Nebraskans crowd around a drag queen for Drag Story Hour in Omaha's Urban Abbey.
Nebraskans attend the first Drag Story Hour at Urban Abbey in Omaha on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, since the introduction of a legislative bill that could restrict drag show attendance and provide penalties if people bring minors to a drag show. (Photo courtesy of Jasmine Conrad Moseley/ACLU of Nebraska)

A proposed bill in the Nebraska Legislature would add an age limit to drag shows in the state and prohibit state agencies from using state funds to host drag shows.

LB371 introduced by State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil would restrict drag performances to people 19 years of age or older, or 21 years of age if there is alcohol. A person who knowingly brings someone younger would be guilty of a Class I misdemeanor.

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State Sen. Dave Murman listens to floor debate while reading legislative rules on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Nebraska News Service Photo/Zach Wendling)

Businesses, establishments or nonprofits that host drag shows allowing younger individuals would face a fine of $10,000 for each violation and those in charge would be guilty of a Class I misdemeanor. 

When asked whether a violation would be a single minor or group, Murman said he thought it would be for a joint violation, but he said he was unsure and that it would likely be up to a judge.

A Class I misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine, or both.

“The drag show bill protects children,” Murman said. “The whole purpose of the bill is to protect children from over-sexualized content, dancing.”

State Sens. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, Tom Brewer of Gordon, Robert Clements of Elmwood, Steve Erdman of Bayard, Steve Halloran of Hastings, Rick Holdcroft of Bellevue, Kathleen Kauth of Omaha and Loren Lippincott of Central City cosponsored the legislation.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Murman introduced an amendment to his bill that would change the bill to state the performance is a drag artist engaged in adult entertainment who uses “clothing, excessive makeup or other artificial physical markers” to display a different gender identity than the gender assigned at birth.

The amendment would also restrict book reading — like Drag Story Hour held in Omaha frequently — and performances for educational purposes, not just entertainment.

The bill is similar to one introduced in Arkansas this year that moves to classify a drag show as an “adult-oriented business.”

The bill’s focus

While Murman said the bill’s focus is sexualized content like dancing or “enhanced genitals” — such as enlarged breasts — but the bill does not explicitly list those aspects. Instead, the language goes further.

The bill defines a drag performance as one where the main aspect is an entertainer who sings, lip syncs, dances or otherwise performs exhibiting a gender identity different than that performer’s assigned gender at birth.

Jane Seu, ACLU Nebraska’s legal and policy counsel, said in a statement the bill is “an unconstitutional censorship attempt rooted in a coordinated national effort to push LGBTQ+ people out of public life.”

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State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha speaks on the legislative floor on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Nebraska News Service Photo/Zach Wendling)

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who in 2018 was elected as one of the state’s first openly LGBTQ senators, said the bill’s language could outlaw high school Shakespearean performances and complicate any performance if someone is portraying, or perceived to be performing, a different gender identity.

Content moderation and age restrictions exist for many performances, Hunt said.

“We already have these norms in society so we don’t need to pass bills like this to further stigmatize LGBTQ identities,” Hunt said.

Hunt said she will invite her colleagues to see an all-ages drag show later in the session so they could see what they want to legislate.

Sexualization versus expression

While some drag performances may include sexual elements, drag is a form of expression and more like theater, according to Pat Tetreault, the director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Women’s Center and LGBTQA+ Center speaking in her individual capacity.

The LGBTQA+ Center has hosted drag shows in the past inviting UNL students and friends or family, some that Tetreault performed in.

“We’ve had parents who have brought their children, usually teenagers, and everybody enjoys it because it’s fun,” Tetreault said. “It isn’t about sex, it’s about theater and performance.”

Tetreault said the bill could provide a slippery slope to further hurt LGBTQ people and is discriminatory because it assumes LGBTQ are inherently sexual.

Hunt and Tetreault both said the bill is about limiting peoples’ personal freedoms and personal choices, a distraction from more pressing issues.

“This just goes to the heart of a problem that the far right has around these issues is that when you try to use language to legislate someone’s existence, to legislate the freedom to love who you want and dress how you want and go where you want and just be a normal adult in the world,” Hunt said, “you have a lot of constitutional problems around that language.”

Tetreault said events like Halloween could bring additional issues.

An uphill climb

Murman said he has never seen a drag show or met a drag queen in person but that he has seen videos on social media where a child had been brought on stage. He could not say for certain whether this was in Nebraska or elsewhere.

Hunt introduced a motion the day the bill was introduced to kill it if or when it reaches the floor. The bill must first get through the Judiciary Committee and its public hearing.

“Senator Hunt has their own opinion on bills and drag queen shows, and I have mine,” Murman said. “I think the vast majority of Nebraskans would agree that sexualized dancing and enhanced genitals is not appropriate for children to view.”

Murman said the bill’s language could be fine-tuned to be more clear in response to criticisms it has received but that drag queens have emailed him saying their shows are not appropriate for children.

State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha, who is gay, said the bill is disappointing as another example that goes to oppress the LGBTQ community.

He and Hunt committed to fight Murman’s bill and others they say would oppress Nebraskans.

“I think Nebraskans shouldn’t worry too much about this,” Hunt said. “There’s no way this bill will be successful in Nebraska because we know better and this isn’t a problem in our state.”

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.