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DeSantis targets drag performers, a new battle in Florida's "culture wars"

Florida’s “culture war” is targeting alleged “lewd” drag queen performances in front of children. The state has sought to revoke liquor licenses from venues that stage inappropriate drag performances. A new law would also impose tighter restrictions, including fines and jail time. (Leer en español)
Publicado 27 Mar 2023 – 01:05 PM EDT | Actualizado 27 Mar 2023 – 03:32 PM EDT
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Miami drag artist, Luckner 'Lucky' Bruno, impersonating French queen, Marie Antoinette, on stilts. Crédito: Kiara Romer / Courtesy of Luckner Bruno

Earlier this month the state of Florida filed a complaint seeking to revoke the liquor license of a Hyatt Regency hotel in Miami because it hosted a “sexually suggestive” drag queen show in which the state claimed minors were present.

It was at least the fourth such complaint in recent months targeting venues from “patently offensive” live events that present a “serious danger to the public health, safety, or welfare.”

It also comes as the state legislature is debating a bill that would punish venues that host inappropriate drag shows with fines and even jail time.

The crack down on drag acts has alarmed performers as well as owners and managers of event venues, while also causing concern in the broader arts community about the ongoing expansion of Florida’s ‘cultural wars’ under Governor Ron DeSantis.

The governor, and potential presidential candidate, has made these cultural issues a major part of his political platform.

Ron DeSantis and the 'culture wars'

The governor previously signed the so-called ‘Parental Rights in Education’ law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics, which prohibits instruction or discussion of LGBTQ issues or identity up until fourth grade. Last week the state said it was planning to extend that law to all grades.

Several other Republican-led states have followed Florida’s lead, restricting drag shows and public displays of gender nonconformity in Texas, Tennessee, Montana and Iowa.

While several drag performers interviewed by Univision said they would never perform sexually provocative acts in front of children, they worry that their entire profession is been tainted by the fears of culturally conservative politicians and activists who disapprove of their lifestyle.

Drag shows: "a culturally significant art form"

“Drag artists have been around for hundreds of years as a way of making social commentary through their performances. It’s a culturally significant art form,” said Pioneer Winter, a 35-year-old Miami choreographer, dancer who teaches performance courses at Florida International University (FIU).

“These shows should be protected speech under the First Amendment. It’s not inherently sexual at all. It’s a form of self-expression and entertainment,” he added, noting that drag is performed not just at night clubs, but birthday parties and weddings. Several restaurants in Miami offer a Sunday ‘drag’ brunch.

The legislative debate underway in Tallahassee

Last Tuesday, members of the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from witnesses who described drag queens as sexual deviants whose performances poison and confuse the minds of children.
“As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect children from what is patently offensive to the prevailing standards in our communities,” said Senator Clay Yarborough, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1438.

A business owner could face up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine if they knowingly admit a child into an “adult live performance” that “depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct” or “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”

Proponents of the bill compare it to the standards set for adult movies, or bars, casinos, and strip clubs.
Some Christian and conservative groups worry about children being exposed to the LGBTQ lifestyle. They argue that drag shows are harmful to children, because they expose them to inappropriate sexual content and issues of gender nonconformity, which may confuse or "indoctrinate" impressionable young minds.

Outrage was sparked last year when a video went viral on social media of a four-year-old girl holding the hand of a Miami drag queen with her nipples covered in pasties and wearing G-string panties.

The state filed a complaint against the venue, the R House restaurant, which hosts a popular drag brunch, and threatened to revoke its liquor license.

“Nobody should be doing lewd and lascivious acts in front of children,” said Anthony Verdugo, founder of the Christian Family Coalition Florida (CFC), a conservative human rights and social justice group. “We have to protect the children. This is getting out of hand,” he told Univision.

The R House declined to comment to Univision about the case.

Critics of the crack down on drag performances say the controversial legal reform could create havoc to small business if it becomes law. The Florida bill does not specifically refer to drag acts and instead uses vague language about “any show, exhibition, or other presentation in front of a live audience which, in whole or in part, depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement,” as well as “lewd conduct.”

The bill also applies to any show that “predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest,” or is “without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for the age of the child present.”

Verdugo said the bill was specifically intended to target drag shows. “Everybody understands the intent. That’s the void we are trying to fill here, just so there’s no misunderstanding in the judicial branch,” he said.

Similar anti-drag proposals in Iowa and Arizona were dropped after local business owners warned that it could be used against women’s wrestling events where some competitors use drag makeup and scantily clad costumes, as well as popular stage shows such as Kinky Boots and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Drag show in South Florida under investigation

The Miami complaint involving the Hyatt hotel was filed after an event titled, ' A Drag Queen Christmas' was held in December at a 4,500-seat auditorium. Minors in the audience were exposed to performers who were “wearing sexually suggestive clothing and prosthetic female genitalia,” according to the complaint filed by state regulators from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).

“The nature of the show’s performances, particularly when conducted in the presence of young children, corrupts the public morals and outrages the sense of public decency,” it added.

Amir Blattner, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Miami, told Univision in a statement that the hotel was “reviewing this complaint” but its hotel ’s liquor license is still active.

In December, another venue, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, in Fort Lauderdale, was investigated and threatened with the loss of its liquor license for hosting the same Christmas drag show.

