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The GOP’s Drag Bans Aren’t Meant to Be Good Laws. They’re Meant to Cause Chaos.

What if the point of state-level drag bans is not the legislation itself but rather the scapegoating of queer and trans people as enemies?

Brandon Bell/Getty Images
A child listens as drag queen Brigitte Bandit reads a book during a drag time story hour at the Little Gay Shop fashion accessories store in Austin, Texas, on August 26.

Back in 2021, then–Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel posted—of all things—a Pride Month greeting on X, the website formerly known as Twitter. “Happy #PrideMonth!” McDaniel’s post read. “@GOP is proud to have doubled our LGBTQ support over the last 4 years.” McDaniel’s message was hailed at the time—at least by some Republicans interviewed in Politico—as a sign of a changing political climate.

Compare this to a message posted in June of this year from an account later linked to Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign, which shared a violently homophobic and transphobic video, ostensibly targeting former President Donald Trump for being too supportive of LGBTQ rights. “To wrap up ‘Pride Month,’ let’s hear from the politician who did more than any other Republican to celebrate it,” the ironic post reads.

Some believe these kinds of tactics will backfire on DeSantis—his “war on woke” and his attacks on Disney, schools, and history have been used by various pundits to explain his lag in the polls. It may be true that similar attacks on LGBTQ+ people will turn out to be electoral losers, as some surveys suggest and some political analysts forecast. Yet the GOP obsession with attempts to criminalize queer and trans life has become a reliable fixture of the 2024 campaign, fueled by fights set in motion by candidates like DeSantis.

Whatever power anti-LGBTQ politics have to boost—or tank—presidential candidates’ prospects, the threat is continuing to grow off the national political stage. From those dwelling in governor’s mansions to those readying for their next session in the state legislatures, to those claiming unfettered power to prosecute people under laws that have been struck down, these are the people who stand to benefit from the focus pulled to the presidential race.

This week, Republican-backed bans targeting drag in Texas and Montana faced inevitable constitutional challenges in federal courts. While the bans’ prospects for being upheld are far from secure—and rest on their respective states’ making the case that the laws are not meant to discriminate—their backers leave no doubt about the bans’ intent: to paint LGBTQ communities as threats to children. Now, as if to emphasize how such bans were crafted to undermine LGBTQ people’s constitutional rights, a Tennessee prosecutor announced in a letter released Tuesday that he would enforce a drag ban that was already ruled unconstitutional; the letter was addressed to organizers of a Pride event to be held in Blount County this weekend, his apparent intended target.

Bans on drag are part of the deluge of anti-LGBTQ legislation that has overwhelmed statehouses in the past few years. After some far-right activists succeeded in making Drag Queen Story Hour a steady feature on Fox News, and after far-right groups began regularly targeting drag events for harassment, a few state lawmakers in Texas and Florida demanded that drag bans be introduced in 2022. In the midterm elections that year, at least 21 Republican candidates and political action committees deployed anti-trans and anti-drag messaging in their campaigns—which, according to some analysts, may have hurt them. As American University School of Public Affairs assistant professor Andrew Flores argued in The Washington Post last year, the combination of a growing bloc of LGBTQ voters and Republicans’ escalating attacks on LGBTQ rights perhaps contributed to defeating at least some of those Republicans. But there were notable exceptions, like Governors Ron DeSantis in Florida, Bill Lee in Tennessee, and Greg Abbott in Texas, who all went on to sign drag bans in 2023. Still, in his overall analysis, Flores wrote, “anti-LGBTQ politics appears to be mobilizing more LGBTQ voters than voters who oppose LGBTQ rights.”

Lee was the first to sign a drag ban into law this March, along with a ban on providing gender-affirming health care to minors. DeSantis followed suit with a ban targeting drag in May, with Texas and other states soon after. Some of the bans, like the one in Texas, avoid mentioning drag entirely—evidence of what the Texas Observer described as the “linguistic contortions they use in an attempt to target queer and trans people without mentioning them by name.”

Montana’s does mention drag by name, and was passed in an openly anti-democratic and anti-trans legislative session last spring. During this session, Montana Republicans with the state’s Freedom Caucus engaged in a sustained campaign against Democratic Representative Zooey Zephyr, one of the legislature’s two transgender members. The Freedom Caucus pushed the Republican-majority state House of Representatives to vote to ban Zephyr from the floor, and won. They made her out to be an instigator of what they called an “insurrection” for having spoken out against anti-trans legislation, including the drag ban.

