Florida Senate votes to punish businesses that let children into drag shows

Orlando Sentinel | By Jeffrey Schweersl | April 11, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Over concerns it targets LGBTQ people, the Florida Senate voted 28-12 on Tuesday to advance a bill that would allow the state to revoke the liquor licenses of restaurants and entertainment venues that let children into drag shows.

The bill arose out of reports of children accompanying their parents to holiday drag shows in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. It doesn’t mention drag shows by name, but instead targets “adult live entertainment” that is sexually suggestive or explicit in nature.

“The bill does not ban a business or public entity from hosting a live performance that contains such activities, but it prohibits a public entity from permitting such activities if a child is present,” bill sponsor Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, told the Senate before the vote was taken.

Nobody wants to expose children to sexually explicit material, several Democratic senators said, but this bill seemingly targets the artistic expression of the LGBTQ community.

“We’re here because of drag shows,” said Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville during the floor debate. “People find drag shows morally reprehensible and inappropriate. They want to ban them because they are viewed as unnatural.”

But laws are already on the books protecting children from exposure to sexually explicit entertainment.

“Protecting the children of this state is our most sacred duty, but because this bill isn’t really about protecting children, I stand in opposition,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “This unmistakably targets certain members of our population with a vague restraint on their freedom of expression all with a goal of intimidating vulnerable members of our population.”

Both the Senate and the House version, sponsored by Melbourne Beach Republican Rep. Randy Fine, would make it a first-degree misdemeanor to “knowingly” admit minors to “adult live performances that appeal to “a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest,” or violates what adults deem proper for children to see.

The House bill is up for its final committee stop Wednesday before going to the full House.

The bill targets “any show, exhibition, or other presentation in front of a live audience” that depicts or simulates “nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, specific sexual activities,” “lewd conduct” or “the lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”

While supporters say the bill, titled Protection of Children, is meant to protect minors from sexually suggestive shows that have no artistic merit, critics say the language is so broad and vague that it could have a chilling effect on artistic freedom and on what adults can see on Florida stages.

“This bill follows discriminatory laws passed that puts a target on the backs of all queer citizens, whom we are supposed to protect,” said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach.

Berman and several other senators condemned the comments made by state Rep. Webster Barnaby, R-Deltona, in a committee hearing Monday on a bill that would force transgender people to use the public bathrooms of their gender at birth. He called the trans people testifying before the committee “demons and imps” and “mutants from another planet.”

Barnaby apologized shortly thereafter.

Sen. Rosalind Osgood, D-Tamarac, said his rant made her change her vote on the Senate bill from a yes to a no.

“It’s insane we even have to have this conversation,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami, and the first openly gay senator in Florida. “I want to acknowledge that that type of vitriol is coming because that is the type of climate created in this country. That is the type of climate we’ve created in this state to give people a hall pass to say crazy things like that.”

Yarborough said, “Violence and the name calling is not acceptable, and I totally condemn that.”

Some Florida theater managers are concerned that musicals like “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots” could be targeted, especially after state officials took steps to revoke the liquor license of the Plaza Live in Orlando held a touring drag show with children in the audience, even though undercover state agents said they witnessed no lewd acts. The Plaza Live is owned by the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation.

That case is still pending. A similar Christmas-themed drag show at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts was also targeted by state officials, even though the center’s managers said the event was restricted to people 18 and older.

Amid the legal uncertainties, a Lakeland-based nonprofit that mentors and supports LGBTQ students moved its biggest fundraiser of the year — an adult drag pageant titled “Miss Rose Dynasty” — from Orlando to Kissimmee days before the annual event. The organizers of the event had to find a new location after the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts imposed an age restriction on who could attend.

Even Boone High School’s LGBTQ club canceled the appearance of a drag performer at an after-school “drag and donuts” gathering after the DeSantis administration warned it was inappropriate and threatened to investigate school staff.

Other opponents of the bill fear that it could also be applied to Gay Pride parades, where people in drag often participate. Yarborough has said the bill wouldn’t prevent any shows or parades from taking place, as long as no inappropriate material was performed in front of children.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said the bill was a waste of the Senate’s time.

“How many kids have gone to drag shows, and how many of their parents have taken them? This is the height of hypocrisy. What is the danger?” Polsky said. “This is another attempt to demonize the trans population because they are the target de jour of conservatives across the country.”

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