Arizona Lawmakers Attack Pronouns, Drag Shows, LGBTQ Residents | Phoenix New Times


Two GOP Lawmakers Are Attacking Pronouns, Drag Shows, and Arizona's LGBTQ Residents

The new session of Arizona Legislature has just convened and its Republican majority is already ginning up controversy by attacking LGBTQ people.
Noelle Canez, a drag king who performs as Daddy Satan, is helping to organize a protest on Sunday against a handful of anti-LGBTQ bills in the Arizona Legislature.
Noelle Canez, a drag king who performs as Daddy Satan, is helping to organize a protest on Sunday against a handful of anti-LGBTQ bills in the Arizona Legislature. Jacob Tyler Dunn
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Before the new session of the Arizona State Legislature, which includes a host of kooky characters both familiar and new on the scene, even convened, its slim Republican majority was ginning up controversy by taking aim at drag queens, student pronouns, and the state's LGBTQ residents.

The state legislature opened on January 9 with a freshly laundered batch of proposals in hand targeting LGBTQ people. It’s nothing new for the state’s GOP, which has whipped up anti-gay hate in the Arizona Capitol for years. In 2022, state lawmakers passed — and former Governor Doug Ducey signed into law — at least three anti-LGBTQ bills.

This year, Republican Senators John Kavanagh, quite possibly the state's worst lawmaker, and Anthony Kern, who was fired from a police job for lying, sponsored five pieces of legislation targeting LGBTQ people in schools and public places.

The two lawmakers have a long history of sponsoring anti-LGBTQ bills based on whatever iteration of homophobia may be trending at the time: gay marriage, bathrooms, and reproductive health, to name a few. This year, it's pronouns and drag shows.

In 2013, Kavanagh’s so-called “bathroom bill,” which would have criminalized taking a leak if a person’s birth certificate didn’t match the stick-figure sign on the stall door, was flushed away following national outrage. Last year, another of Kavanagh’s failed bills aimed to limit teaching about sexuality, gender, and gender identity and restrict student groups focused on LGBTQ issues.

In 2019, Kern warned that "LGBTQ rights" could "take over" under Democratic rule in the legislature.

Phoenix Pride Executive Director Mike Fornelli called Kavanagh and Kern “the most ignorant, spiteful, and childish lawmakers in Arizona” in a statement to Phoenix New Times. He added that they are “led by the leash of über-conservative interest groups who are more interested in creating problems than solving them.”

Kavanagh, meanwhile, said, “It’s not about hate, it’s about protecting our kids.”

Here are the five anti-LGBTQ bills filed so far by Kavanagh and Kern.
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State Senator John Kavanagh sponsored legislation targeting drag shows and LGBTQ people.
Miriam Wasser

Pronoun Problems

SB 1001, sponsored by Kavanagh, would make it a crime for teachers and school staff to refer to students by their preferred pronouns without written consent from their parents. Even with parental permission, school employees could still choose not to use the student’s preferred pronouns.

“It’s really important to focus on the fact that not every kid can depend on the support of a parent or know ahead of time if their parent is going to be supportive,” said Jeanne Woodbury, the interim executive director of Equality Arizona.

Woodbury said that for many queer children, it’s less intimidating to first experiment with new pronouns, nicknames, and gender expressions at school.

LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented among the state's unhoused population due to the unique issues they face, including discrimination by family members, according to the LGBTQ Behavioral Health Coalition of Southern Arizona. Kavanagh's bill would interfere with support LGBTQ students could receive at school, according to critics of the legislation.

“It’s not fair to put kids in a position to not have any support at all unless they have parental support,” Woodbury said.

Kavanagh’s bill would also criminalize the use of nicknames in schools unless the nickname is traditionally associated with the student’s biological sex.

“You can’t just call Robert ‘Nancy,’” the eight-term Arizona lawmaker said.

Kavanagh recognized that, under the legislation, LGBTQ students “wouldn’t get the affirmation they’re asking for." But he turned the blame on the children. By using preferred pronouns, “you’re forcing people to call you something against their beliefs," he said.

Calling a student by “an improper pronoun or first name” is a violation of parental rights, Kavanagh said.

LGBTQ advocates said the legislation could also violate the First Amendment.

“I can’t see how that’s not a violation of free speech,” Woodbury said. “We have the right to identify how we want. We have the right to ask people to respect our identities. It’s a blatantly unconstitutional idea.”
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Supporters of drag queen story hours marched in the Phoenix Pride parade on October 16.
Matt Hennie

Teacher Trouble

Another bill from Kavanagh, SB 1005, would prohibit courts from ruling against schools and other governmental entities when sued for violating the parental bill of rights. The bill contains exceptions for harassment and frivolousness.

In 2022, Ducey signed into law a bill that created a parental bill of rights allowing parents to have access to all health, counseling, and electronic records of their children. The bill also allows parents to sue schools should their "parental bill of rights," as outlined in the law, be violated. The measure originally included language that forced teachers to out LGBTQ students to their parents, but that was dropped before the bill passed. The bill took effect in September.

Under SB 1005, teachers and schools may feel pressure to avoid supporting LGBTQ students and issues out of fear that it could expose them to legal action, according to Equality Arizona.

“Allies have the right to respect our identities,” Woodbury said. “Anything that threatens teachers with lawsuits, even if they know they’ll win those cases, will heavily disincentivize them from doing something that could get them sued.”

In 2022, lawmakers passed a bill banning sexually explicit material from classrooms, but what it prohibited was vaguely defined, and teachers have to obtain parental consent to use the materials. So some schools responded by scrapping any material that might be covered under the new law.

Rather than trying to be an ally, Woodbury said, “It’s easier to just stop doing the things people might get mad about.”
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Bills proposed in the Arizona Legislature would ban drag shows form public view and force venues to get licensed as adult-oriented businesses.
Matt Hennie

Targeting Drag Shows

Kavanagh has also sponsored SB 1026, which prohibits public money from being used to pay for “drag shows targeting minors.”

Kavanagh said there's no example of such a thing ever happening in Arizona. But, he explained, it’s a preventative measure after he once witnessed “two people, dressed up, engaging in drag behavior,” when “one of them bent over and humped the other one and simulated anal sex.”

Kavanagh admitted the drag shows he’s aware of “probably weren’t [paid for] with state money. They were in nightclubs. But if a school puts it on, it would be a violation.”

Outcry over Kavanagh’s meddling with LGBTQ expression in the state’s schools sparked a student protest on January 9 as the legislature opened its session.

Support Equality Arizona Schools, a youth-led student group, displayed 180 black garbage bags on the Capitol Lawn that day to represent body bags. It was a nod to the 1.8 million LGBTQ teens and young adults in the U.S. who contemplate suicide each year, the Arizona Republic reported.

In his bill, Kavanagh defines “drag shows targeting minors” so broadly that it could mean a ban on performances such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the 1959 rom-com Some Like It Hot, musicals including Rent and Hairspray, and even a transgender teacher performing an educational skit, according to Equality Arizona and Phoenix Pride.

The bill is dangerous, said Noelle Canez, a drag king who lives in Mesa and performs as Daddy Satan.

“Whether it’s happening or not, it tells the public that drag is bad, it’s dangerous, it’s not good for children,” Canez said. “Drag is all about self-expression, love, and teaching people that it’s okay to be gay, straight, trans, a performer — it doesn’t matter.”
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State Senator Anthony Kern wants to ban drag shows from public places.
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

‘Erasing Drag From Public Life’

Sponsored by Kern, SB 1028 is “the most draconian” of the five anti-LGBTQ bills on the table, according to Woodbury.

This bill would make it illegal to host drag performances at any public place where the show “could be viewed by a minor.” This would criminalize drag brunches, family drag shows, drag story hours, some musicals, and more.

