Metro Weekly

LGBTQ Advocates Sue Montana Over “Calculated” Attack on Drag

Advocates claim law banning drag performances in public spaces violates multiple plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte – Photo: U.S. House Office of Photography.

A group of LGBTQ advocates are suing Montana to overturn a recently passed law that bans drag in public and is the nation’s first law to specifically ban drag story hours.

Attorneys for the group say the law, signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte on May 22, is “motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ animus” and unconstitutionally targets “personal, artistic and political expression and speech.” They describe the “breathtakingly ambiguous and overly broad bill” as “Frankenstein’s monster” that “threatens teachers, artists, small businesses, and cultural and scientific institutions with criminal and professional sanctions.”

Like similar laws proposed or passed in other states, Montana’s law prohibits drag performances in public places, establishments receiving state funding, or in places where they might be viewed by minors. But Montana’s law goes further, specifically banning drag story hours where a performer “reads children’s books and engages in other learning activities with minor children present.”

Entities found to have violated the law can be fined or have their business license revoked. Librarians, teachers, and administrators who allow drag story hours or drag-related events to take place in public libraries or schools can be fined and have their licenses or accreditation revoked. The law also allows parents and children who see drag performances to sue performers, show organizers, or the entity hosting such shows for “psychological, emotional, economic, and physical harm.”

Wary of being accused — even falsely — of violating the law and taking a financial hit, numerous venues across the state have canceled scheduled drag performances.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, filed July 6, include Rachel Corcoran, a public school educator who uses colorful costumes to teach her special education students. Under the law, her lessons would be tantamount to a drag story hour.

“The legislature was so worked up about the perceived threat of drag story hours that it didn’t consider the collateral damage,” Corcoran said in a statement. “Now I can be prosecuted and lose my teaching certificate for showing creativity in the classroom.”

Fellow plaintiffs include a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, a brewery, a fitness studio, and several community centers, all of whom claim the law infringes on their right to free speech and freedom of expression. 

Another plaintiff is Adria Jawort, a Billings-based writer and indigenous rights activist who speaks publicly about the history of LGBTQ and two-spirit people in Montana. Last month, one of Jawort’s scheduled lectures at a public library was canceled at the recommendation of a county attorney in order to avoid being accused of violating the anti-drag law.

According to the lawsuit, Jawort’s appearance “was canceled because she is transgender, because she wears makeup, and/or because she intended to speak about LGBTQ+ issues.”

“This is exactly what my fear of these unconstitutional bills motivated by bigotry would do: be used to target transgender and gender nonconforming people,” Jawort told The Independent earlier this year. “Now here we are with me being silenced as predicted.”

The lawsuit, which comes on the heels of several court orders blocking similar laws from being enforced in other states, continues: “No matter what combination of potential factors led to the cancellation, the cancellation violated [Jawort’s] constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection.”

Montana’s drag ban is one of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ laws that have been introduced nationwide within the last few years. So far, more than 500 bills impacting the LGBTQ community have been filed by state lawmakers this year alone; about half of those specifically aim to undermine the rights of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people.

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