Unsurprisingly, the bans aren’t weathering their challenges well in the court of law. In Texas, the state’s attorneys on Monday attempted to argue that a ban on drag shows was “content neutral” and didn’t discriminate against drag performances, despite the fact that Abbott clearly celebrated it as an anti-drag ban shortly after it became law. (“Texas Governor Signs Law Banning Drag Performances in Public. That’s right,” Abbott posted in June on X, linking a news story on the bill signing.)

Monday’s hearing wasn’t exactly a runaway success for the state. In one particularly embarrassing exchange, as The Texas Tribune reported, the judge asked a witness the state billed as an expert on the impact of sexually explicit materials on minors if they “had met anyone who had incurred a lifelong affliction as a result of their experience with a drag queen.” Per the Tribune, the witness “said the only people that fit that description were also exposed to sexual abuse”; the witness was subsequently dismissed by the judge. The ban will go into effect Friday—unless the judge issues a preliminary injunction, which, given how the hearing went for the state, is definitely not out of the question.

Meanwhile, in Montana, lawyers for the state attorney general’s office continued their struggle on Monday to defend a vague, broad drag ban as nondiscriminatory. Signed by Republican Governor Greg Gianforte in May, the ban was challenged in federal court in Butte in July by a group of 10 plaintiffs, including a schoolteacher, a bookstore, and a trans author and activist. (Lest there be any confusion about whether the legislation is “nondiscriminatory,” as the state is arguing, the ban’s sponsor in February accused drag performers who read books to children as having a “sick agenda.”) This week’s hearing comes not long after the state lost its attempt to halt a temporary restraining order, during which it argued that the law didn’t ban drag queen story hours outright because libraries could hold them outside regular library hours. When the judge asked at what time they had in mind, an attorney for the state said that libraries could host the story hours—events for children— “at 11 o’clock at night.”

Montana’s ban shares a key feature with many of the other states’ bans targeting drag: It is written in broad, vague language seemingly designed to produce a chilling effect, encouraging people to enforce the law based not on its contents but in fear of how it might be used against them. It’s working. Following the ban’s passage, a public library in Butte used the law to justify prohibiting a trans woman from presenting a public talk on the history of trans and Indigenous people. County Attorney Eileen Joyce, the top local prosecutor, advised the library to cancel the event after receiving a transphobic message on social media (which called the presenter “it” and pleaded, “Will the local police be allowing this to happen?”). The prosecutor acknowledged, as the Montana Free Press reported, “that the county’s actions could be seen as discriminatory toward transgender people and possibly even grounds for a lawsuit.” Sure enough, the woman whose talk at the library was canceled was among the group of plaintiffs who filed a challenge to the law in federal court in Butte in July.

It’s clear that these bills are shabby pieces of legislation that should not hold up under the barest judicial scrutiny. But they were not designed to be workable laws. Rather, the bans have proven most successful so far in creating chaos, both for those potentially penalized for violating them and for those charged with defending the bans. This is by design. While Republican state lawmakers make blatant attempts to define drag as somehow outside protected First Amendment speech, their lawyers have been left arguing in court that the bans aren’t what they are: an attempt to target a specific group for a particular kind of expression.

As these constitutional challenges to the bans proceed, they may well continue to underwhelm yet more members of the judiciary. On that level, they look like they are losing: Tennessee’s was struck down as unconstitutional, and Florida’s is temporarily blocked from being enforced, as is Montana’s. In Tennessee, however, as reporting late Tuesday from legal journalist Chris Geidner revealed, one district attorney claims he has the power to prosecute any violations of the struck-down ban should they occur at Blount County Pride on Saturday, despite a federal judge striking down that ban in June as “an unconstitutional restriction on speech.” Blount County District Attorney Ryan Desmond also admitted he tried but failed to find a legal way to block the Pride event before it occurs. “In other words, Desmond and his staff looked high and low for a way to violate the Constitution, but they came up empty-handed,” Geidner wrote. They are apparently not going to let that stop them.

What if the bans aren’t meant to succeed on their face, as law? What if the point is the chaos and fear, the scapegoating of queer and trans people as enemies? As a recent DeSantis campaign email asked his supporters, “Why do Joe Biden and the Left think it’s common sense to salute the Pride Flag?”—as if inviting them to define queer and trans people out of “real” America. And as the Tennessee prosecutor’s threats have shown, while those backing these bans deploy the law to justify marginalizing and penalizing queer and trans people through redefining drag as a crime, defenders are also willing to go outside the law to continue to attack these communities and paint them as threats to the country.