In Support of Drag Performance: Performing Arts Alliance Statement

April 5, 2023  •  4 minute read

Anthony Hudson as Carla Rossi in "Clown Down: Failed to Mount" at PNCA (2019). Photo: Matty Newton.

The National Performance Network stands with and celebrates trans and queer artists and artforms. As a member of the Performing Arts Alliance (PAA), we share the following PAA statement in support of drag performance, which is under attack by harmful measures across the US.

These drag bans form part of what Deputy Director for Transgender Justice and staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Chase Strangio has called “the web of anti-trans political violence” that is attacking trans people, particularly trans youth, across the country. As part of Trans Week of Visibility and Action last month, Strangio highlighted the importance of investing in local trans-led organizations, including NPN Southern Artist for Social Change awardee the Knights and Orchids Society in Alabama. Drag bans not only limit freedom of expression, but are also a part of the political effort to limit trans and queer people’s ability to survive and thrive.

Performing Arts Alliance Statement

As a new form of LGBTQIA2S+ hate spreads across the country, in multiple arenas of public life, the safety of drag artists and those who support drag-themed brunches, bingo games, birthday and bachelorette parties, and Pride performances are at risk. Drag performers are at risk. The LGBTQIA2S+ community is at risk. Free expression is at risk. The performing arts are at risk.

What is Going On

State legislatures across the US are legitimizing these hateful actions by passing anti-drag bills that strike at the core of free speech and expression and that criminalize drag as an art form. These bills seek to ban children and young people from drag performances, block shows from public venues, and force locales that host drag events to register as “adult-oriented businesses.”

According to the ACLU, at least 39 anti-drag bills have been introduced in 18 states. Last month, Arkansas passed a law in which the explicit reference to drag was removed, but still leaves performers vulnerable. In the same week, the Tennessee governor, Bill Lee, signed the first anti-drag bill into law, also banning gender-affirming care.

In the article “Laws Restricting Drag Shows Should Scare Everyone Who Believes In Free Expression,” PEN America flagged the most common restrictions being codified:

  • Most define a drag performer as someone performing while using dress, makeup, and mannerisms associated with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. Nine include lip-synching within their definitions, and most specify that the person must be performing for an audience.
  • Many of these bills seek to expand the definition of adult or sexually oriented businesses to include any establishment that hosts drag performances, which would make it illegal for such businesses to be located within a certain distance of public schools or residential areas. In Texas, at least four different bills would put venues that host drag performances in the same category as adult movie theaters and strip clubs.
  • Several of these bills also explicitly ban minors from viewing or participating in drag performances: A South Carolina bill would make it a felony to allow a minor to view a drag performance, and a Nebraska bill would make it illegal to attend a performance until the age of 19. Other bills would implicitly ban minors by reclassifying drag shows as adult or sexually oriented.
  • Other bills explicitly ban drag performances at or near schools or public libraries. A drafted Montana bill would introduce a $5,000 fine for any school, library, or employee of a school or library who is found to be in violation of the law, and in Arizona, it would be illegal to hold a drag performance within a quarter mile of a school or public playground.

You can track the status of bills in dynamic maps from the American Civil Liberties Union and from the Equality Federation. While they have slightly different information, together they capture most current active legislation.

Why It’s Significant

APAP President and CEO and Vice Chair of PAA Lisa Richards Toney outlined why we should be alarmed at these developments.

  • Because we care about our people. First and foremost, this matters because we are advocates and artists who support our colleagues in the LGBTQIA2S+ community, and these bills hit at the heart of gender expression and existence. These actions seek to erase transgender people. Full stop.
  • Because these bills are based on fear and lies. Drag performance is being inaccurately portrayed as dangerous to our children, when events like Drag Story Hour are positive ways to promote acceptance and inclusion.
  • Because these bills are far-reaching and anti-art. In addition to criminalizing drag, this legislation places dangerous limitations on the performing arts. Such laws would impact productions like Kinky Boots and Hairspray, a number of Shakespeare’s works that use gender play, and shows like Peter Pan that often cast women as male characters. By these legal standards, some of the most celebrated artists in history—Tom Hanks, Tyler Perry, Robin Williams, Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, and Prince—would have faced legal scrutiny.
  • Because these bills restrict our rights as performing arts professionals and as citizens. Any infringement on our First Amendment rights is a dangerous precedent. The attacks on drag performers go to the core of our rights to gather and perform together. All artists and arts workers have a constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression.”

What You Can Do

Get Informed

There is an active disinformation campaign happening around these issues. Drag, as an artform, has existed in many forms for many centuries by people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and ages and is not a threat to children or anyone else. Use the links above as a starting point. Research what activism is happening in your area and find out how you and your art can fit into this movement.

Contact Your State Legislature

If you are in a state where LGBTQIA2S+ rights are under attack, speak up! Tell your lawmakers that you care about these issues and that you oppose these infringements on civil liberties. Use this website to find your state legislature’s website.

Those in Louisiana can follow Louisiana Trans Advocates’ 2023 Louisiana Legislation Tracker and sign up for their Trans Action Team, as well as following the leadership of Real Name Campaign and joining their action items.

Share With Your Community

If you have the privilege to safely share this with those who love and trust you, talk about this! Democracy dies in darkness. Make sure that the word is getting out to as many folks as possible who can help fight for the right to expression and free speech!

Watch a Performance

Watch an agitprop-surrealist drag performance about fighting fascism by Evan Spigelman on NPN’s Voices from the Network blog.

Evan Spigelman as "Rebecca"