ACLU of Texas Sues to Block State’s Impending Drag Ban

Austin drag queen Brigitte Bandit and others wait to testify before the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee hearing on Senate Bill 12 on March 23 (Photo by John Anderson)

The ACLU of Texas is teaming up with gay pride groups and drag queens to stop the drag ban approved this session – Senate Bill 12 – from becoming law.

The groups are suing the Texas attorney general and a variety of county officials who will be charged with enforcing the law, which is scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 1.

The lawsuit argues that SB 12 is vague, sweeping, and, if enacted, will have unintended consequences. “In its zeal to target drag, the Legislature passed a bill so yawning in scope that it criminalizes and restricts an enormous swath of constitutionally protected activity,” the suit states, “including theater, ballet, comedy, and even cheerleading. By enacting this law, the state has threatened the livelihood and free expression of many Texans.”

SB 12 was part of a deluge of anti-LGBTQ legislation sponsored by far-right interests in this year’s legislative session. Some of these bills, like SB 8 – the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would have prevented public school teachers from mentioning sexual orientation in their classrooms – stalled out. But others, like SB 14, which will prevent doctors from providing medically necessary care to young trans people, were signed into law. The Texas ACLU has also filed suit against SB 14.

When originally introduced, SB 12 specifically targeted drag performances. As it traversed the legislative process, its scope broadened to include any “sexually explicit” performance where minors are in attendance. The law will allow police, prosecutors, cities, counties, and the Texas attorney general to cancel events and charge performers with crimes resulting in a year in jail and as much as $10,000 in fines.

The lawsuit criticizes SB 12’s definitions of “nudity” and “sexual content,” terms meant to specify which kinds of performances are subject to criminal penalties. In the case of “nudity” – defined as an unclothed person or one clothed in such a way that the buttocks or genitals are partly visible – it argues that SB 12 could “turn any type of wardrobe malfunction on stage into a year in jail and/or a fine.” In the case of “sexual conduct,” the authors of the suit write, “This provision is written so broadly that it could prohibit a performer from even giving a friendly front-facing hug to another person on stage. It would severely limit most types of dancing, where performers often touch or simulate touching one another.”

The pride groups and drag entertainment groups who have signed onto the lawsuit come from areas on the front lines of the culture war, including Abilene and the area north of Houston. They say SB 12’s goals are clear. “They want to chip away at our freedoms and eventually erase queer and trans existence from the public sphere,” said Andrea Segovia, policy advisor with Transgender Education Network of Texas. “But our community and our art will not be silenced or erased. We applaud the tenacity and grit of the suit’s plaintiffs, who demonstrate true Texas values by standing strong for queer and trans rights. We’re supporting them every step along the way.”

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