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The plan to save and/or kill Texas drag

Drag performers protested for months in an effort to kill a proposed drag ban in Texas. Then powerful drag-business interests showed up with some controversial ideas.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — At the Texas Capitol on Friday, a bill that has prompted deep anger and fear in the Texas LGBTQ+ community came up for a vote on the House floor.

Instead of voting against it, 42 Democrats registered themselves as "present not voting" — surprising even some of the reporters who were there to watch the vote.

The bill, Senate Bill 12, was pitched as a way of protecting children from drag performers. It mirrors other bills this year targeting LGBTQ+ people and culture in Texas and beyond, including SB 14, a Texas ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender children that passed last week after days of heated protests and debate.

With SB 14, Democrats spent around a week dragging out the bill — giving speeches against it, raising technical “points of order” and proposing amendments. Yet when it came to SB 12, Democrats tried a different approach.

After some light questioning by Democrats, the House moved onto a vote. There were no amendments and no points of order. The decision shocked some progressive Texans, who had expected a more full-throated defense of drag.

The explanation, it turned out, had to do with changes to the House version of SB 12. The Senate version explicitly called out drag performances as "sexually oriented." The House version did not.

After the vote, Mary González, a prominent Democratic lawmaker, told reporters she and other lawmakers voted present because "anti-LGBTQ" language was removed from the bill in the House version — though it remains in the Senate version.

"We don't support the legislation," González said, but "we also ... don't want children exposed to sexually explicit performances." The Texas House LGBTQ+ Caucus later put out a similar statement.

The full explanation is a bit more complicated — and for that, it helps to know Mike Hendrix. A lobbyist representing some of the biggest drag business interests in the state, Hendrix has emerged as a backer of this new Democratic strategy.

Hendrix, who is gay, has some controversial views on SB 12. He thinks drag performers should stay neutral — the approach apparently taken by Democrats on Friday.

Hendrix's thinking goes something like this: Republicans dominate Texas politics, and to avoid the worst aspects of SB 12, Democrats should work with Republicans to protect children from obscenity. That’s a tough sell for many drag performers because the fears that animated SB 12 — namely, concerns that they were regularly behaving inappropriately around children — started as a direct attack on the drag community.

This new strategy has cut a rift in the Texas LGBTQ+ community — and even before the vote on Friday, emotions were running on both sides.

Some activists see Hendrix as a self-interested interloper who is foolishly helping Republicans advance their bill. One said they mostly knew him as "a perennial candidate in Austin who runs for all sorts of things but never wins." (In response, Hendrix said he'd only run one time as a progressive Democrat and that he "did what I was hired to do [to] protect drag and remove it from the bill.") They argue SB 12 may have died in committee were it not for Hendrix giving it air.

Hendrix, for his part, says he's tired of people questioning his allegiances. He argues other LGBTQ+ groups aren't being pragmatic about protecting drag and instead are scaring people so that they can "raise money off their misery."

"The LGBTQ community can play and be a part of this process," Hendrix says, but we can't "chain ourselves to the gallery or scream or holler. That's not what gets stuff done in Texas."

That strategy started earlier this session, when two of the biggest drag companies in Texas — Caven Enterprises and HV Entertainment — hired Hendrix as a lobbyist. Hendrix is registered to work for a group called Texas Arts and Commerce, documents from the Texas Ethics Commission show.


It came into focus earlier this month, when a private plane of drag queens touched down from Dallas at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

The queens strutted onto the tarmac like it was a catwalk. A reporter from a local CBS affiliate was there to take photos and videos.

“We’re here to extend an olive branch to all the legislators,” James Love, a Dallas queen who performs as “Cassie Nova” and leader of the group, told CBS News. “We want to protect our rights as drag queens, as well as the rights of others.”

On the same day that Love and his Dallas queens flew in, other drag performers spent all day at the Texas Capitol waiting for the chance to testify on SB 12. A committee considering the bill had adjourned around noon for House business, not reconvening until about 11 p.m.

Love and his crew showed up to testify that night — and one after another, they told lawmakers they were neutral on SB 12. “I appreciate you meeting us in the middle,” Love told lawmakers.

Jessica Hawkins, a drag king who performs as “Gacho Marx” with the San Antonio group Los MENtirosos, was in attendance that night. Like other drag performers, she had waited at the Capitol for a chance to speak against SB 12.

Hawkins recalled the mood in the room as Love and his queens testified. “There were jaws on the floor,” she said, “to hear them stand up and say those things.”

