Performers and venues worry about the implications — but believe that drag will survive
For Gainesville-based drag queen Star Shine, drag has always been connected with family.
Star, who asked to use her stage name out of fear for losing her job, was first introduced to drag by her mother when she was 13. Decades later, Star has her own “drag family,” a social support group with other drag queens.
Drag is art, she said. Drag is freedom. And drag certainly isn’t inherently dangerous for children, she believes.
“Children are going to be curious. Children are going to ask questions,” she said. “If a child was like, ‘Mom, why is that person dressed like that?,’ why not answer your child’s question?”
But a proposed Florida bill calls some drag shows performed in front of children “an immediate, serious danger to the public health, safety, or welfare” — and it wants to ban them.
SB 1438 would punish venues and individuals that admit children to an “adult live performance,” specifying prosthetic breasts as a qualifier. It would also ban governments from giving permits to events or places with such performances, challenging LGBTQ+ pride parades. It follows a pattern of similar bills introduced nationwide, with states like Tennessee passing similar legislation.
The bill passed the Florida Senate on April 11 and the House on Wednesday. It will now appear before Gov. Ron DeSantis for enaction.
Gainesville’s drag performers and drag show venues are wary of the bill. It could disrupt or even cancel local daytime drag events. But drag is resilient, Star said — especially in a place like Gainesville, which has a large and multifaceted drag community.
“I feel like [the bill] may limit certain things, but I don’t ever see [drag] going away,” she said.
‘Leave the kids alone’
The bill does not mention drag by name, but drag performances are tied to its origin.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, introduced the House version. He said he pursued the legislation after the September 2022 Space Coast Pride festival in Melbourne. The organizers did not disclose they would be holding events for children when applying for the event permit, Fine said, specifically citing in a social media post the Drag Queen Story Time event.
“My community was obviously outraged about it, because adult entertainment should be performed for adults,” Fine said. “The woke left is obsessed with the sexualization of kids, and we’ve got to stop it. Leave the kids alone.”
An “adult live performance” is any live show that depicts sexual themes, including “the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts,” the bill says.
If a venue admits a child to an adult live performance, it could be subject to a $5,000 fine upon first violation and a $10,000 fine upon second violation. The venue’s license or alcohol license could be suspended or revoked, the bill says. People who knowingly admit a child into an adult live performance could be convicted of a first degree misdemeanor, punishable in Florida by up to one year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
The bill also bars governments from issuing permits to events, venues or other activities with these performances, punishable by a first-degree misdemeanor.
The bill has faced criticism for vague language. NR Hines, criminal justice policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, said it’s unclear if the bill’s terms could be used to censor plays, movies, music performances, art exhibits and other expressions.
This heavy-handed approach could have a chilling effect on venues, stopping many drag performances altogether, Hines said.
“Politicians shouldn’t be imposing their personal beliefs on Floridians and punishing businesses that support communities that they don’t support,” Hines said.
The ACLU of Florida is working with other groups like Equality Florida to speak against the bill and educate Floridians about the topic. But it’s not just big names appearing in Tallahassee. Smaller groups are protesting, too — including the Gainesville-based Unspoken Treasure Society.
Unspoken Treasure Society is a Black-led nonprofit that supports transgender and other LGBTQ+ people in marginalized communities, said Regina Livingston, the organization’s founder and CEO. Livingston, who also performs under the drag name Natalia Dupree, said the nonprofit will participate in a drag queen march in Tallahassee next week. She declined to give details on the march for safety reasons.
If the bill were to pass, its effects would be “devastating,” Livingston said.
“You have people that do drag for a living. You have people that are depressed, and drag is what helps them to get motivated to go during the day,” she said. “Drag is a lot of different things — but one thing drag is not is harmful.”
With a population of about 140,000, Gainesville is a mid-size city. But its drag community is large — and it’s only growing larger.
University Club, Gainesville’s downtown gay bar and club on East University Avenue, first popularized drag locally more than 30 years ago. Mark Spangler, the venue’s founder, said the establishment started hosting drag shows immediately after opening in 1990.
First, it was just a few nights a week. But now drag shows run almost every night, with events and pageants like University Club Drag Race packing the house as recently as Monday.
“We were pretty much the exclusive place for drag in Gainesville until the last five or six years,” Spangler said. “Now drag has become more mainstream. Even straight clubs will hold a drag branch.”
As a college town, Gainesville is flush with ever-incoming residents. Many students use their newfound freedom to attend shows and dabble in drag, Spangler said. And Gainesville is a great place to experiment, as University Club and other venues host beginner-friendly drag shows unlike larger cities, he added.
University Club is restricted to ages 18 and over, so it won’t be affected by the bill’s current language. But Spangler still worries, he said.
“It’s scary, because what’s next?” he said. “If we couldn’t do drag shows, we’d be out of business.”
Some drag shows in Gainesville have already faced disruptions.
Aldo Garza, also known by the drag name Emma Gration, used to host family-friendly drag brunches at One Love Cafe on Northwest 40th Place. But in October 2022, vandals spray-painted slurs on Magnolia Parke posters for the event, he said. The drag brunches were discontinued after November.
“We’re just here to spread love and joy and hopefully help out a queer person or queer kid,” Garza said. “It’s OK to express yourself and love yourself. But unfortunately, people don’t see that.”
Juel Woerter, general manager of One Love Cafe, acknowledged the graffiti but said the event ended because of low attendance. She could see drag shows coming back in August or September this year when business picks up again — even if the bill passes.
“[The drag queens] catered the show to this crowd. You’ve got kids running around,” Woerter said. “They were really careful about that. They weren’t twerking in anyone’s faces or doing anything untoward.”
Garza also hosts drag brunches at Curia on the Drag, a coffee shop on Northwest 6th Street. These events used to be separated between family-friendly and adults-only, but were shifted to only the latter in early 2023, Garza said.
If the bill passes, Garza said he will have to cancel the Curia on the Drag drag brunches. It’s one of the most lucrative drag shows in Gainesville, meaning his income and the income of the drag performers would take a hit, he said. But more importantly, the cancellation would impact LGBTQ+ visibility in Gainesville, Garza believes.
“It’s more about the daytime venues that are supporting these ventures,” he said. “Stuff like that would change, and that’s the scary part.”
April Williams, Curia on the Drag’s general manager, said her business is not ready to speak about the bill.
Drag events aren’t just being disrupted in Gainesville. Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation is trying to revoke Hyatt Regency Miami’s liquor license for hosting a Christmas-themed drag show with children in attendance. A Drag and Donuts event at an Orlando high school was also canceled after backlash in March.
Drag backlash follows a years-long recoil against the LGBTQ+ community, Gainesville drag queen Star Shine said. When she was at Ocala Pride Fest in October 2022, protestors appeared with signs and shouts proclaiming homophobic slurs. She had never seen that happen at a pride parade before.
But Star Shine believes that drag — and the LGBTQ+ community at large — is strong.
“We’re still surviving HIV and AIDS, and back then, the government didn’t want to do anything for us,” she said. “If we can survive that, we can survive anything.”