AUSTIN — Texas is poised to create a host of new crimes that supporters say will ban minors from attending drag shows.
Last-minute additions to the measure greatly expanded its reach and raised questions about enforcement as critics worried it could also criminalize performances in homes, target cheerleading and prohibit consenting relationships between 17-year-olds.
Senate Bill 12 by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, passed its final hurdle in the House on Sunday evening by a vote of 87-54 with at least five Democrats joining the GOP majority. The bill now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who made the bill a priority, said in a statement after the vote that it “prohibits sexualized performances and drag shows in the presence of a minor.”
If Abbott signs it into law, the measure will criminalize sexual conduct that “appeals to the prurient interest in sex” in front of a minor or on public property. The definition of sexual conduct, which already included real or “simulated” groping and display of a sex toy, was expanded at the eleventh hour to add “sexual gesticulations using accessories or prosthetics that exaggerate male or female sexual characteristics.”
Lawmakers also removed the definition of “premises,” raising the question of whether such behavior could be policed in private homes.
Violators could get slapped with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. The business hosting them would be subject to a $10,000 civil penalty per violation.
Patrick, a Republican, acknowledges the bill is meant to target drag.
“It is shocking to me that any parent would allow their young child to be sexualized by drag shows. Children, who cannot make decisions on their own, must be protected from this scourge facing our state,” he said.
The addition angered activists who worked all session to find a compromise. Drag artists often employ silicone breast plates, padding and other embellishments to appear more traditionally masculine or feminine.
Lawmakers “revised the bill to target the art form by banning certain props, costume accessories and dance moves,” said Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of LGBTQ rights group Equality Texas. “Funny that the lawmakers who are so adamantly opposed to drag have such intimate knowledge of the prosthetics required to cultivate a drag persona.”
Hughes pitched his bill as a way to ban children from attending drag shows, he said.
But the House amended it this month to remove explicit mentions of “a male performer exhibiting as a female” and vice versa. The bill should bar anyone from acting inappropriately in front of a child regardless of how they are dressed, said House sponsor Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano. He also raised concerns during earlier House debates that singling out drag performers would be unconstitutional.
A group of lawmakers appointed to work on final changes to the bill, including Shaheen, added in the “accessories or prosthetics” language in the past week. Shaheen’s office then issued a news release Sunday also acknowledging that he believes the bill bans “drag shows and other sexual performances” in front of minors.
“We will not tolerate our children being exposed to explicit, hypersexualized content from any type of performer in any way in the great state of Texas,” he said.
Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, shepherded the bill through its final debate.
Rep. Mary González, head of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, questioned Patterson about the changes and expressed concern that it is now so broad the measure could “implicate even the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”
“This bill prevents sexual performances in front of a child,” Patterson said in his closing.
It passed after less than five minutes of debate.
“Texans see through this manufactured emergency. Drag isn’t causing any problems, but these lawmakers are,” Martinez added.
The Texas District and County Attorneys Association, the state’s professional association for prosecutors, echoed the concerns by noting the bill doesn’t define “sexual gesticulations.” It would also criminalize sexual conduct between 17-year-olds, which is currently legal because the age of consent in Texas is 17.
“Pre-coital sexual conduct in private between consenting adults when one or both are 17″ would be illegal, the group tweeted from its official handle. “That’s not going to work.”
On the lack of definition, it added, “good luck with that, lawyers!”