Project Summary:

In 2023, a fifth of the country’s state-level bills impacting the LGBTQ+ community were filed in Texas, according to a Human Rights Campaign analysis. Equality Texas tracked a record 141 such bills this year up from just 12 in 2015. Some policies passed and several others progressed substantially in the most recent legislative session. KXAN’s team of journalists – many LGBTQ+ staff members with unique, developed and inside perspectives providing nuance to our fair, rigorous and balanced reporting standards – produced multimedia stories like this one for the “OutLaw” project, taking an in-depth look at what this trend could mean for Texas’ future.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in August, a group of parents escaped the heat with their children to go to an indoor story time led by someone who looked like she might have stepped off a picture book’s colorful pages. The crowd chanted and acted out the words with the host, as she read through one book that put a new twist on the familiar kids’ song “The Wheels on the Bus.”

“The hips on the drag queen go swish, swish, swish / swish, swish, swish / swish, swish, swish,” the storyteller sang, waving her hand tipped with long, pink nails to the beat. “The hips on the drag queen go swish, swish, swish all through the town!”

As she turned the page to reveal what the illustrated drag queens would do next, everyone’s eyes fixated on the performer, whose stage name is Brigitte Bandit, seated on a pink chair in front of a pink backdrop. It’s easy for her to keep the crowd’s attention when she’s wearing a sparkly pink dress, a fluffy pink wig and exaggerated makeup.

“The dance of the drag queen goes twirl, twirl, twirl all through the town,” Bandit sang before closing this book and opening up another.

Bandit started her drag career five years ago. She said a pattern started emerging where she kept getting offered opportunities to lead story times for kids and read them books. She’s now done at least a dozen of these reading events, including this latest one held at the opening day celebration of The Little Gay Shop’s new location in east Austin.

“Being around kids is so much fun,” Bandit said. “I see their excitement and joy in their faces when they see somebody who looks as bright and bubbly and colorful as I do, so it’s a lot of fun to be around that kind of environment and those kinds of people and kids.”

Drag story time legislation

Doing these events also led to Bandit wading into political fights this year that she said she never expected. During the 88th regular legislative session, Texas Republican lawmakers introduced a number of bills aimed at restricting where drag shows could happen and who could see them.

Additionally, one piece of legislation sought to create consequences for public libraries hosting drag story times for children. Senate Bill 1601, authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, would prohibit a municipal library from receiving any state funding if it held an event “at which a man presenting as a woman or a woman presenting as a man reads a book or a story to a minor for entertainment and the person being dressed as the opposite gender is a primary component of the entertainment.”

Bandit went to the Texas Capitol on March 23, along with hundreds of others, to testify against this legislation at the Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing. The opponents who registered to speak that day outnumbered the bill’s supporters by nearly 50 to one. During her remarks to the senators, Bandit — dressed in full drag in a pink dress and wig — pointed out a loophole that would still allow libraries to hire her for story times even if the bill became law.

        Austin Drag Queen Brigitte Bandit prepares to give testimony in the Senate Chamber at the Texas State Capitol on March 23, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Austin Drag Queen Brigitte Bandit prepares to give testimony in the Senate Chamber at the Texas State Capitol on March 23, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

“The only reason this bill would affect me is that most people assume I am male under this costume, and I receive the same kind of treatment as any other drag queen,” Bandit said. “However, the bill would not directly affect me with the way it currently defines drag, as I am someone who is born female and does drag as a feminine person. Why should I be able to continue the same kinds of events with similar content and costumes but not my male counterparts? This bill should be more concerned about the content of the performances rather than the sex or gender of the performers.”

She concluded by addressing claims made by the bill’s supporters, who said these measures are necessary to prevent children from seeing or learning about something inappropriate.

“None of us want to have children at our drag shows at the gay bar at 11 p.m. on a Friday night, and there are already laws preventing that from happening. But we do want to continue our events, like drag story times, that are intentionally modified to be appropriate for children,” Bandit said. “Drag is simply a form of art, and like any form of art, it can be produced by many different kinds of people and be modified for different kinds of audiences.”

Brigitte Bandit testifies against Senate drag bills at Texas Capitol.

The 14 people who spoke in favor of the bill included two witnesses, Kelly Neidert and Chris Hopper, who created groups to compile information about family-oriented drag performances in Texas and organize protests outside of them.

“There’s no debate that this is highly inappropriate for children,” Neidert contended.

“These shows are not Mrs. Doubtfire innocently reading fairy tales to children,” Hopper added.

Backlash from Houston event

The Senate committee eventually approved SB 1601 and passed it onto the full chamber for debate. While laying out the legislation ahead of a preliminary vote on April 4, Hughes brought up only one incident to justify his bill.

“We’ve learned that certain libraries in the Houston Public Library system used to host these story hours until they were alerted by the public that one of the participants was a registered sex offender,” Hughes said. “After confirming the library had been inviting and hosting a registered sex offender to read to children, the library admitted they’d not done the background checks on the participants.”

The incident he referenced made headlines when it happened in 2019, which was during the middle of a legislative session. Neither Hughes nor any of his colleagues introduced any legislative remedies at that time to address the situation. However, the Houston Public Library promised to pause any more story times and update its policies about programming to avoid this from happening again.

