LGBTQ+ advocates, businesses sue Montana over Drag Story Hour ban
Maritsa Georgiou, Andrea Diaz, Matt Simon
(Newsy) The state of Montana is facing a new lawsuit just months after it became the first state in the nation to enact a ban on "Drag Queen Story Hour."
The events, barred under legislation passed and signed in May, involve drag queens reading children's books and engaging in educational activities at places like libraries, schools, and many other public places that receive government funding.
After the ban was passed, the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library canceled an event featuring Adria Jawort, a Native American transgender woman.
Jawort had planned to deliver a lecture on the historical significance of trans and "Two Spirit" people. Jawort notes that she is not a drag performer. However, she says her event was canceled because of vague wording in the law, which prohibits lectures perceived as "flamboyant" or presenting a "feminine persona with glamorous or exaggerated costumes and makeup."
Jawort filed the lawsuit, which Scripps News obtained, along with educators, bookstore owners, LGBTQ+ advocates, and even a fitness center. The suit alleges the law, House Bill 359, "is so vaguely worded it could target Dolly Parton."
The lawsuit also claims that not only is the bill problematic in its restrictions on the exposure of female breasts, but it also creates confusion regarding the display of cleavage. The bill allows the display of natural cleavage but explicitly prohibits prosthetic cleavage, a provision that raises concerns that it could potentially criminalize individuals with breast implants.
"HB 359's penalty provisions are as confusing as they are draconian," the suit alleges. "Everyone involved in putting on a 'drag' (read: costumed) story hour or so-called 'sexually oriented performance' can be sued within ten years of the event by a minor who attends the performance — even if the minor and their guardian consented at the time — with statutory damages and attorney's fees assured to the plaintiff."
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit state that this bill is not only "impermissibly vague" and "unconstitutional," but it violates their First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights as it blocks the freedom of self-expression, discriminates on the basis of sex and is a violation of due process.
Among those suing are the Montana Book Company, BumbleBee Aerial, and Imagine Brewing Company, all of which host multiple LGBTQ+ events throughout the year and claim that their events could lead to criminal and civil charges "for organizing, hosting, and participating in events that could be defined as 'sexually oriented.'"
Supporters of the bill argue that drag performances are inherently intertwined with sexuality.
"Our Republican caucus believes strongly that there is no such thing as a family-friendly drag show," said bill sponsor Rep. Braxton Mitchell.
After Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the legislation, a spokesperson from his office told the Montana Free Press that the "governor believes it's wildly inappropriate for little kids, especially preschoolers and kids in elementary school, to be exposed to highly sexualized content."
The law imposes fines and penalties on violators. Individuals face $5,000 fines; teachers can be suspended for a year or lose their certificates; and alcohol-serving businesses may be fined $1,000–$10,000 per violation and lose their licenses.