PHOENIX — The culture war battles that have become a fixture of conservative Republican politics as they push back against progressive Democratic ideas about inclusion and diversity were on full display this week in the Arizona Senate.
Majority Republicans passed a pair of measures targeting drag performances they say amount to sexual grooming, arguing that the proposals are needed to shield children from “confusing’’ sexual content.
They also passed a measure that bars teachers or other school employees from referring to a student by a pronoun that doesn’t conform with their birth sex unless their parents give their consent. And even then, it allows the teacher to ignore what the parent wants for his or her child if it is “contrary to the employee’s ... religious or moral convictions.’’
Together, the three bills are the latest in a string of actions by lawmakers in Republican Legislatures across the nation as they rebel against societal changes that they object to. And it’s not new: Last year, former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed several similar bills, including one barring transgenders girls and women from competing on female sports teams in Arizona.
This year, Republican lawmakers are likely to have a different result, as new Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs signaled in her January state of the state address that she will veto legislation that “attacks the rights of your fellow Arizonans.’’
This week’s action in the Senate fits that bill, banning drag show performances in schools or public buildings and adding drag shows to a list of sexually explicit businesses that must bar children, providing for harsh criminal penalties for anyone who performs before children — including having to register as a sex offender.
The bans are prompted in part by the emerging “Drag Story Hour’’ movement that is designed to destigmatize drag performances and promote diversity and inclusion by reading to children while dressed in drag. Republican lawmakers, however, say such actions are tantamount to grooming.
“There’s something wrong if there’s a drag queen who wants to go and perform in front of 5-year-olds and have 5-year-olds put $5 bills in their clothes,’’ Tucson Republican Sen. Justine Wadsack said during a Senate floor session on Thursday.
“It’s teaching children illicit behavior at a very young age,’’ she continued. “It’s called grooming. Grooming is a problem.’’
The story hour presentations don’t generally include such sexualized content.
Wadsack is the sponsor of SB 1698, which expands the definition of sexually explicit businesses in a way to add drag shows to a list of “adult oriented businesses’’ that now includes establishments that offer nude or semi-nude performances.
It would make it a mid-level felony to allow a child to view a performance. It passed on a party-line vote.
Her comments came during a discussion of a separate measure sponsored by Fountain Hills Republican Sen. John Kavanagh which bars drag performances in schools or other public buildings.
Democrats pushed back throughout the discussion, calling the measures targeting drag performances an attack on diversity and saying the bills confuse the relatively tame performances with illicit content.
“And that’s how we get bills with no regard for the demonization of a community simply because the community appears to be different,’’ Tempe Sen. Juan Mendez said.
“But really, there’s nothing to be afraid of when it comes to a drag performer reading stories to children,’’ he said. “I mean, if that scares you, that threatens you, if that confuses you, then we have way bigger problems.’’
Kavanagh said the measure he sponsored banning drag performances in schools, SB1026, is needed to shield children from inappropriate content.
“This bill is not so much about drag shows as it is about protecting young children from things that would confuse and disturb them, images, and protecting young children from indoctrination,’’ he said, noting that the bill targets exaggerated performances that are sexual in nature.
“Now, that can be highly confusing to young children, and maybe even disturbing,’’ he added. “So I don’t think government money should be spent to confuse and disturb children.’’
“Drag Story Hour’’ performances have drawn the ire of Republicans across the nation. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill on Thursday similar to Wadsack’s measure that changes the definition of adult businesses to add performances that are harmful to minors, according to The Associated Press.
The AP notes that Republicans are pushing similar legislation across the country, but that Tennessee’s bill is the first to be signed into law.
The measure banning school employees from using pronouns of a student’s choice without parental approval drew similar pushback from Senate Democrats. Most of the chamber’s 14 Democrats read letters from transgender children or their parents lamenting the measure and saying it could be harmful.
Sen. Christine Marsh, a high school teacher in Scottsdale, noted a 2022 survey found that 85% of transgender and non-binary youth and that two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth said debates about state laws restricting transgender rights have negatively impacted their mental health.
“This means that just by proposing this bill, Arizona has harmed its LGBTQ-plus student community and that makes me really sad,’’ Marsh said. “These kids are warm and vibrant and inquisitive and a joy to have in class, and to have anything come across that damages that to me is quite frankly, just heartbreaking.’’
Kavanagh said his measure is about student safety and parental rights, noting Democrats’ repeated mention of high depression and suicide among transgender youth and saying that parents are the best equipped to address their child’s needs.
“The fallacious arguments that were made against this bill are almost as numerous as the number of pronouns that the woke crowd has been able to invent for people,’’ Kavanagh said.
“The parents need to know if their child is in emotional and psychological turmoil to the point where they could be suicidal,’’ so they can get them help, he said. “And when teachers and other school staff hide that fact from the parents, they are depriving that student of the psychiatric care that could save that child’s life.’’
Democratic Sen. Theresa Hatathlie of Coal Mine Canyon on the Navajo Nation called that a wrongheaded argument.
“I think that the needs of parents shouldn’t always be above the rights of children, especially when the parents do not believe in it and they themselves are the abuser in the home,’’ Hatathlie said.
All three bills now move to the GOP-controlled House for action.