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Bill targeting drag performances sent to House floor after edits

| February 24, 2023 7:00 AM

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed on party lines a bill targeting drag performances in Montana after amending it so it will apply to any place that receives any sort of state funding.

Two amendments to Rep. Braxton Mitchell’s House Bill 359, which was heard in the committee last week, passed on party lines as well. The first defines the phrase “prurient interest” as “having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.”

The second redefined what a drag performance is to include exotic dancers, strippers, “or male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest,” regardless of whether the performance is done for money.

The second amendment of the Columbia Falls Republican’s bill also modified it to prohibit drag performances on any public property in the presence of someone under age 18 and at any location owned by an entity that receives any state funding.

Additionally, it subjects any public employee who violates those rules to a year’s suspension and revocation of their certificate.

Democrats on the committee said they were astounded by the amendments and the push to move the bill forward, saying it casts too wide a net and is open to vast interpretations.

“The loopholes here are so shockingly broad that I don’t even understand,” said Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula. “This would allow for what I believe is the intent of the bill, but it would also allow for so much beyond that. I find this to be wildly irresponsible.”

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, said she had been told that an armed group of people was coming to a drag show this coming weekend in order to, as she relayed their message, “stop these groomers.”

“When we talk about the impact, we’re talking about folks who are going to see this bill pass, and regardless of what the sponsor thinks the bill is doing, they’re going to see that as a green light to target people,” said Zephyr, who noted she herself has been attacked as a transgender woman.

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Churchill, said Republicans weren’t putting words in the mouths of those who testified as proponents last week, and added that she thinks it’s unfortunate that anyone would resort to illegal behavior surrounding any issue, “but that’s not how we’re making a decision in this room.”

Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, said he felt the amendment applied only to acts with a sexual connotation. Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade, posed a theoretical scenario in an attempt, he said, to explain why the bill “is not an LGBTQ issue.”

“What if strippers around the state started ‘Stripper Story Hour?’” he queried. “I’m sure there would be many parents alarmed at that and they would beg the question: Why do strippers feel they have to go and have story hours with children?”

In closing the discussion before the vote, Rep. Donavon Hawk, D-Butte, said he found it disturbing that Republicans were automatically sexualizing drag even when it involved a person dressed in drag, fully clothed and reading books.

“I want to express one more time that the perversion of somebody’s thoughts when seeing drag queens just baffles my mind,” he said.

The committee voted on party lines 13-6 to send the bill to the House floor.