A bill under consideration in Florida’s Legislature could curb gay pride parades in public places statewide if such events were deemed to be “lewd” and children were watching, say gay advocates who worry about the proposal’s chilling effect.
But state Sen. Clay Yarborough, a Republican from Jacksonville, says the proposal is about protecting children from watching performances only meant for adults. “When we see things, we cannot unsee them,” he said.
Yarborough submitted an amendment this week to a bill, titled “Protection of Children,” that calls for prohibiting admitting children to an adult live performance. The amendment proposes that a governmental entity, which includes a city, may not issue a permit for such a show that wouldn’t comply with new restrictions. “We are failing as lawmakers … if I am not putting something like this forward,” he said in a recorded interview released Wednesday. “It’s not an attack on a particular group, it is saying there’s a standard for children.”
The move is part of a larger, controversial effort by Republicans to target drag performances that allow children to attend, in addition to a legislative focus this year on defining sex and gender. Other Republican efforts include preventing transgender children from transitioning. In recent months, state officials also have taken steps toward revoking the liquor licenses of venues in Orlando and Miami for hosting what they’re calling “sexually explicit” drag shows with children present.
Gay advocates said they are concerned that the latest proposal, which could be heard as early as next week, is up for consideration, saying it amounts to censorship.
Mark Kent, the executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida in Wilton Manors, said he was troubled that the proposals are “packaged as parents’ rights and freedom and yet if a parent wants to take their child … now having that right and ability is taken away from them. If they want their children to be aware of gender fluidity or drag, which is an artform of entertainment, [they could have] that right taken away from them.
“I don’t feel the government should be restricting art.”
State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, filed House Bill 1423, which would target drag shows by threatening to “fine, suspend, or revoke the license” of any business that admits a child to an “adult live performance.”
The bill defines “adult live performance” as “any show, exhibition, or other presentation in front of a live audience” that depicts “nudity,” “sexual conduct,” “sexual excitement,” “specific sexual activities,” “lewd conduct,” or the “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.”
Under the proposed law, the first violation would carry a $5,000 fine against an establishment, and the fine for a second or subsequent violation is $10,000. A person who knowingly admits a child to an adult live performance would face a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison.
This week, Yarborough filed the amendment within Senate Bill 1438 that adds that a “governmental entity may not issue a permit or otherwise authorize a person to conduct a performance.” Yarborough could not be reached for comment through his office.
A representative for Yarborough at his Tallahassee district office referred questions to the Office of the Senate President. A spokeswoman there said in a prepared statement that Yarborough has filed “parental empowerment and child safety legislation, building on legislative efforts to defend and expand parental rights in education, while setting appropriate standards to protect children from controversial sex re-assignment treatments, and cracking down on entities that knowingly expose children to lewd live performances.”
Spokeswoman Katherine Betta said Wednesday the bill’s amendment does not ban drag costumes or drag parades. She said it would not impact cities issuing mandatory permits needed for public parades with children in attendance, “unless the parade includes the kinds of lewd conduct or lewd exposure outlined in the bill.”
“If a parade or any type of live performance has sexual conduct, sexual excitement … under the bill, children should not be in attendance,” she said, although the bill is “not speaking to the type of performance, or who is hosting the performance, it is speaking to the activities and conduct taking place at the performance, and whether those activities are appropriate for children.”
Yarborough was more direct in a recorded interview with USA Today on Wednesday afternoon, which was released by the Office of the Senate President.
When Yarborough was asked by the reporter if the intent is to ban gay pride parades, he responded only that “the intent of the bill is to protect children.” He said they are already banned from certain places under state law, such as adult bookstores and adult theaters. He said the show is not a problem, only having children there.
“There has to be a balance about what’s appropriate and is not appropriate for children,” he said.
He said the law once passed wouldn’t prevent the events from taking place — only for children attending them since “you cannot have children … be a part of that if any of those activities that are in our bill … are taking place.” If there is a violation, the event organizer would be running “afoul of the law.”
That concerns advocates for the gay community.
“They’re now using intimidation and threats of misdemeanor charges to scare LGBTQ-friendly cities out of hosting drag altogether,” wrote former Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith on Twitter.
Smith, a Democrat from Orlando left office last year and was the Legislature’s first openly LGBTQ Latin member.
He also posted: “To be clear, the bill doesn’t ban drag. It censors drag in front of minors [with] vague, subjective language and threatens misdemeanors, $10,000 fines, and license revocation for violations. That means businesses, and now cities, will be scared to welcome drag for fear of punishment.”
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State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, called the bill “homophobic and designed to essentially eliminate all drag shows in the state over time. Drag shows are artistic. If you don’t want to go to one, don’t go.”
In what she called an effort to “meeting in the middle,” she proposed an amendment that would allow the admission of a child to a show if a parent was with them. Her amendment failed.
“They aren’t interested in parents’ rights, they are interested in eliminating drag, that’s their end game,” she said. “They don’t want any type of drag performance.”
Robert Kesten, the executive director of the Stonewall National, Museum, Archives, & Library in Fort Lauderdale, considers it a dangerous path.
“Anytime we run into a situation where legislators or executives believe they know better than the people, it is always precarious at best,” he said. “People have to be able to decide for themselves. That’s why we live in a democracy.
“When government decides to be big brother or big sister, [that is] not the kind of world we, as Americans, have decided to live in,” he said.
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash