(CN) — The Texas House on Sunday gave final approval to one of its core culture-war priorities this session: A bill first pitched as a way of protecting children from drag performers, which in the final days of the legislative session morphed into much vaguer proposed restrictions on so-called "sexually oriented performances," apparently including those in private homes.
Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, an avowed culture warrior, had listed Senate Bill 12 as a priority for him — though it's worth stressing that the final version of SB 12 differs radically not only from what Republicans first proposed, but also from what many Democrats thought they were agreeing to.
The bill on Sunday passed the Texas House 87-54 on a largely party line vote and now heads to the desk of Republican Governor Greg Abbott. A handful of Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the final version, including Shawn Thierry, a representative from the Houston area who this month also voted in favor of new GOP-backed restrictions on gender-affirming care for transgender youth.
It was a fitting end for SB 12, which has been on a strange journey through the Texas Capitol during a legislative session marked by GOP infighting and corrosive culture-war issues. The bill started as an outright attack on drag, only to change into a more general obscenity bill once it reached the House. And yet the final version includes new, controversial and legally dubious provisions, making it in some ways an even more extreme bill than a clear-cut drag ban would have been.
For a moment, SB 12 seemed like a rare and almost happy story of compromise in an era characterized by partisan rage.
The original bill described any form of cross-dressing by a performer as "sexually oriented," prompting concerns that the bill could be used to target not only drag performances but also, for example, plays by Shakespeare. And yet when by the time SB 12 reached the House floor earlier this month, that language had been taken out, turning SB 12 into a broader and vaguer prohibition on minors attending "sexually oriented performances."
Even more remarkably, the drag language had been removed by an unlikely person — Matt Shaheen, the House sponsor of the bill, a Republican from the Dallas area and a member of the staunchly conservative Texas Freedom Caucus. Shaheen declined to comment for this story on why he chose to remove those provisions.
Shaheen was concerned about the constitutionality of banning drag outright, according to a person familiar with the matter. Shaheen himself said as much to lawmakers when on May 19 he introduced his new version of the bill to the House floor, warning lawmakers that a direct ban on drag could face constitutional challenges.
In response to this relatively less divisive bill, many Democrats that day voted "present not voting" in an apparent show of goodwill. The move shocked even some reporters, who had expected a forceful defense of drag from Democrats.
As Courthouse News first reported, the explanation was that some Democrats, moderate Republicans and lobbyists — including some drag businesses in Texas — hoped that if a watered-down version of SB 12 passed, they could avoid the worst parts of the bill in a state dominated by Republicans.
Later reporting indicated that the Texas LGBTQ Caucus was taking the same strategy and had encouraged lawmakers to vote neutrally — though the caucus has stayed mum on this front. Mary González, an El Paso-area Democrat and chair of the caucus, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.
If this was indeed the Democratic strategy, it appears that Democrats got played. Not only did they miss a chance to fight or amend SB 12, but they also largely capitulated to Republican talking points about the supposed dangers that drag performers pose to children.