Canez is helping to organize the Fuck My Drag Right!? Protest at the State Capitol on January 22. The event aims to stomp out all five bills but particularly SB 1028.

“The protest is absolutely necessary because we need to show everybody in political power in Arizona that there is a huge drag community here,” Canez said. “Many people throughout the entire state of Arizona, including many straight people, enjoy the art of drag in general. If drag is limited, not only will people see less art, they will not be able to express themselves.”

The bill includes criminal charges for people who host drag shows in public spaces.

“It’s really concerning how many of these bills target LGBTQ people and allies with these really harsh punishments like misdemeanors or even felonies,” Woodbury said. “This is a horrifying bill because it effectively erases drag from public life. This is pushing community art into the shadows and trying to remove an already marginalized community from public life.”

This “prohibition-era maneuver,” she said, also could have a major impact on Phoenix Pride, a massive annual celebration of the rich history, culture, struggles, and contributions of LGBTQ people in the Valley. Phoenix Pride has distributed more than $1.2 million in grants and scholarships since 2008.

Fornelli pointed out that drag performance has existed in mainstream society for thousands of years and is documented at least as far back as ancient Greece, when dramatic roles were portrayed by male performers regardless of the character’s gender.

He didn’t mince words about the movement attacking drag shows.

“The answer seems clear enough. These policies are not designed to protect children from exposure to an art form that is as old as the classics,” Fornelli said. “What it really is is an attempt to protect these ignorant lawmakers — most if not all of whom, I would bet, have never personally seen or attended a drag performance — from their own childish insecurities. Further, these same lawmakers who claim to be steadfast about limiting the reach of government, especially when it comes to government telling them how to raise their own children, have no problem foisting their faux sense of morality upon the rest of us.”

Fornelli, Woodbury, and Canez agreed that supporters of the legislation lack serious knowledge of drag culture. Some drag queens and kings do indeed dress according to the gender they were assigned at birth, Canez pointed out.

“For them not to want us to spread our love and our art is a very scary implication,” she said. “Any time that we try to censor art, it leads down a very scary road.”
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Two Republican state lawmakers are spearheading an attack on drag performers and LGBTQ people.
Matt Hennie

Adult Entertainment

Also sponsored by Kern, SB 1030 would require permits for drag shows and zone businesses that host them as an “adult-oriented business." The bill lumps drag performance in the same category as cabaret, adult entertainment, and even sex work.

“Drag as an art form is not adult-oriented,” Woodbury said. “A bill like this, trying to use zoning laws to punish businesses that feature drag performances, is just a ridiculous misuse of the law.”

Canez said the legislation again shows a lack of understanding about drag performances.

“There is a time and a place for all forms of drag. In most cases, it’s not explicit,” Canez said. “To generalize us as sex workers shows a lack of understanding. It’s scary for people who don't understand us to pass bills limiting what we can do.”

Kavanagh said he supports Kern’s bill as a way to protect children from the “troubling images” they may see at a drag story hour or brunch.

“It’s creating confusing and possibly troubling images to kids who really don’t understand the full dynamic of sexuality and gender,” Kavanagh said. “I think a lot of these shows are targeted to influence kids. The people who put on drag shows admit that they are trying to introduce transgender stuff to children.”
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Daddy Satan performs during a drag show at Rebel Lounge on January 13.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

What’s Next?

While lawmakers consider the anti-LGBTQ bills, opponents of the measure are hopeful that if they pass, Arizona’s new Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, will veto them.

“Should this toxic tripe manage to actually gain support in either or both houses of the legislature, I am 100 percent confident that Governor Hobbs will see it for what it is and respond with the booming impact of her veto stamp,” Fornelli said.

In the meantime, LGBTQ people in metro Phoenix will protest on January 22.

“The majority of people in Arizona are pretty horrified by this kind of legislation,” Woodbury said. “We are going to make that clear.”
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