This week, the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs advanced two bills that would criminalize many drag performances. The bills, both filed by Republican Bryan Hughes of Mineola, take aim at men or women who use “clothing, makeup, or other similar physical markers” to “exhibit” as the other gender—and would penalize certain venues where they either perform or read stories to children. 

Senate Bill 12 would criminalize a drag performance that “appeals to the prurient interest in sex” and occurs on public property or with a minor present. It would also impose a $10,000 fine on anyone who hosts such a performance. Senate Bill 1601, meanwhile, targets libraries that host “drag queen story hour” events, revoking state funding if they allow a performer to exhibit as a gender other than their own in front of kids, regardless of whether the performance contains any sexual elements. (Performances in bars and other privately-owned venues where only adults are present would still be legal.) These bills are part of a wave of GOP legislation nationwide that is designed to appeal to voters who fear the rising acceptance and visibility of transgender Americans.  

There’s a lot of subjectivity in the Texas bills, which will now be considered by the full Senate. Who’s to say whether a performance appeals to a “prurient interest,” or to what extent clothing or makeup indicate that a performer is attempting to “exhibit” as another gender? And why is a performer of one gender allowed to wear a particular costume to read to children, while a performer of another gender is not?  

That last question stuck with the Austin-based drag artist who performs under the name Brigitte Bandit as she prepared to testify before the committee on March 23. Bandit’s testimony quickly went viral after she raised her concerns about the legislation while wearing a huge pink wig, a floor-length pink gown, and exaggerated eye makeup. She explained that, while many would assume that she’d be one of the artists restricted from certain performances because of these bills, she faced no such concerns, because she was assigned female at birth and performs as a feminine person. (Bandit identifies as nonbinary, and uses she/they pronouns.)  

“Why should I be able to continue the same kind of events with similar content and costumes, but not my male counterparts?” she asked the committee. She didn’t receive an answer.  

Outside of the drag outfits she wears as part of her full-time job as a performer, Bandit is an unassuming thirty-year-old who grew up in northwest Austin. Her hair is dyed pink, but when we met on a cool spring day in Austin, she wore it down and under the hood of her sweatshirt. Even without the heels, wig, or makeup, though, she’s ready to fight for the community she’s found in drag.  

Bandit talked to Texas Monthly about how she got involved with drag, why children love it when she dresses like Dolly Parton, and the comparison she makes between the drag performances she puts on and videos of GOP lawmakers wearing dresses as pranks back when they were in high school.  

Texas Monthly: When did you get started as a drag performer?  

Brigitte Bandit: I started about four and a half years ago, doing what’s, like, a little baby drag competition. That’s the way you learn your skills—it was called “drag class,” and I lost it by two points. But my drag career took off right after that.  

TM: Were you interested in drag before that?  

BB: I had never even seen an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race when I started. But I worked with a [male] drag performer in a hair salon who would be out of drag, obviously, when we were working together. One day after work, this stylist said, “I need to change to go to a show,” and went into the back room and I will never forget that moment—the full transformation of somebody that I had only seen in one way. That was my first experience seeing it. I was nineteen.  

TM: What made you decide you wanted to perform?  

BB: I’ve always liked performing. I was a marching-band kid; I played the flute. But I loved being onstage. It just made me so happy. But I can’t sing, and I can’t really dance that well. But I do know song lyrics, and if there’s anything I can do, it’s lip-syncing. And I also like costumes. I’ve always been a very flamboyant person. I express myself in this very extremely, like, feminine way that already caught a lot of people’s attention, so this gave me a space where I could take that to the max. I could go full-out with no limitations on how I want to express myself, and that was very exciting and appealing to me. Everything about it just made sense to me.  

TM: How did the drag community react to you being there?  

BB: I got a little bit of pushback, but not so much that I was completely discouraged. Ultimately, drag is just a play on the gender binary. You can have a drag queen or a drag king, or more alternative drag performers, like spooky, monster-type drag. Drag can just encompass so many things that defining it by your genitalia misses the point of what drag is. A lot of people didn’t realize I was an AFAB [assigned female at birth] queen until I spoke at the hearing. They had no idea, because drag really is a costume, and you can’t poke holes through it to see what’s happening underneath, you know?  

