TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-led Senate on Tuesday approved legislation that would bar children from attending drag shows with “lewd” performances, a proposed restriction that follows a national theme in GOP states and that comes a day after a Republican Florida lawmaker called members of the LGBTQ+ community “mutants” and “demons.”
Supporters of the measure, titled Protection of Children, argue the state government needs to intervene in certain cases to ensure children are not witnessing sexual content, even in cases when parents approve. Democrats and LGBTQ+ advocates, however, say the broad language and stiff penalties are designed to stifle drag shows and pride parades, events that organizers say are meant to be joyous community celebrations.
The push to target these performances comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis seeks to punish venues that have hosted drag shows with children present, even in cases when state regulators found no “lewd acts.” DeSantis, who is expected to launch a bid for president in the coming months, has said “sexualized” drag shows are dangerous for kids.
So far, the DeSantis administration has gone after private venues’ liquor licenses and all cases remain open. The proposed legislation would broaden the state’s enforcement powers. It would allow the state to pursue any person who admits a child into a private or public live performance that “depicts or simulates nudity” or engages in the “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”
The penalties — up to a year in prison or up to $10,000 in fines — could be levied against employees, such as ticket-takers and lobby attendants, and permitted performers at public events, under the proposal. The sanctions would not be waived in cases where a child is accompanied by a parent.
The bill also includes criminal penalties for performers who obtain a public permit for an event and then violate provisions related to “lewd” performances. Equality Florida advocates and LGBTQ+ community members fear that provision, added a week before the Senate vote, is an attempt to stifle pride parades, and to dissuade cities from issuing permits for the events.
Critics warn about “dangerous” rhetoric
The bill has drawn criticism from Democrats, drag queens and LGBTQ+ advocates who worry the broad definitions in the bill will make businesses fearful of hosting drag shows.
But even more so, critics worry the effort will foster harassment and hateful rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community.
“Beyond policy, GOP lawmakers have used these bills as vehicles to push bigoted and dehumanizing rhetoric about our community,” said former state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat running for the state Senate in 2024.
Much of the Senate floor debate Tuesday focused on the climate being fostered by Republican lawmakers who are pushing measures that take aim at many aspects of the LGBTQ+ community — including bans on transition health care for minors and restrictions on the use of pronouns in K-12 schools.
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In particular, Senate Democrats pointed to comments made by Republican state Rep. Webster Barnaby of Deltona, who on Monday called transgender Floridians “demons and imps” and compared them to “mutants from another planet” when debating a bill that would prevent people from using bathrooms “designated for the opposite sex.”
“I want to acknowledge that that type of vitriol is coming because that is the type of climate that has been created in this country and that is the type of climate that we are creating in this state,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “We are basically giving people a hall pass to say crazy things like that.”
“What happened yesterday is dangerous,” Jones said, worrying that the proposals, including the bill up for debate on Tuesday, could encourage more of that rhetoric and violence against the LGBTQ+ community.
Yarborough, a Baptist, alluded to Barnaby’s decision to invoke his Christian faith as he lashed out at the transgender community.
Barnaby’s comments were enough to sway one vote — that of Democratic state Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a former Broward County School Board member, who previously supported the bill but changed her vote to show support for “all of the LGBT young people that are hurting right now.”
The Republican majority in the Senate, however, voted in favor of the measure. The only GOP lawmaker who debated in favor of the bill was Yarborough.
“We are protecting children who cannot unsee or unhear or inexperience this to which they are exposed to,” Yarborough said. “This legislation sends a strong message that Florida is a safe place to raise children, because we are setting a standard in this state that protects children from being exposed to live performances that depict nudity and sexual activity.”
The Senate approved the bill on a 28-12 party-line vote. A similar bill is moving forward in the Florida House, but it has yet to reach the floor.
Florida is not alone in pursuing restrictions on drag shows. Several GOP states — including Tennessee and Arizona — are advancing similar proposals.
Pride parades at risk?
On the Senate floor last week, Yarborough was repeatedly asked to clarify whether drag shows and pride parades would be impacted by the regulations proposed in his bill. In most cases, he opted to give a broad answer.
“I won’t make the distinction as to a particular show because it applies across the board, but as long as they are not doing anything that we have in the definition — nudity, the sexual conduct, sexual excitement, the sexual activities — just like it was inside a location or if it is outside, if they are not doing any of these things, then it is not running afoul of the law,” Yarborough told senators on April 4.
Brandon Wolf, the press secretary at Equality Florida, said the legislation is drafted with intentional vagueness in order to get people to self-censor.
“I think it’s clear the intent of this filed amendment is to induce that same chilling effect around pride,” Wolf said.
Wolf was particularly frustrated with the lack of clarity on whether or not drag queens and pride parades would be specifically targeted, even if the performance is innocuous.
“It’s incredibly frustrating and I think pretty telling that the people who are most adamant that we need this legislation are the ones who refuse to tell us what it actually means,” Wolf said.
Bruce Horwich, the Miami Beach Pride chairperson, is well aware of the efforts in Tallahassee that are taking aim at the LGBTQ+ community.
But he is confident that the annual festivities, which have drawn tens of thousands of people to a big parade on Ocean Drive for 15 years, would not get in trouble because none of the performances are sexually explicit. He is even careful about the language in songs that will be played, because families sometimes show up at the event.
“I give very direct direction to my stage director and to my entertainers to avoid (explicit) language when they’re doing their songs,” Horwich said. Miami Beach’s parade is scheduled for Sunday.
Carrie West, the president of Tampa Pride, said he thinks the bill could not only affect Tampa Pride, but could spill over and affect other parades as well. He said the pride parades are not sexual, and that drag queens or others on the floats are not doing anything lewd.
“If blowing kisses out to the audience is offensive, well guess what, they need to grow up,” said West.
He said the Legislature should focus on feeding people across the state and lowering property taxes, instead of potentially going after pride parades.
“Let’s move forward,” West said. “This state is more progressive than that.”
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