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Bill Criminalizing Drag Shows for Children One Vote Away from Hobbs’ Desk

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by Gloria Rebecca Gomez, Arizona Mirror
April 4, 2023

The first in a series of controversial anti-drag bills is a step away from Gov. Katie Hobbs’ desk, and will likely face its end by her veto stamp. 

The Arizona House of Representatives gave initial approval on Tuesday to Senate Bill 1698, which punishes adults with a class 4 felony and forces them to register as a sex offender if they allow a minor to view or even be in the same building as a sexually explicit performance. 

Last week, legislative attorney Jennifer Holder expressed concerns about vagueness, warning lawmakers that the bill’s language could criminalize adults who are unaware of a sexually explicit performance occurring elsewhere in the building. If the child is under 15, the violation carries with it a 10 year prison sentence. 

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In its original form, drag shows were included among the performances that could earn a parent or performer criminal charges. But after backlash over its overly broad definition, the bill’s sponsor, worried it could loop in everyday dance teachers, modified it. Its current definition outlines performances in which a person is nude or seminude, exposes “specific anatomical areas” or simulates sexual activities. 

However, state law already outlaws taking minors into adult-oriented businesses like porn shops or strip clubs, punishes exposing them to harmful materials with a class 4 felony and classifies an act of public sexual indecency in the presence of a minor as a class 5 felony.

Since being amended, Republicans have framed SB1698 as a protection of children, arguing that removing the reference to drag shows means it no longer singles out drag artists or the LGBTQ community. 

“This bill protects our children from adult entertainment,” said Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott Valley, during consideration of the measure by the full House on Tuesday. 

But Democrats and LGBTQ advocates have continued to oppose the bill, saying its intent remains the same. Shortly after the measure earned approval from the state Senate, the bill’s sponsor, Tucson Republican Justine Wadsack, tweeted in celebration, and said it addresses drag story hours. 

“My bill just passed in the Senate! It makes it unlawful for adult oriented performances, such as Drag Queen Story Hour as it specifically targets children. This does NOT affect adult Drag Shows,” Wadsack wrote

Drag story hours, family friendly events that promote early childhood literacy, have recently become a focal point of the GOP culture war, after one in Texas drew violent protests from white nationalists. In February, a bomb threat at a drag story hour in Tempe forced families to evacuate, and a Tucson event planned for late March was postponed after it was targeted by far-right extremist groups.

At the Arizona Capitol, the hostile movement spurred multiple anti-drag measures, all of which have continued to make their way through the GOP controlled legislature, despite veto warnings from Hobbs and outcry from the community.

In an emailed statement, Bridget Sharpe, the Arizona state director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, decried the hostility at the legislature. 

“We wish Arizona legislators would stop these attacks, because they stoke fear, create stigma, and harm the well-being of LGBTQ+ people,” she said.

SB1698 is awaiting a formal vote by the full House. If it wins approval, it will be cleared to go to Hobbs’ desk.

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Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: info@azmirror.com. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.