In February the DBPR filed a complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza for hosting a drag event.

Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, accused DeSantis of “selectively weaponizing” state agencies against businesses hosting drag performances, arguing that parents, not Republican officials, have the right to determine what shows or displays their children may or may not see.

Some Drag Queens suspect they are being targeted by Republicans for political gain and a distraction from bigger issues, such as gun control.

In January CNN political analyst, Ana Navarro, spoke out while visiting another popular Miami gay venue, The Palace Bar and Restaurant. “I just want to say something … I hate how drag queens are being made into a political issue, into a manufactured, made-up cultural issue,” she told the guests in comments captured on video. “No drag queen ever killed a little kid … Guns kill little kids,” she added.

Her comments resonated with the drag community. “It’s very hypocritical. All of my career I have been performing for celebrities and politicians. I even performed for the U.S. government. They love it,” said Candi Stratton, a 60-year-old transgender drag queen in Illinois.

“All my costumes are replicas. Some are pretty see-through, but not once has anybody told me they were appalled by what I wear,” she added, noting that her parents were staunch Republicans and yet paid for her sex change surgery when she was 26. “This is not the Republican party my father used to be part of,” she said.

Drag artists say performances are usually designed to fit the time and place, with more provocative, sexual acts reserved for night clubs. Drag artists who perform in the daytime, or in front of children, so do with appropriate clothing, said Stratton, famous for her impression of the singer and actress Cher.

Some drag artists also agree that some performers have pushed the limits and enjoy exposing more flesh than others.

“As a performer, I have to adjust to where I take my show,” said Vinna Rouge, a transgender Drag Queen who has performed for Estefan Enterprises, owned by the Miami’s famous musical couple, Emilio and Gloria Estefan.

Also, a professional flight attendant, in her spare time Rouge does impersonations of the actress Selena and singer Liza Minelli, agrees that some drag artists may have taken it a bit far on occasion, herself included.

“I see their point. It’s a fine line we have to follow. There should be rules and regulations. Maybe we can come to a negotiation, a middle ground,” she said, referring to the conservative critics. “I know I can’t go and show my boobs at midday on a Sunday where kids are present,” she added.

“At the same time, we have to defend our freedom. A lot of what we do is very clownish. Kids love that, all the shiny glitter and colors and all that stuff,” she said.

But the critics politicians were going too far. “In today’s world, with smart phones and internet, seriously! They see everything on TV. They would have to hide those kids under a rock. They are only holding back those kids from what they are going to face in the world.”

Verdugo, 60, said he was “not a fan of drag” adding that “men dressing as women can cause a lot of confusion for a very young mind.”

Drag performers should keep their shows behind closed doors and away from children. “We all live in this world. They have to take other people into account. They have to be sensitive to the current political climate,” he added.

Miami at the epicenter of the gay movement

That’s a big change from the Miami that emerged in the 1990s as a place where gay people could come and feel welcomed.

“Drag performances in South Beach in the 90's, not just at clubs, but at restaurants and hotels, were fabulous, witty, and wildly colorful. Drag was part of the tropical, seductively transgressive South Beach nightlife scene, but it was also entertaining. It was fun,” said Jordan Levin, a veteran Miami-based journalist who covers the arts.

“South Beach played a major role in drag becoming part of mainstream pop culture. Those drag artists were seen by all the celebrities, artists, entertainers and journalists that flooded South Beach as the city became a global destination,” she added.

The 1996 movie, The Birdcage, about a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion, (starring Nathan Lane, Robin Williams and Gene Hackman), was set on Miami’s Beach’s famous Ocean Drive.

Drag artists reject the notion that their performances are intended to “groom” or “indoctrinate” youths.

“It’s entertainment. Children love it,” said Luckner ‘Lucky’ Bruno, a 45-year-old drag artist who performs on stilts outdoors and impersonates several famous personas, including actress Selena, salsa singer Celia Cruz and the 18 th century French queen, Marie Antoinette.

“I’m just a 10-foot tall, gorgeous spectacle of Wow!” he said.

“It’s very sad. It’s unbelievable after so many steps forward that with a strike of the pen they want to make us the others again, non-American. They see us a threat to America, and want to take away our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness,” he said.

Gay performers fear legislation could spark hatred and violence

Like other drag queens he also worried that the legislation could inspire acts of violence.

“You now do your performance with eyes on your back for the crazy gun nut. And there are undercover agents going into drag shows just like those draconian authoritative regimes,” he said.

The nation’s largest drag event, ‘Werq the World Tour’ featuring eight of the top drag queens, recently added an 18-years age limit for tickets to its upcoming show at the Seminole Hard Rock & Casino, one of the top venues in South Florida.

“We have always been a family-friendly show,” said producer Brandon Voss. “We tour all over the world, in Europe and Asia, and the only place we are 18+ is in the good old USA,” he added.

Voss said the company made the decision in order to avoid protests outside event venues. “We don’t want our fans being greeted with hatred. It’s for their safety of our guests,” he said.

He was shocked by the rhetoric being “vomited” on social media about drag queens, but vowed the show would go on, noting that the LGBTQ community was used to putting up with adversity.

“Drag performers are a tough bunch. They are probably the wrong people to mess with,” he said.

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