FORT LAUDERDALE — The culture war over drag queen shows descended onto the The Plaza Live in Orlando on Wednesday night after the State of Florida warned the venue that it could face punishment if it were to allow children into the performance.
“A Drag Queen Christmas,” a show on tour throughout the nation featuring performers from the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” has sparked a backlash in Florida, landing in the crosshairs of a fiery culture war.
The popular drag show stopped in Fort Lauderdale on Monday night, triggering an investigation in Florida the very next day after state officials fielded complaints that the “sexually explicit” performance was marketed to children. The news, announced via tweet Tuesday by a spokesman for Gov. Ron DeSantis, was met with glee from conservatives and dread from the LGBTQ community and its allies.
Before the Orlando show, the state Department of Business and Professional Licensing sent the Plaza Live a letter warning it that the venue in the Colonial Plaza on Bumby Avenue could lose its license if minors were allowed in. It’s not clear if any kids were in attendance.
The response to the warning brought out a large crowd of supporters across from the entrance of the The Plaza Live, many of whom wore purple masks and waved LGBTQ flags.
Kaity Danehy, co-founder of Women’s Voices of SW Florida, helped bring the group together to stand in solidarity with the drag performers and ensure the show remained uninterrupted by a counter protest.
She said drag queens are often misunderstood like many LGBTQ people in history.
“What we’re seeing is a continued attack on the LGBTQ community and culture by people that are trying to stay in power,” she said. “Drag is awesome. Drag is fun and freeing and frankly this is nothing more than using queer culture as a stepping stone to [political power].”
Sarah Parker, president of Women’s Voices of SW Florida, said she sees nothing wrong in taking her child to see Drag Queen Story Hour, a program that features performers in drag that read books to kids in libraries, schools, and bookstores.
It shows them diversity and teaches them to be inclusive, she said.
”All I’m saying is that it’s a parent’s choice,” Parker said. “It’s a choice to decide if you want your child to go [to drag shows]. I’m not parenting with the government.”
”Live and let live. That’s one of the things [conservatives] say,” Parker said. “They don’t want the government in their business. We are the same way. You can’t just pick and choose sides when you don’t want the government in your business.”
By the time show started, a swell of counter protesters formed outside of the plaza.
Many considered themselves conservatives who were alarmed at how attainable the tickets were to children.
Mark Bender, a local attorney, held a large sign that read: DRAG QUEEN SHOWS ARE NOT FOR KIDS.
”We’re here to raise awareness. I don’t think people are aware of how sexualized these shows are,” Bender said. “They can have these shows, just make it 18 and older.”
His wife Deedee Bender agreed and said if strip clubs are age restricted so should drag shows.”The shows are pornographic,” she said.
The two groups, across from each other, shouted at one another most of the night as the show played on. A group of half a dozen security guards stood between them.
Orlando District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan attended the show.
Before going in, outside of the plaza, she said she doesn’t agree with the DeSantis administration and its warning to revoke the license of The Plaza Live ahead of the Christmas-themed drag show.
”I think that drag queens and transgender people are being used in these culture wars to target people who are experiencing gender dysphoria, and there should be an understanding, not an attacking of them,” she said.
The Plaza Live has a heightened sense of security ever since Christina Grimmie was killed there in 2016, Sheehan said.
”We take our security very seriously,” she said. It’s unfortunate that we have to protect the community from these misguided people.”
Heather Moraitis, a recent Fort Lauderdale commissioner whose husband, George, is former chair of the Broward Republican Party, applauded the governor.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Gov. DeSantis is taking a position on drag shows and sexually explicit actions in front of children,” she said. “The videos and photos the governor’s office received were serious enough to trigger an investigation. We don’t need to oversexualize our children.”
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, the city’s first openly gay mayor, called the investigation a political stunt.
“This is not the first time Fort Lauderdale has hosted a drag queen show. It’s become part of the American culture,” Trantalis said. “It’s entertainment — and that’s how it needs to be viewed. I’m told the event organizers had signs posted at all the entryways saying it was an adult show for 18 years and older unless they were with a parent. Now you can’t deny parents from bringing a child in there.”
For the past eight years, the drag show has traveled across the U.S. during the holidays. The show made a stop in Miami on Tuesday, Orlando on Wednesday and will take the stage in Clearwater on Thursday.
In Fort Lauderdale, conservative activist Chris Nelson got escorted out after interrupting Monday’s show with shouts of protest. “It is not right!” he yelled in the middle of the performance, eliciting boos from an annoyed audience. “It is not right for kids to be at this thing.”
Nelson’s video, posted on Twitter Monday night, had more than 2.4 million views as of Wednesday afternoon.
