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Montana lawmakers send Drag Story Hour ban to governor

The bill, which would take effect immediately, would make Montana the second state after Tennessee to restrict drag performances in front of minors. 
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte.
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Montana legislators this week sent a bill to Gov. Greg Gianforte that would ban events in which drag performers read to children at public schools, libraries or other publicly funded locations. 

The measure, titled “An Act Prohibiting Minors From Attending Sexually Oriented Shows,” passed the House Tuesday morning 63-33 and the Senate Tuesday afternoon 29-21.

Gianforte, a Republican, has not indicated whether he will sign the bill, but last week he signed a different measure that bans certain transition-related medical care for minors, including puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery. 

The drag bill specifically bars Drag Story Hour events — a popular national storytelling program where drag performers read to children — in schools and libraries that receive federal funding. 

It also prohibits minors from attending “sexually oriented or obscene performances on public property” and prohibits such performances “on public property where children are present.”

The measure defines Drag Story Hour as “an event hosted by a drag queen or drag king who reads children’s books and engages in other learning activities with minor children present.” It also defines drag king and drag queen as a male or female performer who adopts a “flamboyant or parodic” male or feminine persona “with glamorous or exaggerated costumes and makeup.” 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Braxton Mitchell, a Republican, said in an email that the bill is intended “to ensure hyper sexualized events are kept out of our taxpayer funded schools and libraries.”

“Let kids be kids,” he said. “I’ve asked this question from the beginning, why do these people want to dress half naked and read books to kids? Never got a single answer.”

Drag Story Hour events are not adult-themed. Mitchell did not return an additional request for examples of events in Montana where Drag Story Hour performers have dressed “half-naked” to read to children.

Critics have said the bill’s definitions of drag queen and drag king are so broad that they could affect other types of performances.

“Theater in schools and public libraries would be at risk with this bill the way it reads,” Sen. Shannon O’Brien, a Democrat, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "'Mrs. Doubtfire’ would not be allowed to be shown in public libraries.”

Mitchell challenged that criticism in his email.

“It’s not going to bar theatre in schools or libraries,” he said. “Democrats have no argument for why a drag queen should be reading books half naked to kids so they make excuses to oppose the bill.”

School and library personnel who are convicted of violating the measure will be fined $5,000 and could be suspended or have their credentials suspended for a year. Personnel who violate the measure a second time will permanently lose their credentials. 

A minor who attends a performance that violates the law can also sue the performer for damages for up to 10 years after the incident. 

The bill went through several changes and faced criticism from both sides of the aisle before its final version passed Tuesday. 

Last month, the Senate adopted an amendment that would’ve gutted the essence of the bill by removing all references to drag performances and focusing only on banning adult-oriented performances in libraries or schools that receive state funding, on public property or at a location owned by an entity that receives state funding. 

Sen. Chris Friedel, the Republican who introduced the amendment, said on the Senate floor last month that his version of the bill  would hold up better to legal challenges, local newspaper the Flathead Beacon reported

“I can tell you right now, if that bill goes as [it currently is written], even the most conservative judge will strike it down for unconstitutionality,” Friedel said then. “The reason I brought this amendment today is to make sure that we get this across the aisle. We get this in front of the governor, he signs it; it goes to court and it can be defended by the AG’s Office.”

On Monday, a conference committee voted to amend the bill again to the final version passed by the House and Senate.

Gianforte signed the ban on gender-affirming care for minors even after his son, David, who identifies as nonbinary, lobbied him in March not to sign any of the state’s bills targeting LGBTQ people, the Montana Free Press reported

If Gianforte signs the drag bill, Montana will become the second state to pass a law restricting drag performances in front of minors. Republican legislators in more than a dozen other states have introduced similar bills in recent months.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee became the first to sign such a bill in March, though a federal judge temporarily blocked it from taking effect. The law bans “adult cabaret entertainment” on public property or in locations where it can be viewed by minors. It defines “adult cabaret entertainment” to include “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators, or similar entertainers.” 

Arkansas passed a similar bill earlier this year, but the final version struck drag performances from its list of adult-oriented businesses.