Drag queen Brigitte Bandit performs on an ouitdoor stage in a sleeveless Texas flag halter top over large prosthetic breasts, a bright yellow blonde wig, and red and black tiger-stripe side-tie cowboy pants.
(Kit O'Connell)

‘We’re Going to Need to Save Each Other’: ‘Drag Ban’ Will Be Fought in the Streets & the Courts

SB 12 has already sent a chill of fear and uncertainty through the LGBTQ+ community.


Kit O'Connell is a white person with a broad forehead and large nose and shoulder length, wavy brown hair. They are wearing a green metal wayfarer glasses, blue velvet coat, white button down with red accents and a red scarf wrapped loosely around their neck like a tie.

In Texas, Dolly Parton can read books to children, but it could soon be illegal for a drag queen to dress up as the famous singer and philanthropist and do the same. 

“Drag can be appropriate for all ages,” Brigitte Bandit, an Austin drag queen who frequently performs at birthday parties, told the Texas Observer. “It’s simply a way to express yourself and have fun, and why not allow kids to see something like that?”

(We have used Bandit’s stage name to protect their privacy.)

On August 3, the ACLU of Texas sued the state over the legal conundrum that Bandit, who is nonbinary, and others like them could face September 1 if Senate Bill 12 goes into effect as scheduled. That bill, which passed during the 88th session of the Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in June, is popularly known as the “drag ban” despite not mentioning the art form by name. Under this law, anyone caught performing acts that invoke a “prurient interest in sex” around minors could spend up to a year in prison, and the venue where the show takes place gets slapped with a stiff fine, too. The law also bans the use of prosthetic devices like false breasts, which are a key part of Bandit’s Dolly Parton costume. 

The ACLU of Texas and other legal experts and advocates for LGBTQ+ rights say that the “prurient interest” standard is vague and poorly defined and violates performers’ freedom of speech—even queer performers who are not drag queens. Lawyers for the nonprofit plan to argue that the drag ban violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires states to treat all people equally. SB 12 effectively brands drag performers as second-class citizens.

“It’s so poorly written that it threatens any performer who defies gender stereotypes or expresses any type of sexuality, and it also threatens the businesses that host them,” explained Ash Hall, a policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas who focuses on queer rights.

In addition to Bandit, other plaintiffs in the case include Extragrams, an Austin “drag delivery” service where Bandit works; LGBTQ+ Pride organizations from the Woodlands and Abilene; and San Antonio event producer 360 Queen Entertainment.

Even though performers won’t face the legal consequences of SB 12 until September, Bandit said the legislation has already contributed to an uncertain and intimidating atmosphere for queens. 

Far-right groups frequently show up to protest drag shows throughout the state; a Republican-led anti-trans rally occurred at Austin’s annual LGBTQ+ Pride celebration in August. Bandit themself frequently faces harassment, including a recent incident in which their birth name was released on social media to threaten their safety. 

“The last couple events I’ve done have had to hire private security because they were so concerned about threats to their safety,” Bandit explained. 

Venue owners are facing consequences as well. Houston’s historic lesbian hotspot, the Pearl Bar, was denied insurance in May because it regularly hosts drag performances, the owner said. 

Hall said the threats Bandit faced are “part of a larger trend we’ve been seeing where drag events are increasingly targeted in Texas, sometimes by armed Nazis, other times with protesters with really ugly signs that kids shouldn’t be seeing.” 

The ACLU of Texas  predicted this outcome during its testimony against the bill at the Legislature, where Hall warned that “just having this conversation will embolden more extremists to endanger drag performers.” 

These legislative and street-level attacks are part of a larger, national assault on the rights of queer people that is openly endorsed by the GOP. The “drag ban” and similar bills in other states—one in Tennessee has already been blocked by the courts—go hand in hand with devastating restrictions on gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth, which have already forced families to leave their homes to protect their child’s access to lifesaving medical treatments. Other new pieces of legislation like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law limit students and teachers’ ability to learn or share resources about LGBTQ+ topics. Legal groups like the ACLU and Lambda Legal have been at the forefront of challenging these laws.  

