The bill: House Bill 643
Filed by: Jared Patterson, Republican, District 106 (Frisco)
What it does: The bill would amend Section 102.051 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code so that venues hosting “drag performances” would be considered “sexually oriented business[es],” making them subject to the state’s strict laws regulating strip clubs, adult-movie theaters, and the like. Then the legislation defines a drag show as “a performance in which a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.”
Drag shows have been under fire from many Texas Republicans in recent years, and Patterson’s bill is of a piece with efforts to ban such shows from being performed in venues where minors can attend. But Patterson’s definition of “drag performance” is so broad as to include many performances that are decidedly not drag shows. A production of Peter Pan in which the role of Peter is played by a woman—as in most productions of Peter Pan—would qualify. So would any performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, in which the heroine, Rosalind, disguises herself as a male shepherd named Ganymede. Ditto any youth production of Oliver! in which the title role might be played by a girl because no boys auditioned.
The legislation would also target venues hosting any transgender performers—say, a bar that booked a band with a trans drummer. And because its language is so vague, the bill might even define a venue hosting a Post Malone concert during which the artist wears a comfy housedress, or a venue hosting a guitarist with hair longer than a local official (such as a county attorney) thinks a man’s hair should be, as a “sexually oriented business.”
Texas heavily regulates “sexually oriented businesses.” Such businesses may not permit anyone under eighteen to enter. They must pay a fee to the state of five dollars per customer admission and maintain strict records of every customer entry. They have to post signs in bathrooms related to human trafficking—and on and on. These may be reasonable regulations for, say, a strip club or a porn theater, but a rock club or a community theater that doesn’t offer sexually explicit performances could find itself governed by the same rules if this bill passes. Given the stakes, those venues may well be unlikely to offer trans performers—even if they’re just strumming guitars or sitting behind drum kits—the opportunity to play.
Does the bill have a chance of passing? Patterson is a well-known legislative troll whose bills have a low passage rate. (HB 643 is one of fourteen he introduced in the first two days of prefiling!) We’d expect that the bar and nightclub industry in Texas will have a lot of objections to the legislation as it’s currently written: HB 643 introduces big new risks for almost any business that hosts any live performance of any kind. But the Texas GOP has gone all in on trying to regulate—or put an end to—drag shows over the past year, as part of the moral panic it has sought to stir around the prospect that any acceptance of transgender or drag-performing Texans might result in the “grooming” of impressionable schoolchildren to adopt such a lifestyle. The primary objective of Patterson’s bill is to make venues that might intentionally book drag shows balk at the new costs imposed by hosting such performances, regardless of whether they’re of a sexual nature (as some, but certainly not all, drag performances are). We wouldn’t be surprised if a rewritten, more narrowly targeted version of this bill garners support during the session.