender in 2024 — to do something.
Beth N. Pannell, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco launched the investigation “upon learning of the (TikTok) video.”
A day after the state agency filed a complaint, DeSantis told reporters that the state was taking action because “having kids involved in this is wrong.”
“That is not consistent with our law and policy in the state of Florida. And it is a disturbing trend in our society to try to sexualize these young people. That is not the way you protect children. You look out for children,” DeSantis said.
State officials are watching ‘closely’
When asked if the state was looking into other drag queen shows in Florida, Pannell said it does not comment on active or ongoing investigations. But she said DeSantis has publicly stated that the state will be monitoring such events closely.
“There may be more. If there’s evidence of that, the agencies in Florida are going to respond. We take the well-being of children very seriously. We want to make sure that we have a state and we have communities where kids can be kids,” DeSantis said at a news conference in July.
At the moment, the state’s complaint against R House is a license compliance matter, not a criminal investigation. The restaurant could lose its liquor license, which DeSantis said would “basically” put them out of business. Chen, however, said the business owner should be facing law enforcement and that they should be jailed.
“If it so happens that nothing in that video is illegal, then maybe it should be,” Chen said in her YouTube video.
When asked if DeSantis wanted to change state laws to crack down on these events, Pushaw said she did not have information to share on potential legislation.
“I would just note that we already have laws designed to protect children — and we always want to see those laws enforced,” Pushaw said. “This is not only about ‘drag queen events’; if this had been a performance with female exotic dancers doing sexually suggestive routines while almost naked, it would also have been inappropriate and wrong for children to be allowed to watch.”
It is unclear whether Chen communicated with the governor’s team about her concerns.
Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said she did not know who sent Chen the message on Twitter.
“Sounds like it was from a concerned citizen who saw the video on TikTok, where it was originally posted apparently, but Lauren would be the only one able to confirm that,” Pushaw said in an email.
The day DeSantis announced the state had taken action against R House, Pushaw tweeted about it. Chen was pleased to see that.
“Remember the video of the topless trans stripper walking with the 5-year-old? A complaint has been filed against the bar where that took place. Now they could lose their liquor license and potentially go out of business. This is how it’s done,” Chen tweeted.