UPDATED to add a quote from Ash Hall, Policy & Advocacy Strategist for the ACLU of Texas: “Today the Texas House passed S.B. 12, originally designed to explicitly target drag performances and now worded vaguely enough to give officials the power to target any performance they don’t like. S.B. 12 censors Texans’ free expression by threatening to ban and criminalize performance that “appeals to the prurient interest in sex” without defining that key term. It disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ community and especially its BIPOC members, who have historically been targeted by state officials and law enforcement. S.B. 12 endangers drag performers, attendees, and the entire LGBTQ+ community at a time when drag performances are already under attack by violent extremists. It has no place in Texas.”

ORIGINAL POST: The Texas House of Representatives voted on second reading this morning to advance Senate Bill 12, but without language that specifically prohibits certain drag performances. The vote was 88-12, with 42 state representatives registering as “present, not voting.”

But, some advocates warn, that doesn’t mean SB 12 is no longer a danger to the LGBTQ and drag communities. The bill has to pass the House on a third reading — reportedly scheduled to take place Saturday morning, May 20 — and will then go back to the Senate.

The Senate can then either choose to approve the amended version passed by the House, send the bill to conference committee to reconcile the different versions or let the bill die with no further action. If the Senate sends the bill to conference committee, language referring specifically drag could be put back into the measure.

SB 12 was introduced in the Texas Senate during this legislative session after right-wing forces began attacking drag queen story hours along with drag brunches and any other drag show that children under 18 are allowed to attend. According to the Texas Legislature’s website, SB 12 is intended to “[restrict] certain sexually oriented performances on public property, on the premises of a commercial enterprise or in the presence of a child; authorizing a civil penalty; creating a criminal offense.” “Sexually oriented performance” was defined in the bill to include drag performances — men impersonating women and women impersonating men — as well as actual or simulated sex acts, nudity or anything that “appeals to the prurient interest in sex.”

Even if the House version of SB 12 — without language specifically banning drag — ultimately makes its way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, advocates warn it remains a danger to the community.

Before today’s vote in the House, Patrick Hanley, public policy and advocacy lead for Resource Center, warned that even those the committee substitute version of Senate Bill 12 does not include explicit language restricting drag performances, “we remain concerned the language could come back as an amendment or in the conference stage.”

Hanley also notes that in the committee substitute version, “they retained the phrase that restricts performance that ‘appeals to the prurient interest in sex,’ which is undefined in the legislation. Our fear is that this vague statement could be used by bad actors to police or harass spaces, including LGBTQIA+ community spaces.

“Public indecency is already a crime in Texas so this bill creates unnecessary ambiguity,” Hanley said. “SB 12 remains a bad bill.”

Following today’s vote, Marti Bier, vice president of programs for Texas Freedom Network, again warned of “vague guidelines” and issued the following statement:

“With less than two weeks of the legislative session left, anti-LGBTQ lawmakers are not letting up on their prejudiced agenda. We refuse to be fooled by attempts to trick Texans into thinking this bill is not intended to target drag, and by extension, the LGBTQIA+ community that has found acceptance and chosen family through performance. Instead of focusing on protecting our kids from the imminent threat of gun violence, our representatives are busying themselves by spreading misinformation about drag performances and mislabeling a joyful art form.”

Bier added, “To threaten drag artists and performers with jail time for exercising freedom of expression is a new low. We condemn the state House for wasting time on dog whistles instead of focusing what little time is left in this year’s session enacting meaningful legislation that makes Texas a better place for our kids.”

Austin-based activist and lobbyist Mike Hendrix has been working with some Dallas business owners and drag entertainers to get language specifically addressing drag performances removed from the committee.

Hendrix said his clients — which include Caven Enterprises CEO Mike Ngyuen and Arthur Hood of HV Entertainment — registered their position on the committee substitute version of SB 12 as “neutral.” He also pointed out that the members of the House LGBTQ Caucus were among those “present, not voting.”

“That means, basically, that they were saying they are neutral [on committee substitute SB 12],” Hendrix said. “To me, that shows they know this bill [as amended] is the best we can hope for out of a Republican-controlled Legislature.”

Hendrix agreed that the threat of SB 12 has not been totally eliminated. But it has been, he said, significantly reduced.

“The bill which passed the House on second reading differs substantially from the engrossed version as it came from the Senate. Senate Bill 12, as amended, accomplishes the intent not to allow individuals under the age of 18 to attend sexually explicit performances. SB 12 will protect Texas children while protecting individuals’ constitutional First Amendment right to express themselves,” Hendrix said.

“This bill does not affect drag story time or Pride parades,” he continued. “The bill received broad bi-partisan support, with only 12 members opposing the proposal, sending a very clear message that this bill is important.”

— Tammye Nash