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Texas House drops anti-drag language, OKs ban of 'sexually oriented performances' in front of minors

Cynthia Lee Fontaine performs for a crowd outside the Texas Capitol protesting anti-LGBTQ legislation in March.
Alyssa Olvera
Cynthia Lee Fontaine performs for a crowd outside the Texas Capitol protesting anti-LGBTQ legislation in March.

The Texas House of Representatives advanced a measure on Friday that would prohibit “sexually oriented performances” from taking place in public spaces and in front of minors.

Notably, the House’s version of Senate Bill 12 does not include language targeting drag performers — a big change from the version the state Senate passed last month. That version included any performance with “a male performer exhibiting as a female, or a female performer exhibiting as a male” as “sexually oriented.”

Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, said Friday the House version still seeks to shield minors from sexually explicit content.

“Children should never be exposed to sexually oriented conduct,” Shaheen said. “Senate Bill 12 would help put an end to the sexualization of children in the state of Texas.”

Under the House substitute of SB 12, shows that include "actual or simulated...sexual acts, including vaginal sex, anal sex and masturbation” cannot take place in front of minors.

Businesses who host such performances in the presence of people under 18 years old could be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

“Senate Bill 12 would help put an end to the sexualization of children in the state of Texas,” Shaheen said.

The measure was preliminarily approved 88 to 12. Forty-two members — nearly all Democrats — voted present. That number of abstentions is highly unusual.

Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, told reporters he voted “present” because the measure had significantly improved.

“I think Texas is obviously the best state in the nation and I think we produce some of the best drag queens in the nation. And I didn’t want any legislation to target them or hurt that industry,” said Talarico.

He added that he hopes the Senate accepts the House’s version instead of pushing for language that targets people in the LGBTQ community.

Talarico and other Democrats confirmed to The Texas Newsroom that the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus asked members to vote “present” instead of voting against the bill.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez, a Democrat who chairs the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, told The Texas Newsroom the ask came after the new language removed references to drag queens and “anti-LGBTQ sentiment.”

“So, recognizing that those sections were removed, we felt that — while we don’t support the legislation — we also understand that we don’t want children exposed to sexually explicit performances,” Gonzalez said.

Among the “no” votes was Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, D-Houston, who said she voted against SB 12 because she thought the bill needed additional modifications.

“The bill criminalizes activity that is a matter of personal expression,” Morales Shaw told The Texas Newsroom after the vote.

Morales Shaw stressed she’s against exposing minors to sexually explicit performances — which, she added, is already against the law in Texas.

What’s next for Senate Bill 12

The bill now heads back to the Senate for approval. However, its fate is unclear since the House’s language is significantly different from the version that chamber approved.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Republican author of the Senate version, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Despite the House’s changes, LGBTQ advocates say the measure would still impact drag performers and others in their community.

Marti Bier, the vice president of programs at the progressive Texas Freedom Network, said the bill is part of the Legislature’s “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,” Bier said in a news release.

“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,” said Bier.

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.