State Senator John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican who is leading the rush to erase drag from public life, sponsored SB 1026 despite admitting in a recent interview with Phoenix New Times that he can’t think of a single instance in which taxpayer dollars were ever used to put on a drag show for kids in Arizona. The bill defines public money as “tax monies of this state, federal monies passing through the state treasury or any other state monies.”
On a 5-3 party-line vote, the Senate Government Committee approved the bill. Republican Senators Jake Hoffman, Wendy Rogers, David Farnsworth, Justine Wadsack, and Janae Shamp voted in favor of the proposal. Democratic Senators Priya Sundareshan, Juan Mendez, and Eva Diaz voted against it. The measure now moves to the full Senate for consideration.
Seated next to a New Times reporter before the meeting, Kavanagh predicted, “This is going to get pretty involved.”
He wasn’t wrong. The heated debate lasted nearly four hours.
SB 1026 is one of at least seven legislative proposals targeting Arizona’s LGBTQ people. Another of Kavanagh’s bills, SB 1001, prohibits teachers and school officials from referring to students by pronouns that don't match their gender assigned at birth unless they have written parental permission. That bill moved forward in the Arizona Senate in January. SB 1028, sponsored by Senator Anthony Kern, makes it illegal to host drag performances at places where the show “could be viewed by a minor.” The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on February 4.
During public testimony on Wednesday, Kavanagh mocked a member of the public who spoke against the proposed bills. Although each speaker was given 90 seconds to speak, Kavanaugh flippantly snapped his fingers and thumb together repeatedly to suggest a mouth talking. He later made the gesture at Hoffman, the committee chair, who laughed and grinned. Hoffman, who also chairs the right-wing Arizona Freedom Caucus, has threatened to sue Governor Katie Hobbs over an LGBTQ-inclusive executive order banning discrimination in hiring and employment at state agencies.
After the exchange, Kavanagh testified in defense of his bill.
Without offering any evidence, Kavanaugh claimed that some drag shows in Arizona “are specifically meant to introduce children to drag show performers.”
“This is propaganda,” the eighth-term state lawmaker asserted. “I don’t think children should be exposed to something that confuses and disturbs them.”
Drag ‘Is Another Word for Grooming’
After it was first introduced, SB 1026 came under fire for being too vague. Opponents of the bill pointed out that the bill’s language implies that family-friendly films like Disney’s Mulan and the PG-13-rated Robin Williams comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, would need to be banned from schools and other public spaces.
Kavanagh attempted to address the objections by offering his own flawed definition of drag. “If this person is dressed in clothes and makeup, with exaggerated gender signifiers and roles, we all know what it is. Like roles that appear more feminine than masculine. You know, unique male or female clothing, makeup,” he explained.
Kavanagh further incorrectly stated that there is a “decades-old” statutory definition of drag performance in Arizona. Yet the word “drag” has only appeared in Arizona state code as it applies to drag racing.
One speaker at the hearing, local teacher and business owner Mark Howard pointed out this fact in his testimony. Hoffman was quick to defend Kavanagh.
“What we’re talking about here is protecting children from sexual indoctrination at drag shows,” Hoffman said, adding that drag “creates sexual confusion.”
Mendez fired back at Hoffman: “If that scares you, if that confuses you, we have way bigger problems than what is before us today," he said.
All but one of the public speakers testified in opposition of the bill. The lone person who spoke in favor of it, failed Republican congressional candidate Jeffrey Zink, said that “children are male and female just like God basically told us.”
He argued that, like strip clubs, drag shows should be limited to private, windowless adult-oriented businesses only. “That’s why strip shows are inside an area [sic]," he said.
Max Bernstein, a performing arts instructor at Arizona State University, voiced concern that the bill would infringe on the school's publicly-funded curriculum. Many first-year ASU students are under 18 years of age.
“This is what I want to know — is my job illegal under this bill,” Bernstein asked. “Drag performance is not about targeting or creating harm. It is about creating inclusivity. There is a big difference between form and content. There is a problem when you legislate from a place of fear rather than a place of understanding.”
Richard Stevens, a prominent Phoenix drag queen who performs as Barbra Seville, has put on numerous child-friendly drag performances and drag story hours at area libraries.
Stevens argued that children’s literature is already full of colorful, fantastical characters, and drag queen storytime is just another way to get kids excited about reading with showy costumes and memorable faces.
“Authors use imaginary characters to tap into the natural imagination of a child,” Stevens said. “There is nothing salacious about an actor dressed in colorful attire reading to a child.”
But proponents of the bill were set on painting all drag performances as sexual. Wadsack even doubled down. “Mulan and Mrs. Doubtfire are not appropriate for children," she said.
Wadsack recently penned her own anti-drag bill, SB 1698, which adds drag shows to a state law about "dangerous crimes against children." The bill defines drag shows as adult-oriented performances and compares them to bestiality, child sex trafficking, second-degree murder, and sexual assault. Under the proposal, adults who allow children to see drag shows could receive prison terms of five years and be required to register as sex offenders. The bill is assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In response to Stevens’ concerns, Wadsack claimed that activating a child’s imagination is exactly what she’s trying to outlaw.
“One speaker said that we’re ‘trying to tap into the natural imagination of a child’,” the first-term legislator said. “That is another word for grooming.”