Texas drag performers are leading an active resistance against legislative threats. Since the beginning of the state legislative session on Jan. 10, Texas lawmakers have filed 76 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills—more than any other state. Activists hope to keep as many bills as possible out of the Republican-majority House by the session’s close on May 29.
The state has proposed a bill known as the “drag bounty hunter” bill that would make hosting a drag show in the presence of minors or on public property a liability. For up to 10 years after the event, plaintiffs would be able to sue hosts and performers and collect $5,000. The language of the bill defines drag as a “performance in which a performer exhibits a gender that is different than the performer’s gender recorded at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs in a lascivious manner before an audience.”
The bill could forbid library and bookstore Drag Queen Story Hours, all-ages drag shows, and Pride parades.
It was modeled after Texas’ 2021 “abortion bounty hunter” bill, which offered $10,000 in bounty to anti-abortion informants.
“I don’t think that it’s any surprise, especially for somebody like me who can give birth and lost my reproductive freedom rights last year, that now this is happening,” said Brigitte Bandit, a full-time drag queen in Austin. “My body, my person, my way of expression is being stripped from me because men think that they know what’s better for my body, my being, my way of expression.”
Bandit’s testimony in March against two anti-trans bills, SB-12 and SB-1601, went viral. SB-12 says that drag displays a “prurient interest in sex.” SB-1601 bars public libraries from receiving state funding the year following a drag event. The state Senate gave final approval to SB-1601 on Apr. 5, the last step before the House hears it.
Armored with a candy floss-pink wig and inky eyeliner, Bandit, who is nonbinary, laid out how the law might allow her to perform as a drag queen since she was assigned female at birth, but might forbid others from doing so, which shows the lack of understanding of the gender spectrum, expression, and drag among conservative lawmakers. Bandit said the bill’s binary reduction of drag to a man dressing as a woman or a woman dressing as a man is discriminatory and uninformed. The imprecision results in legislation that does not reflect reality and becomes an avenue for persecution.
“They have to put this part of the law that says it’s either a man dressed as a woman or a woman dressed as a man,” she said. “Most people think I am a man whenever I am in full drag, even though I look like a gorgeous woman. The point is, why should I be able to do those kinds of costumes and ideas and performances, and not my male drag queens?”
Other drag performers are also speaking out against the narrative that all forms of drag are inappropriate for children.
“They talk about drag being inherently sexual and ‘prurient’ and how kids can’t be around it,” said Maxine LaQueene, who has been a drag entertainer for over a decade and moved to Austin from the Midwest in 2019. “The problem is that not all drag is sexual.”
“The rhetoric is so vague on purpose,” LaQueene said of the bill’s language. “Because it is vague, it gives these politicians the ability to police the entire queer community however they want.”
Drag Story Hour, started by author Michelle Tea in 2015, began as an effort to help kids see more gender fluidity and queer families represented at community hubs. Activists say Republican lawmakers are weaponizing drag without considering the actual needs of young people.
“Drag allows kids to see that you can be whoever you want to be, and express and explore yourself however you would like,” Bandit said. “It just opens up a world of possibilities to get to know yourself for who you truly are, and not what is expected of you. It’s a limitless world of possibilities and it allows you to find your most authentic self.”
In 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott released an order directing health agencies to investigate families providing gender-affirming care for trans youth as child abuse. A bill introduced in February would ban all gender-affirming care in the state, including for adults.
“You are prohibiting a human being from being given healthcare for them to live their lives. It’s not just gender-affirming. It’s life-affirming,” LaQueene said. “They’re suppressing not only a community, but they’re putting actual people’s lives in danger.”
Advocates and entertainers are uncertain about how the chips will fall when it comes to the “drag bounty hunter” bill. As a social policy, “I really think this is going to fail miserably,” said Corpus Christi-based sociologist Isabel Araiza, adding that she would not be surprised if it passed the legislature.
Bandit said she did not think that either the House or Senate would actually debate the bill.
“I think they’re just trying to make a statement,” she said. “Some of these bills that they introduce don’t even get heard or acknowledged, but it just shows where they’re thinking.”
Of the 76 bills filed this session, 20 moved forward, and only one passed.
“A big reason for the drag community to come together to fight these bills is to not only stop what they’re trying to pass, but should they pass, our biggest goal is to hold them accountable,” LaQueene said, adding that part of this work would involve changing the bills’ vocabulary to be more specific.
To fight discriminatory policies, LaQueene said that it’s important for activists to be tactical.
“We have to hit them where it hits them the hardest, which is in the legal sense, the way that it is actually affecting not only the community but also the local Texas economy,” she said. “If you get rid of drag altogether, there are restaurants, venues, bars, beer companies that are not going to be making money.”
Drag performers, advocates, and allies have determinedly mobilized against anti-trans bills over the past year. Though the flurry of bills coming out of Texas can be discouraging, testifying at the Capitol has been a powerful way of fighting back.
“The more human they see we are—which we achieve by being visible and present at places like the Capitol—people will start to realize we’re a lot more alike to their favorite artists than not,” said Austin drag queen LawrieBird.
Equality Texas has coordinated much of the response and kept testifiers updated. Meanwhile, Republican senators have obstructed proceedings.
Bandit said she waited six hours before hearings began, even though the discussion was at the top of the agenda. Senators designed the hearings so that testimonies in favor were at the beginning and end, and the opposition was in between. They left the room when opponents spoke and only came back for the views that aligned with their own.
“I sat there for 12 hours listening to the Senate Hearing Committee [make] some of the most transphobic, hateful comments, and it was lobbied at doctors [and] medical professionals who have literally gone to school for decades to learn about what they’re telling you about,” LaQueene said.
Though she eventually testified, Bandit worries that the unpredictability could deter others.
“Not a lot of people have all day to sit and wait to speak for two minutes for a body that’s not even going to be there,” she said.
Despite the actions of Republican lawmakers, supporters are showing up for the Texas drag community in large numbers. On Apr. 15, Equality Texas organized a march to the Capitol in support of LGBTQIA+ rights.
“The more that the community, the LGBTQIA+ community, and the drag community actually saw what’s happening, the more that people like myself [and] Brigitte Bandit, got the word out, the more people saw it, and they realized, ‘Oh, this is an actual thing we need to show up for,'” LaQueene said.
“It’s a push and pull system that we’re dealing with,” said LaQueene. “But then you see the fight back.”