Casey Longacre, a 28-year-old drag performer, made his first trip to the Oklahoma state capitol on Wednesday to protest against a bill that would outlaw drag shows on public property or in front of minors. Under the bill, violators could face felony charges, punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $20,000.
Longacre was joined by some 200 people that were screaming and booing in the halls of the capitol in Oklahoma City when the bill passed in the state House Judiciary – Criminal Committee, with five Oklahoma state legislators voting in favor of advancing House Bill 2186 to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Longacre called the vote a “direct attack on the queer community and drag community.”
The bill would make it illegal for a person to “engage” or “authorize the viewing of” an “adult cabaret performance” on public property or where a minor could view the show. “Go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, drag performers or similar entertainers,” all fall under this category. If passed, it would take effect on Nov. 1.
The drag performers TIME spoke to expressed frustration at the continuous attacks against a community that, to them, represents acceptance and liberation. The bill adds to the approximately 300 anti-LGBTQ bills that have already been introduced at the state level across the U.S.
“A year ago they were talking about banning trans people in sports, and they [said they] were just gonna stop there, but no they’re not,” Conner Caughlin, a 24-year-old drag performer tells TIME. “It’s terrifying to be in a red state right now, but when you don’t have the resources to move, you just kind of have to dig your heels in and keep on fighting.”
There are at least 14 other states that have introduced similar anti-drag bills, according to the Washington Post— including Tennessee, where House Republicans have voted in favor of criminalizing “adult cabaret performances,” including “male or female impersonators.”
Nicole McAfee, the Executive Director of Freedom Oklahoma, an organization that advocates for queer communities across the state, says that there was no public comment period during Wednesday’s hearing for the bill, which poses major concerns for LGBTQ+ advocates. “Without having space on the record it’s a really hard process to engage in because in the next steps, they could hear this bill again, as early as tomorrow afternoon, or anytime through the end of March,” McAfee tells TIME.
Many conservative talking points around drag center around ideas about protecting children from viewing explicit or inappropriate content. “It is crystal clear that what we are trying to do is protect minors,” Kevin West, the author of the Oklahoma bill, said during the committee hearing. “It’s not banning drag shows. It is not banning how you dress. It is banning the activity that would be considered harmful to minors.”
The drag performers TIME spoke to recognize that while drag can be explicit in certain contexts, they argue that it can also present itself in family friendly forms like Drag Queen Story Hour, where drag queens read to children in libraries and schools, which began in San Francisco in 2015. But such shows are increasingly under pressure from conservative groups. On Saturday, the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, turned out to protest one such event in Silver Springs, Maryland. “Kid friendly drag shows are great for helping people express themselves, find their identity and try new things. It’s basically playing dress up and learning about love, kindness, and community,” Caughlin tells TIME.
And some drag queens, like Longacre, often collaborate on campaigns that would bring resources to the community. “With my drag, I tried to shed light on a lot of nonprofits in the city. I just did a campaign with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and I do a lot of benefits for Sisu Youth Services, which is a homelessness shelter in Oklahoma City.”
However, right-wing rhetoric increasingly depicts drag artists and other parts of the queer community as “groomers,” falsely implying that they are grooming children for sexual abuse. This movement has been spearheaded by online groups including Libs of TikTok, a right-wing Twitter account that criticizes TikToks and social media posts from “liberals.” The account actively posted information about drag events across the country, hoping to stoke outrage among its nearly 2 million followers.
These actions have real-world consequences. Reports of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, doughnut shop being firebombed after hosting drag queens for an art installation occurred in November. A shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that had planned to host a drag brunch in honor of Trans Day of Remembrance also occurred that same month. District Attorney Michael Allen said Thursday that the gunman allegedly has a “distaste for LGBTQ community,” pointing to the gunman’s use of gay slurs and a rifle scope over a pride parade picture, according to CBS News. Some advocates say they’ve never seen a level of attack on this scale. In 2022, GLAAD reported nearly 150 incidents of anti-LGBTQ protests and threats specifically targeting drag events.
“We’ve definitely seen just an increasing volume of anti-trans legislation and anti-gay legislation, but this year was the first session that we’ve seen these explicit anti drag bills introduced,” McAfee says.
Eddie Hefner, a 22-year-old trans, nonbinary Oklahoma resident, says it’s their second time going to the capitol in the past three weeks. Hefner was last there protesting Senate Bill 129—which seeks to ban gender-confirming procedures in Oklahoma for people under the age of 26—and House Bill 1011—which would limit transgender health care to those under the age of 21.
The state legislature is also considering House Bill 2177, which would prohibit gender transition care and procedures for underage persons. That legislation could also cause the immediate revocation of a physician’s license for a year should they “engage in or cause” a patient to undergo care to “alter the appearance of or affirm the minor’s perception of his or her gender or biological sex if that appearance or perception is inconsistent with the minor’s biological sex.”
Utah was the first state to pass a gender-affirming care ban in 2023, though it’s since been joined by South Dakota and Florida. Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Arizona previously passed similar laws.
Wednesday’s vote on the anti-drag bill, which passed in a vote 5-2, allows legislation to be heard on the full House floor. From there, it would then be assigned to a Senate committee and be up for a vote on the Senate floor before the governor could sign it.
If the bill passes, it would threaten the activity that several performers TIME spoke to have credited for their increased confidence. “I started doing drag in May of last year and it has helped me to become a lot happier, a lot better, a lot more confident myself,” Hefner tells TIME. “It pushed me to move forward and actively change my name… Having that taken away is terrifying.”
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