Once outside the theater, Nelson told police: “It’s not right to have drag shows with children, at all. You should arrest them for having children in this. I saw children in there. And that is not right.”
Nelson posted this comment above the tweet: “After noticing MULTIPLE children in the audience at the explicit Drag Queen Christmas in Ft Lauderdale I called out performer Nina West for inviting and allowing children to come to her sexually explicit shows!”
On Tuesday, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin posted this tweet: “The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation is aware of multiple complaints about a sexually explicit performance marketed to children held in Fort Lauderdale on December 26. The Department is actively investigating this matter, including video footage and photographs from the event. Exposing children to sexually explicit activity is a crime in Florida, and such action violates the Department’s licensing standards for operating a business and holding a liquor license.”
Some venues have promoted the event as being appropriate for people of all ages, but officials with the Broward Center say the show was not promoted as family fun or family-friendly. According to the center, admission was limited to patrons 18 years or older, unless accompanied by a parent.
One earlier promotion claimed the event was “an all-ages show” that “may contain adult content.”
Barbra Stern, chair of the board for Broward Center for the Performing Arts, says the wording was changed along the way while center officials monitored online chatter.
“Everyone knows a drag show is going to have humor and costumes,” Stern said. “And it’s supposed to be a parent’s choice whether they bring their child. We had protocols in place. We had staff checking ID. Some teenagers were turned away. I know there were children there who came with their parents.”
In Missouri, children were turned away from “A Drag Queen Christmas” last week after the venue announced ticket holders had to be at least 18 just hours before the show began.
The town’s mayor upped the age requirement amid concerns over what’s acceptable for minors.
In Clearwater, the venue won’t be allowing children inside.
State officials sent warnings to the venues in Miami and Orlando, saying they had reason to believe the show involved simulated sex activity and the exposure of sexual organs. If minors were allowed in, the venues would risk losing their license, the letters warned. Allowing children in to a drag show would constitute lewd activity, disorderly conduct and a public nuisance, according to the letter.
Steve Glassman, an openly gay commissioner in Fort Lauderdale, says the recently announced investigation demonizes drag queens.
“The continued emphasis on cultural war issues is rather disturbing and does not address the real concerns that affect Floridians on a daily basis,” Glassman said. “If Florida is truly concerned with freedom, then government must not be in the business of censoring the arts and demonizing drag queens.”
Moraitis argued that drag shows should not admit children under 18.
“If we can’t do that at the local level, I think we need the governor to step in and provide leadership,” she said. “It’s illegal in Florida to have sexually explicit acts in front of children. I would never have taken my children to a drag show, nor would my husband.”
Michael Rajner, a gay Fort Lauderdale activist, referred to the latest brouhaha as political theater at its worst.
“The hysteria and noise around ‘A Drag Queen Christmas’ is just the latest example of right-wing extremists trying to justify the weaponization of state agencies by Gov. DeSantis against the LGBTQ community,” he said. “This latest sideshow by extremists is not really about the sexualization of children. If it were, this same group would be protesting outside Hooters, movie theaters, video game creators, and fixing Florida’s privatized foster care system.”
It’s not the first time the state has taken action against a drag show venue.
Over the summer, the state’s business regulators singled out a drag-queen show witnessed by children and held at the Miami restaurant R House.
The state launched an investigation after a video surfaced showing a nearly nude drag queen “parading” around with a toddler, as DeSantis put it.
At the time, DeSantis declared that children did not need “some agenda shoved down their throats” all the time.
“We said, ‘Wait a minute, having kids involved in this is wrong,’” he said during a news conference in Tampa. “That is not the way you look out for our children. You protect children. You do not expose them to things that are inappropriate.”
DeSantis threatened to revoke the restaurant’s liquor license, but that has not yet happened, the restaurant says.
R House issued this statement on Wednesday: “The situation is ongoing and R House ownership is continuing to work with the city Department of Business and Professional Regulation, through their attorney, to rectify the situation.”
Fort Lauderdale resident Linda Carlson says she went to Monday’s show with 17 friends — all over 18 — to celebrate her birthday.
“I have always enjoyed drag shows,” she said. “We had a really good time.”
Carlson does not recall anyone in the show simulating the sex act.
“If you watch cheerleaders at a football game you see way more pelvic movement than anything we saw,” she said. “It was the typical drag show. If I go to a drag show and they’re singing hallelujah and hymns, I’m going to think I’m in the wrong place. I want to see the costumes and the wigs and the performances.”
Carlson thinks the state’s investigation is misguided at best.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I can’t believe the state doesn’t have something better to do with their time and money. It’s very, very sad that we’re living in a state of hate. We are not the only one. But Florida seems to be leading the way.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan