Apr 28, 2023 - News

LGBTQ community reacts to NC bill that would restrict drag shows

Tryon Street and Good Samaritan Way uptown Charlotte Pride 2022. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios drag

Charlotte Pride 2022. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Charlotte’s drag scene is booming, but a state bill may restrict the popular performances.

The big picture: LGBTQ and heterosexual patrons alike have filled breweries and restaurants for drag queen shows over mimosas, brunch and games of bingo. For many local spots, it’s brought much-needed business as they recover from the pandemic.

  • But now a bill in Raleigh could restrict these types of performances from happening in certain settings.

Why it matters: Drag performers are concerned about threats to their First Amendment rights, safety and livelihoods.

The other side: Rep. Jeff Zenger, the sponsor of the bill, has told media outlets the legislation is in response to a drag queen performing a lap dance on a student at Forsyth Technical Community College.

  • None of the primary sponsors of the bill responded to Axios’ requests for comment.

Details: The bill, called “Clarify Regulations on Adult Entertainment,” would put drag queens in the same category as exotic dancers. It would outlaw drag on public property or in the presence of minors.

  • The language describes the performers as “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.” It’s unclear how widely this could be interpreted.
  • Breaking the law could result in a misdemeanor or, upon a second offense, a felony.

“HB 673 doesn’t prohibit drag queen shows for adults, it makes them off limits for children,” says Laura Macklem, press and political director for the NC Values Coalition. “Child exploitation is not a business model, those businesses should focus on adult audiences, not children.”

  • “This bill protects children from predators, including those looking to profit from the grooming of children,” she continues.

Driving the news: The bill is just one piece of anti-LGBTQ legislation under consideration in Raleigh right now. There appears to be a clear path to passage for most of the bills, considering Republicans recently cemented a supermajority after Rep. Tricia Cotham’s surprise party flip.

  • Similar bills restricting drag have been filed in states across the U.S., from Florida to Tennessee to Iowa.

Charlotte Pride, one of the largest Pride celebrations in the Southeast, generates more than $8 million in total economic impact and draws 200,000 visitors. Its headlining event is a drag pageant, held on a stage in the middle of Uptown.

  • The legislation, if passed, would not be effective until December. But Pride organizers are already considering contingency plans for their 2024 festival.
  • “We will abide by the law, but that doesn’t mean that we feel that the law is ethical or moral or right,” Liz Schob, communications manager of Pride, tells Axios.

What they’re saying: Advocates say drag is not inappropriate but rather a performance art. Its origins date back to Shakespeare when male actors would dress as female characters. It’s portrayed in the mainstream more than one might realize: think “Bosom Buddies,” “Madea,” “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

  • “All of these things have been deemed perfectly safe and wholesome and fun,” says Kendra Johnson, executive director of EqualityNC. “I’m not sure why we’re having this discussion at the current moment, except for bigotry.”

Zoom in: The Vanity House, a drag production business in Charlotte, regularly employs around five people and creates jobs for guest artists. It started producing monthly shows in Uptown six years ago, back when they were far less common, co-owner Christopher Booher tells me.

  • But since COVID lockdowns lifted, businesses have found drag to be a popular way to draw customers back in. The Vanity House has hosted a drag brunch every Sunday for the last three years, Booher says.

“A lot of these venues aren’t crowded on Sunday. So we’re giving servers (jobs), we’re giving bartenders jobs, managers,” Booher says. “It’s just so crazy to me that these politicians don’t see that we’re actually a vital part of the economy.”

  • Most shows produced by The Vanity House are 21 and up. Once a month they’ll put on an all-ages event. But Booher says they’ve considered ending it “because of the stress.”

Zoom out: North Carolina is second to Texas for the highest number of protests or threats at drag events, according to GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy organization.

  • A few years ago, David Zealy-Wright says a protestor got into a dressing room during a drag bingo and tried to ignite a fire. Zealy-Wright co-owns Cardboard Castle Productions in Hickory with his husband.
  • The couple has raised $17,000 through the business to give to charities, such as Habitat for Humanity.

Even though they’re in a rural area, Zealy-Wright says their family-friendly shows usually sell out.

  • “I find that the only people sexualizing drag and drag performances are the people that have either not been to them, don’t understand them, or themselves find it sexually interesting and have not dealt with that,” he says.

Flashback: North Carolina was made an example of how anti-LGBTQ legislation can be bad for business in 2016.

  • When the House Bill 2 “bathroom bill” passed, companies pulled investments out of the state, concerts and sporting events were canceled, and filmmakers looked elsewhere for productions.
  • This most recent wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation “feels like a supercharged version” of HB2, Kelly Durden Posey of the Carolinas LGBT+ Chamber Members tells me.
  • She says that’s because it’s touching so many angles, from healthcare to education.

“How we got through HB2 was by businesses showing the importance of supporting human rights and supporting people,” Posey says. “As businesses are deciding how they want to show support, they’ve got to go beyond just changing their logo to a rainbow logo in June.”

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