Senate advances bill criminalizing ‘sexually explicit’ drag shows around minors

Published 10:45 am Monday, March 13, 2023

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By Sarah Ladd

Kentucky Today

After a floor debate spiked with references to foot fetishes and sadomasochistic bondage attire, the Kentucky Senate on Friday approved a bill aimed at limiting venues for some drag shows.

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Senate Bill 115 would criminalize “sexually explicit” drag performances by “male or female impersonators” on publicly-owned land or in front of children. It passed the Senate with 26 yes votes, 6 no votes and one pass.

Opponents previously testified in committee that it would harm the LGBTQ+ and drag community.

Primary sponsor ​​Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield, said on the floor her intent in filing the bill “is to restrict performances of an adult nature, as defined in this legislation, to adults.”

The bill defines that as “a performance involving male or female impersonators, who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”

The American Psychological Association says prurient interest refers to “in obscenity law, a morbid, degrading, or excessive interest in sexual matters.”

Those who violate the rules in the bill would be subject to misdemeanors the first two violations and felonies on the third and thereafter. The bill may proceed to the House.

An amendment proposed by Minority Caucus Chair Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, would have added language to say:

“Nothing in this section shall preclude participants in a public performance offered by an established adult theatre, children’s theatre, or dance studio or program from portraying a gender different from the participant’s gender at birth.”

Thomas proposed another amendment that said: “Conduct consisting solely of touching, embracing, or kissing shall not constitute a sex act or sexual conduct.”

Both failed.

Before the failure, though, Thomas said members of the theater community had expressed concerns to him about girls needing to play male roles in plays.

“What happens more often than not,” said Thomas, “is that you have more girls come out for performances than boys.” So, girls may play a male role “to make sure that the show goes on.”

Tichenor acknowledged that point.

“There is indeed a long history of male and female impersonators,” she said. “Before women were allowed to perform in theatrical productions men would play the roles of women.”

After referring to Shakespeare and Robin Williams’ “masterful” performance as Mrs. Doubtfire, Tichenor added: “This bill is not in any way addressing those types of performances. What it is addressing are the performances happening in cities and towns across Kentucky that have been advertised as family friendly, but have indeed been performances of an adult nature.”

Senators cite foot fetishes and sadomasochistic bondage attire on the floor

Those who spoke against the bill felt that it was an overstep to police what appeals to “prurient” interests.

“More men find feet sexually interesting than they do men dressed up as women, or women dressed up as men,” Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, said on the floor. “Number two, believe it or not, guys, shoes, stiletto heels. Do we outlaw those in this country? Because some people find them interesting.”

Later, she asked Tichenor if she had ever attended a drag show, and if that show was in Kentucky. When Tichenor said yes to both questions, Berg asked her: “Did you find that sexually arousing?”

Damon Thayer, the Senate majority floor leader, ruled her out of order and said: “This line of questioning is outside the bounds of decorum in this chamber.” And: “I believe this line of questioning has gone beyond the bizarre.”

Berg withdrew that question.

Since filing her bill, Tichenor said, “I’ve received many stories of families who have stumbled upon a performance at a public park or public venue or in going to a restaurant and being met with performers and very little attire, some even wearing sadomasochistic bondage attire, yet this is now for some reason, being normalized and marketed to children.”

Others who spoke against the bill specifically said they felt it targets the LGBTQ+ community.

“This body,” said Sen. David Yates, D-Louisville, “cannot force someone out of existence.”