The first bill, Senate Bill 12, would prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from attending “sexually oriented performances,” which would include some drag shows and other events. The other bill, Senate Bill 1601, would prohibit public money from going to libraries that host events where drag queens read to children. Both bills will now head to the Texas House.
SB 12, by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, would criminalize performances that appeal to “the prurient interest in sex” or contain sexual conduct when minors are present. According to the bill text, “sexual conduct” would include nudity, sexual touching and more.
The bill does not fully ban drag shows, but rather limits what kinds of performances children can attend. Businesses that host sexually oriented performances in front of children would face up to $10,000 in fines, while performers could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. The penalties for performers would include up to a year in jail, a $4,000 fine or both.
“This bill says minors should not be exposed to sexual performances,” Hughes said on the Senate floor. “I hope we can all agree on that.”
Hughes did not define a “prurient interest in sex” in the bill or during questioning from his colleagues. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice and previous Supreme Court cases, it refers to “an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion.”
The original bill applied to sexually explicit performances with performers dressed in drag, such as a man presenting as a woman or a woman presenting as a man. But on April 4, Hughes added an amendment to include all lewd performances on public property, not just drag shows.
“This amendment will accomplish the purpose of making sure that all obscene performances—any sexual performance inappropriate for a child, regardless of who is the performer, regardless of how they’re dressed—will be affected by the statute,” he explained.
As senators debated the bill, some Democratic lawmakers raised questions about how Hughes’ proposal would impact other types of performances, such as Shakespearean plays and other shows that include performers presenting as someone of the opposite sex. Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, raised questions about a variety of scenarios, including whether two men dressed in drag and kissing or holding hands at an LGBTQ+ pride event would violate the proposed law.
Hughes did not directly answer, but said,“prurient interest in sex is well-defined by the courts. You know that. Anybody on this floor, you and I both know that, and that’s my answer. It’s about protecting children.”
Gutierrez said if senators want to protect children, they should focus on gun control laws. He represents Uvalde, where 19 students and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting in May.
Gutierrez’s comments elicited cheers from people watching in the Senate gallery, including LGBTQ Texans and advocates. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, reprimanded him for the statement.
“Stick to the topic of the issues that you’re asking questions on, or you will not be recognized in the future,” Patrick said.
Some senators argued the bill was too broad and could have unintended consequences.
“We don’t have a very tight definition of what breaking the law is,” said Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio.
The bill passed with a 20-11 vote and will now head to the Texas House. All Republican senators voted in favor of the bill, while Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, was the only Democrat to approve it.
"It is shocking to me that any parent would allow their young child to be sexualized by drag shows," Patrick said in a statement following the passage of SB 12. "Children, who cannot make decisions on their own, must be protected from these sexually-oriented drag shows now occurring more and more in front of them."
SB 1601, also by Hughes, would prevent state or public money from being used to fund municipal libraries that host drag queen story hour, or events where people dressed in drag read to children.
According to nonprofit Drag Story Hour, these events include storytellers “using the art of drag to read books to kids in libraries, schools, and bookstores. DSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.”
DSH, which was founded in San Francisco, credits itself with creating drag story hour events in 2015. The organization has chapters nationwide, including one in El Paso.
Hughes’ bill is not related to performers’ behavior nor the content of the events. Instead, all drag queen story hours would be included under the bill, even if parents and library staff deem the events appropriate for children.
The bill would apply to all library-sponsored events where drag performers read to children and a “person being dressed as the opposite gender is a primary component of the entertainment."
Hughes said the bill was aimed at protecting children, although the bill text does not specifically state what it would protect them from. In defense of the bill, he cited a 2019 event when a registered sex offender read to children during drag queen story hour at the Houston Public Library after the library failed to complete a background check on its participants. The library stated the man would not be allowed to participate in future events.
Democratic lawmakers raised concerns that the bill could prevent parents or librarians from dressing in costumes when reading to children, such as a female librarian dressed as Harry Potter. West asked if the bill would apply to men wearing kilts. Hughes said literary costumes and kilts would not be impacted by his proposal and that it primarily focuses on drag queens.
“It’s a very short bill, a very straightforward bill,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers offered an amendment that would focus on drag performances with a prurient interest in sex, in line with Hughes’ language in SB 12. They argued this would allow educational events to continue. But the amendment did not receive enough votes to pass.
Hughes’ bill was approved with a 19-10 vote. West was again the only Democrat to approve the bill, while Sens. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Borris Miles, D-Houston, were present but did not vote. The bill will now be sent to the Texas House for consideration.