It was a “betrayal,” Hawkins added, for drag queens to arrive by private plane at the eleventh hour and say they were OK with this bill. “You went behind the back of these political organizations, these community organizations, and you didn’t bring people into the fray,” she said. “I think it’s about money and power.”

Hendrix, who was also at the hearing, saw the outcome as a win. He put out a statement on behalf of Caven and HV, saying the LGBTQ+ community was having a “momentous triumph” as they “successfully eradicated detrimental language that targeted drag performances” from SB 12.

Aside from Hendrix, who has become a major booster of this plan, others are staying tight-lipped about their goals and how they convinced Republicans to drop drag references. Mike Nguyen, president of Caven Enterprises, did not respond to a request for comment. Arthur Hood, president of HV Entertainment, could not be reached for comment.

Matt Shaheen, a Republican from the Dallas area and the House sponsor of SB 12, told House members on Friday that he'd removed drag language to avoid constitutional challenges against the law. Shaheen's office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

In the days since that hearing, Hendrix has positioned himself as one few pragmatic voices on SB 12, someone who can defend drag while also sitting down with Republicans.

Hendrix loves drag shows. And yet to hear him speak about drag, he can sometimes sound like a Republican, which he says he once was.

“There have been instances where prosthetic breasts have been pulled out [by a drag queen] and fake milk was sprayed on a child’s face,” Hendrix said. In other words: There is indeed inappropriate behavior by drag performers from which children needed to be protected.

“If your intent is to ban drag all together, SB 12 is not your bill,” he added. “If your intent is to push that envelope, then SB 12 is not your bill.” After months of incendiary claims about drag queens from far-right groups — including one prominent group that called drag performers “evil,” “anti-God” and “driven by child pornography” — it’s not hard to see why rhetoric like this would outrage many.


Besides, there are concerns about whether this strategy will even work. That’s why every major progressive group covering this issue — including ACLU, Equality Texas, Texas Freedom Network, TENT, Lambda Legal — continue to oppose it.

The original Senate version of the bill does still include explicit references to drag, and it remains to be seen if the bill’s sponsors will approve any House changes. Republicans could propose amendments to put drag language back in or call a “conference committee” to iron out differences in the House and Senate version. Republican Governor Greg Abbott could even call a special session dedicated to drag issues. There’s a whole variety of ways that SB 12 could once again end up with explicit references to drag — and this time, progressive lobbyists and LGBTQ+ politicians may have helped get it there.

There are also concerns that even without reference to drag, SB 12 could still be used to target drag performers. Some advocates argue the new version is even worse, precisely because of how vague it's become.

“The fact remains: This law is still dangerous for drag performers and LGBTQIA+ performers in Texas,” said Ash Hall, a policy strategist at ACLU Texas. Even without explicit reference to drag, the bill “still encourages discrimination in our state by giving officials nearly unbridled discretion to target any performance with which they disagree.”

There are concerns that drag performers, whom Republicans have spent months casting as inherently sexual and inappropriate, could still be targeted by a bill addressing alleged obscenity. There are also concerns that Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a hardline conservative who has shown a willingness to throw himself into culture war issues, might go after queens using SB 12 regardless of the final version.

No matter what happens with this bill, lawmakers and everyday Texans are “going to remember that it started as an anti-drag bill,” said Jonathan Gooch, a spokesperson for Equality Texas, an LGBTQ+ civil rights group. “This bill was born to attack drag. It’s evolved to maybe strip out specific references to drag, but the spirit is still there.”

On the day Love and his queens flew in from Dallas, Brigitte Bandit, a prominent Austin queen who often performs as Dolly Parton, spent all day at Capitol. She wore her trademark blonde wig, and her dress was covered with the names of students killed by a gunman at Robb Elementary in Uvalde last year.

Bandit has become something of a dragtivist — speaking out not only against SB 12 but about what she sees as the real threats facing children, including from firearms. After more than 12 hours at the Capitol, Bandit finally got a chance to testify to the committee hearing SB 12. Minutes later, she was thrown out by Capitol police after going over her allotted speaking time.

Bandit remains opposed to SB 12, especially after months of dealing with the opposition. A photo of her friend was edited and used in a pro-SB 12 ad. Bandit says she’s gotten death threats, and “it’s literally making me scared to be out in public in drag.”

“Compromising on this bill is really not an option because the bill was based on targeting drag performers,” she said. It made her sick, she said, to think neutral testimonies from other queens could be used to bolster SB 12.

After the controversial bill flew through the statehouse on Friday with little Democratic opposition, it’s a sentiment no doubt shared by other LGBTQ+ Texans. Or maybe, like Hendrix, they figure that's just how politics works in the Lone Star state.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Entertainment, Politics

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