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Texas’s All-Ages Drag Ban Won’t Keep Austin’s Most Avid Performers off the Stage

Anti-LGBTQ legislation is a meaningless attempt at showy “glitter politics” that just harms communities

Local drag performers have a message for conservative lawmakers: Don’t mess with Texas queens.

During the 88th Texas Legislature, Republicans filed a flurry of bills to restrict the rights of the LGBTQ community, including Senate Bill 12 (SB12), which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on June 18. The law, which takes effect on September 1, bans “sexually oriented performances” on public property or in the presence of anyone under 18. It also says businesses that host such performances in front of children under 18 can be fined up to $10,000.

Earlier versions of the bill directly referenced drag performances. That language was taken out right before the passage. And yet, the bill’s detractors say, it still targets drag performers. Community advocates and drag performers say the intent is clear, even if the law’s language isn’t.

The law “demonizes the culture and makes it socially acceptable to target an already marginalized community,” says Miss Kitty Litter ATX, a 35-year veteran of the local drag scene.

A drag queen reading a story with a cover that reads “Pride” to a group of children.
Brigitte Bandit reading a book during a Austin drag storytime in protest of a bill that would take away funds to libraries that host drag queen story times in June.
Brandon Bell/Getty Image

‘Glitter politics’

Perhaps no local drag artist has been more visible during the fight over anti-LGBTQ legislation than one of Austin’s most prolific entertainers, Brigitte Bandit. A host at popular nightclub revues at Cheer Up Charlies and Coconut Club, as well as an all-ages performer at Pride events and storytimes for kids — the very kinds of events that conservative anti-drag activists have sought to demonize — Bandit is an ardent advocate for the queer community. Her testimony before the Legislature on March 23, addressing the discriminatory nature of the anti-drag bills and championing age-appropriate performances, made headlines.

Bandit says that at first, the removal of the word “drag” from the bill seemed like a good thing, but she quickly came to the conclusion that the sponsors’ intent was the same. “They think every single drag performance is a sexually oriented performance, even if I’m just reading a book,” she says.

The law defines sexually oriented performances as those that contain nudity or sexual conduct, as well as those that appeal “to the prurient interest in sex,” phrasing that doesn’t have a general legal definition, as ACLU staff attorney Brian Klosterboer told KENS 5 in San Antonio.

The bill defines sexual conduct as the actual or simulated depiction of sex or masturbation, aroused genitalia, sex toys, or “accessories or prosthetics that exaggerate male or female sexual characteristics.” It also includes a performer’s contact with another person’s buttocks, breasts, or genitals. “That is language still directed at drag performers,” Bandit says.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick confirms that perception; as he indicated in an April 5 statement, the law still specifically targets drag shows: “I will not allow Texas children to be sexualized and scarred for life by harmful drag performances.”

Bandit rejects his framing. “They try to use this idea of protecting children to justify their own bigotry and their own prejudices against queer expression and queer people,” she says.

One of Bandit’s peers in the Texas drag scene, Louisianna Purchase, doesn’t mince words about the law. Drag performers might be the vehicle, “but the real destination is to hurt trans people,” she tells Eater.

A woman in a black sweater with the letters “FU” on a stage.
Louisiana Purchase performing at Sad Girl Karaoke at Swan Dive in March.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

When it comes to Austin drag, they don’t get much more famous than Purchase. The nightlife vamp is a reality television star, a recording artist, and the recurring winner of the Chronicle’s annual Best of Austin poll. In addition to performances at her home base, Elysium, she can be found everywhere from Austin City Limits Music Festival to bingo nights at St. Elmo Brewing Co.

Purchase doesn’t think the law’s vague wording around gender presentation is accidental, and she predicts such “scary” language will be used to persecute trans people and other gender-nonconforming Texans. Already, the Legislature has passed bills this year banning health care for transgender youth and barring transgender athletes from competing on teams that match their gender identity.

Miss Kitty Litter ATX, whose campy performances often involve standup comedy and songs, says there’s “no conscience” behind SB12 and similar bills. She sees the legislation’s language as putting lives at risk. Recent reports have linked a rise in violence and threats with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. “Drag performers are someone’s sons, daughters, neighbors, and friends,” she says.

Native Austinite Basüra, a performer found in clubs like the Iron Bear, Elysium, and Oilcan Harry’s, has done drag for five years. A longtime dancer, she started performing in drag as an outlet for artistic expression. She calls the flood of anti-LGBTQ legislation “glitter politics,” her term for “putting bows and pretty little presents on things to cover up nefarious shit they’re doing.” She cites voting restrictions pushed by Republicans as an example.

“This is just a way to distract people, and we just, unfortunately, are that conduit for them. We are an easy target. Everyone’s already scared of us,” Basüra says.

What’s next for Austin drag?

“We’re resilient people,” Basüra says. “We’re not going to let people stop us from going somewhere.”

Basüra predicts a mixed bag for drag shows when the law goes into effect. Artists working in nightlife venues for people 18 years and older won’t be as affected, she says, but things outside that — like drag queen telegram service Extragrams or gigs at public spaces like the Austin Public Library — could see a shift. There are gray areas that might be tricky to navigate around, too, like the open-air Austin Pride Parade and Festival and drag brunches at all-ages restaurants.

A brunch performers on stage.
Brigitte Bandit and fellow Texas drag queens perform on stage at Cheer Up Charlie’s in April.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The effects of the law already are being felt, Bandit says. She knows of several people who have backed out of recent shows out of fear for their safety. She’s heard about bookings being pulled at colleges, all-ages events, and more. Bandit says she had an appearance canceled on a Pride panel for the Texas Association of School Boards. “I think we’re going to lose more opportunities once this bill comes into law,” she says.

Bandit hopes the law is thrown out, but she doesn’t have faith in Texas courts. For now, she wants to keep doing “what we can and how we can do it.” She continues, “If we all just start canceling our stuff, how are we supposed to combat this narrative?”

Nevertheless, Purchase isn’t panicking. “I’ll be honest, I just don’t see [the law] going into effect,” she says. As she pointed out, similar pieces of legislation in Tennessee and Florida have been halted by courts for now. A federal judge ruled the Tennessee law unconstitutionally vague; another federal judge granted a preliminary injunction pending a trial to determine the Florida law’s constitutionality.

An effort to halt SB12 through the courts is underway. The ACLU of Texas on August 2 filed a lawsuit against the Texas attorney general and other government officials to block it from taking effect in September. Bandit and Extragrams are among those named as co-plaintiffs.

“SB12 is an unconstitutional law that violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments and threatens the livelihood and free expression of many Texans, including drag performers,” a statement from the ACLU of Texas reads.

Purchase sees one-on-one connection as the best way to cut through the noise. SB12 takes humanity out of the picture, she says, and casts the average drag queen as an “amorphous, frightening blob coming to get your children,” which is far from the truth.

Audience members often come up to Purchase and say it’s their first drag show, or it’s their parent’s first show. They’re always impressed by the art, the hard work, and the fun, she recounts. “I have never in my experience, in the 10 years I’ve done drag, had someone go, ‘Yeah, that’s not for me,’ or ‘I’m never coming back,’” she says.

Purchase also advocates for clearly displayed ratings on shows — all ages, 18-and-up, etc. “I normally don’t gear my art for kids, and I am vocal about that,” she says. She’d also like to see more peer-led opportunities for younger audiences.

“No matter what you think about drag or these bills that have passed, you are affecting people’s livelihoods. This moves beyond a cultural battle. You are tangibly stopping people from working,” Purchase says.

And this professional has no intent of stopping now.

“My plans are, it can’t happen. It just can’t, because I have no plans to do anything other than drag,” she says.

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