Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- “Drag story hour” in Helena has been long-contested, but remains a big hit among some parents and kids in the state’s capital city.

Drag kings and queens sit full-glam with the kids and their parents to read books aloud to the children. A bill that has already passed the House of Representatives and was introduced into the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday would stop it from happening. 

Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, is the sponsor of House Bill 359, which would bar Montana’s children from attending drag shows and prohibit drag shows from taking place in any publicly funded space, like libraries or schools. He says children going to drag shows is a dangerous trend.

“Drag shows in recent years have been specifically aimed at children. Children as young as three and four years old are being strongly encouraged across the country by many to attend these drag shows where males are pretending to be females and vice versa, where they start stripping on stage dancing provocatively and women's lingerie and children are encouraged to throw money at them in many instances,” Mitchell said. 

Proponents of the bill say that drag shows are inappropriate and sexual, they compared drag shows to stripping, topless dancing and other such adult content. They said children shouldn’t be exposed to them and they shouldn’t be allowed to take place in public spaces.

Jenna McKinney spoke as a proponent for the Office of Public Instruction and the State Superintendent.

“This has no place in public education and we ask for a do pass,” McKinney said.  

Opponents of the bill said the inappropriate behavior outlined by proponents during testimony has never and would never happen at a family-friendly drag show. They said while drag is a type of performance many Montanans haven’t seen before or may not understand, it isn’t lewd and it isn’t dangerous to kids.

They said the family-friendly shows are just that: family-friendly. Numerous lawmakers lined up with advocates, citizens and members of the LGBTQ+ community to oppose the bill. 

Democratic Representative Tom France from Missoula said he saw a drag show coming up in Helena while he was considering how to vote on HB 359. He decided he’d go and see what the brouhaha was all about. 

“I sort of thought I knew what I'd see but it was really, really a happy afternoon. And I came away thinking a couple of things: First of all, I wish I'd asked my entire committee to go -- the House Judiciary Committee -- because I think all would've seen that it was entertainment. And that it was a different kind of entertainment that perhaps most of us are used to seeing,” France said. “But it was entertainment and it was essentially wholesome entertainment in that venue, a Saturday afternoon venue. The other thing I wished was, or made me think about, was raising my two daughters, who are now in their twenties and living in big cities. And I'm sure seeing a diversity that we don't often have an opportunity to see in Montana. But I wished when they were growing up, I had taken them to this kind of show.” 

Opponents also listed numerous reasons why they think the bill would be a bad idea for Montana outside of drag shows. They said the bill is redundant and unconstitutional because Montana already has obscenity laws in place and HB 359 would dampen Montanans’ free speech and expression. T

hey said it could also have an unintended impact on Montana’s businesses that could be harshly penalized for violating the bill and Montana’s theaters which may not be able to function under the bill. They also said it hinged on “prurient interest” which is subjective and impossible to regulate.

HB 359 passed the House of Representatives on a vote of 64-32 in February. The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take immediate action on the bill after its hearing Tuesday morning.