Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) Lennon Keppen, who performs in drag as Holden Oliver Gay Love, wore a black blazer with gold embellishments, colorful sequin pants and rainbow glasses, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the same outfit they wear performing at a family friendly drag show.

Keppen told the committee they take a lot more care in preparation for a family friendly show, especially given the legislation moving through the Montana Legislature and across the country.

“I want to assure this committee that there was a lot of care and concern, not just for myself, but any other performer that gets on that stage to make sure that our performance is all ages, family-friendly appropriate,” they said.

Thirteen Democratic lawmakers lined up to testify against a bill to ban drag in public spaces where minors are present and making bars or restaurants that host such performances “sexually oriented businesses” in Montana.

House Bill 359 had nearly 60 opponents and seven proponents during the hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said the bill was a “shocking overreach” into private enterprise, especially in her district where the LGBTQ+ community hosts events with businesses around the city.

“But I know that that wasn’t the point of the bill,” she said. “The point was to harm my community, to target it and to marginalize it. And so that’s the main reason that I’m opposing this.”

Sen. Bob Brown, R-Trout Creek, is the only Republican on the committee who isn’t a co-sponsor of the bill, which now has a total of 83 co-sponsors.

HB 359 would prohibit drag performances in public spaces and in spaces that receive public funding, banning “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.” The bill defines prurient interest as “having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.”

Proponents included the Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Family Foundation and two representatives from Moms for Liberty Yellowstone County. Those in support of the bill said they did so in the interest of protecting children.

Bill sponsor Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, said in his opening he’s a strong supporter of parents rights, but if a parent attempts to “sexualize their child,” their “parents right end at that point.”

Organizations in opposition said there are already laws on the books to protect children from attending sexual or inappropriate entertainment and mechanisms like Child Protective Services were already in place to protect children.

Brown asked opponent SK Rossi with the Human Rights Campaign where the line should be between family friendly and adult drag shows.

“I think what you’re hearing from parents in the audience is they want to decide where the line is. They want their rights as parents to be respected. And they should get to decide what the line is for their kids,” Rossi said. “And if they cross it, as you heard from opponents, we have systems in place to deal with crossing a line that moves into harming a child.”

Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, who heard the bill in the other chamber in the House Judiciary committee, said they hadn’t heard any evidence of harm being caused to children. They said in debates for other bills lawmakers would hear from the Department of Justice, county attorneys, police, prosecutors and the like.

“We haven’t heard from anybody in law enforcement that this is actually an issue, because it is not,” Howell said.

The Human Rights Campaign, Montana Federation of Public Employees, Montana Pride, the ACLU of Montana, Forward Montana, Montana Human Rights Network, Montana Women Vote and the Montana Budget and Policy Center were among organizations in opposition to this bill.

Benji Cosgrove with the Myrna Loy Theatre in Helena said the broad definition in the bill could leave the theater criminally liable if a man were to play a traditionally female character or if a transgender person took the stage. He said as a parent if he didn’t want his children to see certain movies or performances, he wouldn’t take them.

Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula, attended an all-ages drag event in Helena in February and said he would have loved to bring his daughters, now in their 20s, to an all-ages drag show when they were younger.

“It was essentially wholesome entertainment in that venue,” he said.

Mitchell said in his opening statement children were putting money into performers’ G-strings, which Keppen said does not happen at all-ages shows in Montana.

Keppen said performers will accept tips in their hands or collect them in bags.

Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, said he heard about a drag show taking place in the United Kingdom where children attended an event with a performer in a thong, to which Rossi said there are already sideboards in the U.S. to protect children from such performances.

“We’re in Montana. I don’t really care about what happened in the UK,” Rossi said. “If we did everything the UK did, we’d have universal health care.”

In his closing, Mitchell spoke to the difference in turnout between proponents and opponents of the bill.

“I’m sure if we got every person in the state who is working right now and actually has a job — unlike most of these folks here, it seems like — that I’m sure we’d see a pretty different ratio,” he said.

He told committee members he didn’t think anyone wanted to go back to their home district and say they “allowed drag queens in schools.”

Izzy Milch with Forward Montana said opponents will continue to fight.

“So as long as you insist on making our bodies the center of your political platforms, we will insist on using those bodies to take up space in these hearing rooms, in your hometowns, in the halls of this building, and everywhere else you go, and we will be so loud and so annoying and so correct,” said Milch.

“I hope that eventually, that’s enough to stop policies like this, but I’m not gonna hold my breath for that day.”