TM: You talked in your testimony about how your performances are at risk because people who see you assume you’re a man under your hair and makeup and clothing. What you do when you’re in costume doesn’t seem all that different from what, say, Tammy Faye Bakker did—it seems like you’re just approaching it from a different point of view. How do you make sense of how arbitrary the rules seem to be? 

BB: It’s so weird. Part of me is like, “I could wear the same thing without the makeup on and you’re not going to have any kind of issue with it.” At what point do you consider this inappropriate or unacceptable? The way [these legislators] define drag just shows a complete lack of understanding of what drag is.  

TM: What do they misunderstand?  

BB: It’s not just a man dressing like a woman or a woman in men’s clothing. It’s a play on the gender binary—an extreme feminine persona or an extreme masculine persona—or maybe neither, maybe you’re just a little monster or clown or whatever you want to be in drag. It really is just more like a costume or a theater performance. If I put you in a dress right now, would you be a drag queen? Being a drag queen takes so much more work than just putting you in a dress. It’s actually hours to get into drag. If you put a woman in a pair of pants, is she all of a sudden a drag king? No, she’s just a woman in a pair of pants.  

TM: In your testimony, you explained that you would never want kids at the late-night performances at a gay bar, but that the drag queen story time events you do are fine for kids. What do you think kids get out of those performances?  

BB: I actually had a Dolly Parton book open on that table during my testimony. [The passage] read, “Dolly loves to wear wigs and lots of makeup. Some people may think it’s too much, but children love her look. And so does she.” I was going to read that, because if you go to story time, you’ll see that it’s really not a threat to anybody or anything. It’s actually a really fun environment, and kids love it. I did this event at [radio station] KUT’s Rock the Park as Dolly Parton, and there was this huge group of children just following me around wherever I went. It was wild to me. They just loved it so much. I was trying to perform and I was worried that I was going to trip over them because they had completely surrounded me. Kids don’t see anything other than, like, a really tall Barbie doll. It’s adults who are sexualizing this kind of art. What’s the issue with me wearing a big dress and reading a book?  

TM: Is it inappropriate to do drag around kids if the same artist can be part of a sexualized performance at midnight at a bar? 

BB: Any form of art gets modified for the audience. It’s like seeing a movie—you have R-rated films and you have G-rated films. The drag show on Friday night is probably going to be R-rated. Don’t take your kids to that. But an actor who’s in an R-rated film can also do a G-rated film. It’s not like an actor being in an R-rated movie means that their G-rated film is inappropriate.  

TM: You’ll often see performances in which female actors dressed as, say, the princesses from Frozen read stories to kids. How different is that from what you do—or even what a male drag queen does—when you’re in a full drag costume?  

BB: There’s no difference. Whenever I do kid events, I normally do Disney characters. I’ve done Jessie the Cowgirl—they love that one. I’ve done Ariel from The Little Mermaid. It really is the same thing. Why are they talking about whether the performer has a penis or a vagina? The kids aren’t thinking about that! It’s the adults who put us in that sexualized space. It’s weird.  

TM: A few weeks ago, a video was shared online that showed one of the House lawmakers who introduced a drag bill this session wearing a dress while in high school. He explained that it was “a joke back in school for a theater project” and insisted that it wasn’t sexual, which I’m sure is true. But it sounds like you’re saying the same is true of a lot of drag performances that bills like his and others in this session would target.  

BB: They always say, “Oh, I didn’t mean it in a sexual way.” Right. Well, I didn’t either. Do you think that big pink gown I was wearing was me trying to do some kind of sexy number for you? With the way they define drag, there is no difference. But what they’re doing with this is sexualizing femininity so much that they see these kinds of performances as sexual just because of how they see women. So they’ll say that they can play with it and have fun wearing a dress because they’re making fun of it—but with the way they define drag, there is no difference. The only difference is that they say that it’s not sexual—but if you think that anybody else who does it must be doing it in a sexual way, that kind of shows the way you view women and queer people, you know?