Culture War

The Fight Over Kids at Drag Shows Is a Classic Moral Panic

Florida threatens a venue for letting minors attend a sexualized holiday cabaret performance with their parents.


Of course, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration would contribute to the latest Christmas-themed targeting of drag queens as some existential threat.

The state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation sent a letter Wednesday to the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation in Orlando, Florida, because their venue was hosting A Drag Queen Christmas, a touring stage production crossing the country that's been around for eight years.

The letter warns the venue that they have "reason to believe that this drag show is of a sexual nature, involving the exposure or exhibition of sexual organs, simulated sexual activity, and/or the sexualization of children's stories." The department says it has "become aware" that the show has been marketed to and attended by children. The agency warns that the drag show may be considered a "public nuisance" if minors are allowed to attend, provided that any of these claims of sexual activity are true. Thus, the venue could have its license revoked. "In short, if you allow children to attend the Drag Fans drag show at your facility," the letter warns, "you are putting your license in jeopardy." The letter concludes that if the venue allows minors in at all, "the Department will take any and all actions available to make sure you do not pose a threat to minors in the future." (Emphasis added.)

Note that this letter doesn't actually say that there is any nudity or simulated sexual activity at this show, only that the department believes there is. It probably consulted this Twitter thread by Tayler Hansen, who provides images and clips of the show from its stop in Austin, Texas. A Drag Queen Christmas is a pretty raunchy show in the way that's familiar to anybody who has watched drag performances. But the only "nudity" found in Hansen's clips and images is a pair of absolutely fake boobs being worn by a drag queen. There is a lot of overtly sexualized behavior and gyrating from people who are not actually naked or having sex.

Essentially, this is a Madonna concert, circa her Blonde Ambition World Tour days. Madonna, of course, is famously beloved by gay men and drag queens in particular for her wild looks and deliberately sexualized persona. She was threatened with arrest in Toronto back in 1990 for simulating masturbation during her live performance of "Like a Virgin," though police eventually backed down. There was a moral panic then that children exposed to Madonna's antics were being sexualized at a young age. Funny how some things don't change.

If I had small children, I probably would not take them to this show. But what's clear from Hansen's clips is that several parents did, voluntarily, and seemed to know that this was going to happen. The website Florida Politics notes that while the company says that "all ages" are welcome at the show, it also notes that local regulations may vary. At some venues, minors must be accompanied by an adult in order to attend (which was the case at the Austin show in Hansen's clips). At others, minors are banned entirely.

It doesn't appear that there's actual nudity in the show. And the amount of sexualization would put it at maybe an R rating if it were a movie. What we have here is a lot of screaming and politicization about families making entertainment decisions other adults do not like. This is, flat out, a moral panic.

When I wrote last week about the targeting of these shows, some of the feedback I received insisted that while there's perhaps some anti-LGBT politics at play here, there is a legitimate problem with letting kids attend these shows and that it contributes to their early sexualization. This is not a moral panic, some insist. There is a limit to the "parents' rights" argument, and this all crosses a line. Parents should not be allowed to take their kids to live drag shows.

To that, I say, by looking at the behavior here and the public response to it, we can see that, just as with Madonna, this is a moral panic.

People are exaggerating what is actually happening. I would definitely agree with anybody who says the show's content is sexualized. But, the claims of nudity and simulated sex at these shows are very exaggerated to make it seem like children are encountering the same things that you might see at a strip club. In fact, in the threatening letter from Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, officials point to a Florida court case that authorized shutting down businesses for violating lewdness statutes. But the example it uses, Hoskins v. Dept. of Business Regulation, is a case involving women providing lap dances to patrons at a strip club. That doesn't appear to be happening in the clips Hansen gathered.

Now, this is not to say that something similar hasn't or won't happen at a drag show. I would not be surprised to find out that one or more drag queens out there did cross the line when children were present, displaying nudity or more explicit sexual simulation. But a hallmark of a moral panic is the belief that violations are much more common than they are. We see this with the moral panic over stranger child abduction and sex trafficking. As Lenore Skenazy has regularly documented for Reason, a child's actual risk of being abducted or sexually trafficked is completely out of alignment with the perceived risk. And the overprotectiveness that stems from these misaligned fears is not harmless. The moral panic about child abduction has led to overpolicing and threats to parents from the government. Take note, then, of DeSantis calling for the investigation of parents who bring their kids to drag shows.

New laws are demanded even though existing laws are sufficient. Florida has laws about nudity and lewdness, and the department's letter references them. But then it threateningly warns against allowing any minors into the show regardless of the content, period.

Lawmakers have been proposing legislation that essentially treats drag shows as lewd conduct, regardless of any sort of nudity or sexual activity. In Texas, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that classifies any sort of drag performance as "sexually oriented" regardless of the content. Simply wearing clothing of the opposite sex in a performance is suddenly sexual. It's a bonkers proposal with any number of potential enforcement problems, but that's something that happens with a moral panic. Because the moral panic exaggerates what's actually happening, the "solutions" proposed are extremely broad and can cause additional harms rather than prevent them. (We're still struggling to undo the absurdly high prison sentences we've saddled drug users and dealers with because of our moral panic in the 1980s and 1990s over crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine.)

Politicians are happy to sow fear in others in order to advance their careers. DeSantis has made it clear that he's happy to perpetuate the culture war, treating those with progressive politics as public enemies and fighting against the "woke" crowd, going so far as to endorse and encourage laws that clearly violate the First Amendment, all for the purpose of cultivating and benefitting from the moral panic.

Similarly, the attack on this same drag show in St. Louis was launched by a local politician who is considering a run for governor. And a state politician in Knoxville, Tennessee, was all over the drag show there. The show in Orlando did take place Wednesday night, and the local Fox affiliate showed up to interview both protesters and opponents who stood outside with signs and rainbow flags. One state representative, Anna Eskamani (D–Orlando), was there and accused the DeSantis administration of attempting to "intimidate and cancel drag shows."

Again, Madonna and the moral panics of pop and rap music of the 1980s and early 1990s come to mind. Florida is the state that attempted to ban 2 Live Crew from selling a rap album by deeming it obscene, until the group won the battle in court. When we look back at those days, it may all seem absurd. Gen Xers did not grow up to be any more sexualized or out-of-control than the baby boomers.

Claiming that drag shows are different is a subjective evaluation based on how a person feels about exposure to drag performances. It is an attempt to force one group of people's parental choices on the collective. And the mindless tossing around of the word "groomer" is just an epithet designed to shut down opposition on the belief that nobody wants to be accused of supporting child sexual abuse. It's a reminder of back during the 1970s through the 1990s when anybody who was not heterosexual was regularly accused of trying to recruit kids. Moral panics about gay people interacting with children are hardly new.

We have laws about minors and nudity and sexually explicit live performances. And we have parents to make decisions for stuff that falls just on the legal side of that line. That's how it has been for the longest of times, and drag queens don't change that calculus. If you don't want your children to see this stuff, don't take them. Leave everybody else alone.