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This Teacher Dresses in Costume in Class. Montana Law Might Consider That ‘Drag’

7 minute read

Rachel Corcoran loves wearing costumes to engage her students at a Montana public school. But under the state’s law banning public performances of drag, dressing up as fictional and historical male and female characters in the classroom could be illegal, according to a new lawsuit filed in federal court on July 7.

Corcoran’s teaching methods could be considered “drag story hour” in which she is a “drag queen” or “drag king”, even though she does not identify as one, the lawsuit claims. Her costumes have included a crazy cat lady, the rapper Eazy-E, Tina Turner, Waldo (from Where’s Waldo) and Lilo (from Lilo & Stitch.)

Corcoran sued city and state officials, alleging that the new law was “a breathtakingly ambiguous and overbroad bill” that is an unconstitutional and “draconian” breach of free speech. Other plaintiffs include organizations that host all-ages drag events and an independent theater that receives state funding, which worries that some of its films and live performances could be caught in the law’s broad net. (For example, the lawsuit says the theater worries that the new PG-13 Wes Anderson movie Asteroid City could violate the law because in one scene, actress Scarlett Johansson disrobes and steps into a bathtub.)

House Bill 359 went into effect on May 22, and creates restrictions on “sexually oriented performances.” It also targets “drag” story hour, banning those considered to be dressing in drag from reading to children in public schools or libraries. The legislation notes that if those in violation of the law are a library, school, teacher, or “entity that receives any form of funding from the state,” or an employee of such an entity, they can be fined $5,000. Teachers and school staff could face a yearlong suspension and a second offense warrants losing their teaching certificate. Anyone found guilty of violating these rules could also be sued within ten years of the event by a minor who attends the performance.

The bill’s main author, Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell, said in an email to TIME that “this bill is meant to keep hyper sexualized events out of taxpayer funded schools and libraries.” He said that the legislation “is not going to affect what Rachel thinks it’s going to affect.” Republican Governor Greg Gianforte’s spokesperson Kaitlin Price told TIME the office generally doesn’t comment on active litigation, but noted: “It’s wildly inappropriate for little kids, especially preschoolers and kids in elementary school, to be exposed to highly sexualized content.”

TIME spoke with Corcoran about why she dresses up in costumes with her high school students, her concerns about the law, and her decision to sue city and state officials. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Why did you decide to sue the state of Montana over the ban on public drag performances?

I was watching the legislative session closely as a queer person, so I was aware of the numerous anti-LGBTQ bills in Montana. But this bill in particular would impact how I operate in the classroom and how I interact at school. I dress up around homecoming and have reading celebration lessons in my classroom where we dress up as characters from books we read. Then, I realized: wait a minute—those sorts of things are now going to be illegal. I could get in trouble for that. I could be fined or lose my license. That seems pretty ridiculous.

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The lawsuit alleges that because of the way HB 359 is written, your teaching methods could be considered to be “drag story hour” with you representing a “drag queen” or “drag king.” Had you ever considered yourself in those terms before?

It’s totally false. I have never considered myself to be drag queen or king. Neither have my students. If dressing up in a costume counts as that, it’s sort of like the Pictionary version of the actual art form—a very gross, crude version of drag, which entails real art, beauty, and wonderfulness.

Tell me about why you dress up in costumes when you teach.

It’s not something I do all the time. But there’s a big celebration around homecoming where we have different dress-up days. That’s fun to participate in because students see a different side of you. They get to see your humor and the things you care about outside school.

By the time students who struggle with reading and writing make it to high school, it can be really hard. The costumes were a way for us to connect with our characters and choose books we were personally interested in instead of ones a teacher picks out. We would do a celebration dinner in which we came dressed up as a character from our story and pretend to be that character. It was fun to see them interact with each other in this way given that reading has never been easy for them. They had never really wanted to engage because of the struggle. I had students who would usually be quiet during class conversations because they’re shy. But then they would wear this costume, pretend to be this other character, and open up.

What are some of your favorite costumes to dress up in?

I’ve dressed up as a crazy cat lady with stuffed animals all over my outfit. I have also dressed up as rapper Eazy-E for 90s day. Those little moments can make students think, maybe that teacher is cool. She’s a real human and I can go to her with what’s going on.

I have a kiddo who dressed up as Gandalf because he listened to the Lord of the Rings audiobook; just knowing, that counts, and that’s reading, and you’re doing great. Just any of those ways to celebrate a student’s success are important and I really hope that other teachers will continue to find ways to connect and support their students.

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How has the ban on public drag performances affected the way you teach? Are you going to keep dressing in costumes?

I don’t have a classroom anymore because I am coaching other teachers who have students with multiple languages in their background, but it gives me access to more buildings, which means there’s more homecoming for me to participate in. I’m going to continue celebrating those days. It’s kind of a silly thing, but the impact can be powerful when you get to engage with kids. T​here’s no way I was going to get my high school students who felt like failures at reading to want to keep reading and writing essays if they didn’t have that relationship with me.

Why do you think you’re the right person–or one of the right people–to lead this fight in your state?

For me, it’s all about building a connection with students. For some, school is not a welcoming place. There’s a lot of other things going on in their world that can be overwhelming. So whatever we as educators can do to connect with students to give them a safe space is important.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com