Ash Hall of the ACLU of Texas said the goal is to force queer people back into the closet. “[SB 12] is part of a thinly veiled attempt to push us out of public life in Texas,” they said. 

Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization has seen an ”uptick in calls regarding discrimination and violence and intimidation all across the state” after the 88th legislative session. Martinez cited the murder of Akira Ross in Cedar Park as an especially chilling example. Ross was shot and killed outside a gas station in June after being called an anti-gay slur. 

“It’s shaken me and changed the way we approach this work,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a space where we keep seeing our lives being lost because of someone’s political motivation.”

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“We don’t want to be in a space where we keep seeing our lives being lost because of someone’s political motivation.”

Another thing these laws have in common are the linguistic contortions they use in an attempt to target queer and trans people without mentioning them by name. For example, SB 12’s vaguely defined “prurient interest” standard could apply to performances by groups like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. 

“Some of the definitions are so vague that it’s to the point that a Shakespeare play could be found illegal [even if] the entire cast were cisgender, heterosexual people,” Hall said. “Because [SB 12] is so vague and so broad, it allows for law enforcement to decide what kind of speech they disagree with or find unsavory and they can enforce the law as they see fit.”

Because enforcement and interpretation of the law is left to police and prosecutors, performers and advocates fear it will be implemented capriciously.  

In a similar vein, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law is so broadly written that it could, in theory at least, require parents be notified about anything related to gender or sexuality—leading the Observer’s editor-in-chief, Gabriel Arana, to ask in a 2021 essay for the New Republic, “Do teachers now need permission to tell kids George Washington was a man? Or that JFK married Jackie O?”

But, at least as long as Republicans remain in power, the GOP will use these bills as a cudgel against LGBTQ+ people, especially nonwhite members of the community, who Hall pointed out already face disproportionate police response. 

Martinez praised the ACLU of Texas lawsuit and its choice of plaintiffs. “They’ve centered community,” he said. “At its core, this bill has always been an attack on LGBTQ+ Texans and the art of drag.”

Ash Hall is cautiously optimistic about the case’s chances. “We have a lot of hope because it’s quite a blatant violation of free speech,” they said. “What the legislature and extremists are trying to do is claim that all drag is adult content, which we know is not true.” 

But they warned that the courts, sadly, can’t always be counted on to deliver justice: “Our community already has a long history of law enforcement raiding our spaces and harming Black and brown trans people.” 

“We do what we can with the courts but the true power is always in our community and the way we take care of each other. We’re going to need to save each other, and ourselves.”

Hall called to mind the historic activism that helped protect the LGBTQ+ community during other times it came under pressure as well as paved the way for past legal victories like Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which overturned the state’s ban on sodomy. “We do what we can with the courts but the true power is always in our community and the way we take care of each other,” Hall said. “We’re going to need to save each other, and ourselves.” 

Martinez said this is a time when the LGBTQ+ community and its allies need to show “uncommon courage” as diverse threats face the community. 

“We’re seeing infiltration [by extremists] into our safe spaces. We see it at brunch, we see it at Pride. Even our places of worship where LGBTQ+ folks feel generally safe. You’re seeing it in the weaponization of state agencies,” he said, referring to Republicans’ efforts to use Child Protective Services against families who seek healthcare for trans or gender-nonconforming kids. 

He continued: “We look at drag as a unique and single issue, but it’s part of a broader attack. … All of that is meant to create strategic divisions, to paint us as the enemy and sensationalize our lives.” 

Hall noted that drag performers “have range just like other performers do, so drag can be for all ages. Someone like Brigitte [Bandit] can have a really fabulous performance in a 21-and-up bar on Saturday night, then Sunday morning host a kid-friendly drag queen story hour and have it be appropriate for both age groups.” 

“Drag is for everybody and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to watch it,” Hall concluded.