Bad Takes: Yes, the Texas GOP's obsession with drag is a distraction, but it will do real harm

If it becomes illegal for drag queens to read to elementary school students at the public library, we are slouching toward theocracy.

click to enlarge San Antonians counterprotest an armed militia group’s demonstration against a drag show in December. - Michael Karlis
Michael Karlis
San Antonians counterprotest an armed militia group’s demonstration against a drag show in December.

Bad Takes is a column of opinion and analysis.

"Gay people, we are painted as child molesters. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about the fact that in this state 95% of child molesters are heterosexual. I want to talk about the fact that some 30% of all marriages contain domestic violence. Clean up your own house before you start telling lies about gays.

The fact is that more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than for any other single reason. That, my friends, is the true perversion." — Harvey Milk, "That's What America Is," 1978

"We find that our legislators end up spending millions of dollars and years of their lives trying to legislate morality. That money, that time, that energy should be spent in making the city a place for all people.

Let my minister and not some police officer worry about my moral life. Worry about gun control and not marijuana control. Worry about childcare centers and not what books I want to read. Worry about becoming a human being and not about how you can prevent others from enjoying their lives because of your own inabilities to adjust."— Harvey Milk, "Address to the ILW Union," 1973

Not since the "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show have religious conservatives and the politicians who pander to them been in this much of a tizzy. Of all the crap to worry about, from nuclear brinkmanship to climate breakdown to deregulation-induced train derailments and bank failures, drag queens shouldn't be a concern. Yet on the GOP-dominated Texas Lege's docket this session — replete with trans-bashing of every kind and assorted "culture war" inanity — are multiple bills that target drag shows and may leave a lot of collateral damage in their wake. 

Whenever "a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer's gender assigned at birth," House Bill 1266 states, the venue shall be designated a "sexually oriented business." So, if a trans folk musician or classical composer — not artists typically known for their «lascivious» dance skills — played a set at the Paper Tiger or the Tobin Center, would those establishments need to register as strip clubs?

"The bill is so broad it could theoretically apply to a trans person singing the national anthem at a San Antonio Spurs game," civil rights attorney Alejandra Caraballo wrote for Slate magazine. 

House Bill 4378 goes even zanier, permitting $5,000 lawsuits — plus court costs and emotional damages — against anyone "who knowingly promotes, conducts, or participates as a performer" in any drag performance in front of anyone under the age of 18 in any way that's "offensive to community standards of decency." If you share a Facebook invite to the musical Peter Pan, the lead of which is often played by a woman, and a 17-year-old happens to be in the audience, could you find yourself the subject of legal action? Being accompanied by a parent or guardian is no defense, according to the bill's wording.

So much for the party of parental rights.

Presidential candidates' and state legislatures' rhetorical and legislative arms race over who is less "woke" may seem like little more than a pointless distraction from the real challenges facing working families. Trouble is, even distractions can cause physical injury. Already this month, neo-Nazis stormed a drag queen story hour in Ohio.

In December, right here in San Antonio, armed right-wing militias came out in force to harass a Christmas-themed drag show at the Aztec Theatre.

Conservative readers who have managed to get this far into this column may accuse me of gaslighting. It's a fair guess they've been fed a steady drip of decontextualized clickbait hate-spewing online accounts such as Libs of TikTok.

Allow me to concede that, in the course of human events, there may indeed have been age-inappropriate drag shows that featured cringeworthy crotch gyrations in front of toddlers and their parents. But if someone posted footage of a bikini contest for prepubescents, or a father bringing a baby carriage to the men's club, that shouldn't compel us to urgently disband all high school cheerleading squads or criminalize all beauty pageants.

Non-hyperventilating adults are capable of drawing these distinctions without wasting the government's valuable time. 

You may also have been exposed to the hidden maestro behind many of the MAGA movement's pet moral panics, Christopher Rufo, and his dubious chronicling of the history of drag back to "the sex dungeons of San Francisco."

In addition to his claims presenting a skewed sense of reality, they in no way justify enacting heavy-handed laws barring any kind of gender-bending performance.

It's like refusing to hire a clown for your kid's birthday party because of Stephen King's It.

"Are you afraid your children will become clowns?" comedian Sarah Silverman joked. "I would be more afraid of a clown grooming my children than a drag queen. Clowns are fucking terrifying!"

As entertainment, gender-bending performances date to Ancient Greece and earlier. They continued on from Shakespeare comedies to Madea's Family Reunion.

The brains of children are all-too-frequently splattered on classroom walls by firearms that Republicans decline to adequately regulate, yet they freak out at heartwarming tales about gay penguins.

Here's the bottom line: Mrs. Doubtfire isn't a horror flick about a divorced father trying to "sexualize" his own kids, and if it's illegal for RuPaul to read to elementary school students at the public library, we are slouching toward theocracy. 

Now can we talk about the millions of Texans who can't afford to visit a doctor? 

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