State Rep. Rafael Anchia, left, meets with Caven CEO Mike Ngyuen and drag performers Cassie Nova, Rocky Tacoma, Jenna Skyy and Bleach

A look at strategies for protecting drag in Texas and how the battle over SB 12 played out

TAMMYE NASH | Managing Editor

As the regular session of the 88th Texas Legislature came to a close, the final version of Senate Bill 12 came out of conference committee and headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. The bill — originally written to specifically ban drag performances in the presence of anyone under age 18 — no longer mentioned drag specifically in its final form. But there is no doubt that some wildly ambiguous language thrown in at the last minute during the conference committee could, and would, be used to attack drag shows and performers and the venues that host them.

Still, lobbyists who worked with Texas Arts and Commerce, a group made up of businesses and bars from Dallas and Houston that host drag, say that the version of SB 12 sent to Abbott represents a victory of sorts.

“We went in knowing that something was going to pass,” said lobbyist Mike Hendrix, who was hired by Caven Enterprises CEO Mike Ngyuen, HV Entertainment head Arthur Hood and others with TAC. He said when Ngyuen and Hood first contacted him, “I laid out a strategy that was more traditional lobbying than activism.” While the kind of activism that brought crowds of people to rally at the Capitol is absolutely necessary, he added, a “traditional lobby approach” working behind the scenes is necessary, too.

The bill started out in the Senate, and many of those who traveled to the Capitol to protest “were very emotional. Some were professional, and some were very disrespectful,” Hendrix said. He said his strategy focused on having Ngyuen, Hood and a variety of drag performers “rotate in and out of town,” to talk to lawmakers behind the scenes, keeping the emotion to a minimum.

Hendrix said he knew the senate’s version would be “red meat” — intended to appeal to a more extreme base — “and it would be bad. I knew what I needed to do in the Senate was to get the bill to reference the section of the business and commerce code that clarified what a sexually-oriented performance actually is, and where those performances are allowed.”

Not many people realize it, he continued, but by working quietly behind the scenes with the help of staff from the office of Republican Sen. Brian Hughes, “we were able to get that added. It was a small victory, but it was a victory on the Senate side.”

Nonetheless, Hendrix said, SB 12 as it came out of the Senate was “really, really bad. It was so bad it would have banned drag in bars, in restaurants in hotels. It would have banned drag queen story time. We knew we had to keep chipping away at it.”

To do that, Hendrix said, he worked with lobbyist Thomas Ratliff, opening some doors that might not have been open to those taking a more activist approach.

Ratliff, also a registered lobbyist, worked with Hendrix without pay because, he said, the issue is personal to him: “My son is a drag queen [in New York City]. I don’t want anyone attacking him for his art, his job.”

“We met with every single representative sitting on the State Affairs Committee, including the chair. Progressive, moderate, Freedom Caucus — we met with all of them. And over and over we were told, ‘You are the first group that has contacted us on this issue.’”

Hendrix said when meeting with more conservative lawmakers, “we kept the focus on a business perspective. We wanted them to understand that this is an art form, we wanted them to understand what would happen to businesses — not just bars, either.

“We had people down there talking to them, letting them know, ‘We are human. We are performers. We are business owners. We are transgender. We work for SMU.’ And when we talked with the Democrats, with the progressives, we wanted to make sure they knew how much we appreciate them and their support.”

There were nine bills focused on banning drag in some form that came up in the House. All of them were sent to the House State Affairs Committee by the House leadership. Hendrix said since House leadership determines which bills get heard, when someone connected to that leadership suggested that bills authored by Rep. Matt Sheehan were the ones likely to get heard, “I knew we had to have a seat at the table with Sheehan.”

He continued, “So that’s where we focused. We asked them, what is the actual spirit of this bill? When they told us the point was to protect children, we said we want that too. We knew the spirit of the bill was to ban drag, but we told them, “We can work with you to protect kids and to protect drag, too.”

Hendrix said he and Ratliff were “the only people from our side that had a seat at the table” as SB 12 was crafted in the State Affairs Committee, and when that bill was sent to the full House, he noted, language specifically addressing drag had been removed.

Hendrix said he knew the bill was far from perfect, “but we knew something was going to pass, and we knew this was the best we were going to get. It did not outlaw drag in bars or hotels or restaurants and it did not outlaw drag queen story hour. Abbott had already said if something didn’t pass, he would put it on the agenda for special session, and that terrified me. Because any bill on drag in a special session would be pure red meat, just something to distract from Abbott’s school vouchers, which he knows no one wants.”

So when the amended bill headed to the House for a vote, Hendrix, Ratliff and their group “testified as neutral — we were not backing it, but we didn’t oppose it either.” All the members of the House LGBTQ Caucus were “present not voting” when that version of SB 12 came up for a vote, Hendrix noted, which meant they were taking a neutral stand, too.

A lot of activists had not seen the amended version voted on in the House, Hendrix said, and so did not understand why he and Texas Arts and Commerce members were taking a neutral stance. “I didn’t know why they were angry,” Hendrix said. “It took me a few days to realize that they had not seen the committee substitute bill. All the Democrats on the committee agreed with me that this was the best we could get at the time.”

The House-approved version of SB 12 was sent back to the Senate, which then sent it to conference committee, where “Ultimately, Dan Patrick and Brian Hughes stabbed us in the back,” said Ratliff. “We had a good compromise that didn’t target drag or single out drag. It talked about the content of a performance, not someone’s costume. So the Democrats stood down.”

But then, Ratliff added, at the last minute anti-LGBTQ voices in the conference committee managed to add language that bans “sexual gesticulations with an accessory or prosthetic that highlight or exaggerate male or female anatomy.” And once again, even though drag queens and drag shows are not specifically mentioned, they are still targeted.

“Who even knows what that means?” Ratliff said, suggesting that the language is so dangerously vague that it could be applied to anything from a high school cheerleader’s performance on the sideline to drag, even possibly to a woman with breast implants.

In terms of enforcing a law, Ratliff said, “the general rule is, if there is a term not defined in the statute, then you go to the plain meaning of the word. In Texas law, there is no definition for the term gesticulate, much less ‘sexual gesticulation.’ I mean, in some religion, dancing is considered a sexual gesticulation.”

Despite the ambiguous language that leaves the measure open to such a wide range of interpretations, Ratliff said, “I do think ‘normal’ drag is virtually unaffected by this. And story hours are totally safe — there are no gesticulations there, just people reading books and promoting literacy.

“I have tried from day one to help [conservatives] address the issue everyone agrees with: No one wants kids exposed to sexual content,” Ratliff said. “But to some legislators, the mere existence of a man in a dress is sexual content.”

When all is said and done, Ratliff and Hendrix are tremendously disappointed to have the bill they worked so hard to help craft spoiled at the last minute. But at the same time, they are glad to have had some impact.

“I have mixed emotions,” Ratliff said. “Our main goal was not to have drag — drag performances or drag queens — specifically mentioned in Texas law. I did not want my son and others like him to have a target on their backs more so than they already do. But to say these attempts to attack drag will have unintended consequences is putting it mildly.”