“It is important to reiterate that every program sponsored by HPL is supervised by library staff, and all children are accompanied by a parent and/or guardian,” a 2019 statement from the library read. “Further, no participant is ever alone with children, and HPL has not received any complaints about any inappropriate behavior by participants at any of its storytimes, including this program.”

The library declined an interview request about how it changed or updated its programming policies, but a spokesperson noted it has not held any more drag queen story hours.

“Houston Public Library condemns social inequity in all forms and steadfastly supports the freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” the spokesperson’s statement read.

Jonathan Hamilt serves as executive director of the national Drag Story Hour nonprofit, which is a children’s literacy organization with 30 different chapters. He and other volunteers, including Bandit, hold story time events with drag performers across the country. Hamilt said his organization had no involvement or affiliation with the Houston event in 2019, but it still had a negative impact on their work.

“Anybody that’s working with children needs to be background checked, and we background check all of our storytellers on a county, state and federal level, even when they read online,” Hamilt said. “It’s unfortunate that library didn’t do their due diligence before hiring any vendor to come into their space, whether they’re working with kids or not.”

The Senate gave final approval to SB 1601 on April 5, with the 19-11 vote falling along party lines. However, the Texas House of Representatives never took up the legislation, so it effectively died during the regular session. Hughes, the bill’s author, never responded to a request for comment about whether he plans to revive it in the future.

The bill’s progression, though, is noteworthy to Baylor Johnson, who works as a public information and marketing program manager at Austin Public Library. He testified publicly against the legislation on behalf of the city — only one of two library systems in the state to do so. In the past, Austin Public Library has held a couple of drag story time events after receiving requests from the community. Defending those is part of a broader fight, he explained.

“The fact that the bill passed the Senate, I think, is of a piece with this larger landscape we find ourselves in, where intellectual freedom and the freedom to read are, frankly, under attack,” Johnson said. “We have to remain vigilant if we want to continue to have libraries that reflect the communities that they serve.”

What’s happening in other states?

Texas lawmakers are not alone in trying to legislate drag-related events. According to legislative tracking done by the American Civil Liberties Union, limits on who could see drag shows and where those could happen became law this year in at least five states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Tennessee and Texas. Of those states, though, Montana is the only one that specifically barred schools and libraries from holding a drag story time. Teachers and librarians there could also face a $5,000 fine for violating this law and possibly have their credentials revoked.

A legal fight over this law is playing out in Montana, with a federal district court judge issuing a temporary restraining order against it in July. This allowed Montana Pride to proceed with its events in Helena this summer.

As of Nov. 13, 2023, the five highlighted states had approved laws that restrict sexually-explicit performances, which critics argue will limit drag performances. (Source: ACLU. KXAN Graphic/Eric Henrikson)

As of Nov. 13, 2023, the five highlighted states had approved laws that restrict sexually-explicit performances, which critics argue will limit drag performances. (Source: ACLU. KXAN Graphic/Eric Henrikson)

Because of these legislative efforts targeting drag, Hamilt said his Drag Story Hour nonprofit recently decided to close its chapters in Arkansas and Florida. However, he said the two chapters in Texas remain intact for now — partly because SB 1601 failed to become law earlier this year.

“We have a very active chapter in El Paso, and we have active story hours in Austin, Texas, where our lead drag queen, Brigitte Bandit, is fighting the good fight in Texas,” Hamilt said. “It’s really important that we don’t leave our queer Texans out of the story, and we’re keeping a close eye on what’s happening and how we can support our chapters to keep going.”

‘I plan to keep doing what I’m doing no matter what happens’

The story time Bandit held on that August weekend carried a bigger significance for her and the families in attendance. It came about a week before Senate Bill 12 was set to take effect in Texas.

That law makes no direct mention of “drag” in its language, but how it classifies a “sexually oriented performance” would apply to it. For instance, if performers used accessories to change their appearance to “exaggerate sexual characteristics” of either a man or woman, then that could fall in this designation and could land them in trouble. Businesses could face thousands in fines if someone younger than 18 saw such a performance, while a performer could face possible criminal charges.

Bandit said she worried the law’s broad language could open her to criminal prosecution if she kept holding these events for kids once the law went into effect. Cori Mickelson, an Austin mother, said she and her eight-year-old daughter Eisley made sure not to miss what they thought may be Bandit’s last story time.

“I’m heartbroken,” Mickelson said. “I can’t believe that I won’t be able to bring my daughter to a place that is completely safe for children and a place that she really gets to express her artistic side and gets to see people being whatever they want to be.”

However, none of them knew what would happen later in court. Bandit and four other plaintiffs sued the Texas attorney general and other officials to block them from enforcing the law, and a federal judge ultimately sided with their arguments. He issued a permanent injunction against the law and deemed it unconstitutional.

Even though an appeal is already filed to the judge’s decision, Bandit is celebrating the win. She also can’t help but marvel at the political twists her career has taken just in the last year alone.

“I would have never imagined five years ago when I started drag that this is what I would be doing now. It really has kind of just taken over my drag career and what I’m doing with my life,” she said.

It remains unclear whether lawmakers will pursue more drag-related restrictions in future sessions, so Bandit said she remains committed to standing up and speaking out for her profession and her community.

“I think that I plan to keep doing what I’m doing no matter what happens,” she said.

Creative Producer Eric Henrikson, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Lead Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Digital Executive Producer Andrew Schnitker, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Photojournalist Ed Zavala contributed to this report.