States escalate coordinated attack on transgender workers with bar ban

New York City Pride, Workers World Party contingent, June 28, 2017. More Pride coverage p. 6.

After last year’s campaign to ban adolescents from accessing gender-affirming health care, several Christian right-dominated state legislatures are now turning their efforts toward the disenfranchisement of transgender adults. 

Oklahoma’s legislature is leading the pack with Senate Bill 129, a ban on gender-affirming treatment, extending up to the age of 26. The bill would strip the medical license from any professional who participates in treatment or referral for treatment that acknowledges the gender of transgender people under 26.

Bills that attack the medical field’s professional ethics and standards in order to endanger trans health are not new. The American Medical Association has called such bills a “dangerous intrusion,” noting that access to supportive medical treatment is often a vital resource for preventing trans people from killing themselves in response to persecution. 

Bans such as this are especially dangerous to trans women, for whom medical transition’s efficacy is much greater before the age of 24. Trans women who do not medically transition as young adults or adolescents will generally have a much harder time being seen as women, which elevates risk in many ways. While not all trans people are interested in appearing cisgender, for many the ability to do so makes the difference in avoiding or experiencing a violent attack. 

Banning trans performers, patrons

Missouri Senate Bill 429 takes a different tack. While other bills seek to limit access to health care or to permit businesses to discriminate, SB 429 could force many private businesses to bar transgender performers and patrons. Similar bills, although currently less draconian, are pending before the U.S. House of Representatives and the state legislatures of Tennessee, Arkansas, Arizona and Texas. 

Often, when identical legislation is simultaneously introduced in multiple states, it has been written by a nonelected lobbying group, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council. It is not yet publicly known which of the many religious extremist organizations has drafted these laws.

SB 429 is a two-sentence resolution with 17 pages of attached definitions. Sponsored by State Senator Jill Carter (R-Jasper), it would force any business that hosts trans artists to follow the restrictive laws governing “Sexually Oriented Businesses” (SOBs), like strip clubs. 

By regulating drag shows and defining virtually anything a transgender person does within view of two or more people as a drag show, this bill could enforce the SOB code on any establishment that does not bar transgender performers or patrons, excluding those whose acts are not at all sexually themed. This evokes past laws which banned eateries and bars from serving gay patrons. In fact, some of the Stonewall veterans were arrested for the crime of “being a homosexual in a bar.”

Among the regulations SOBs must follow: They are forbidden from most advertising and are required to be located over two city blocks from any residence, church, public park, library, post office, school or medical facility.

Carter’s bill defines “drag performances,” as “[any] performance in which a performer exhibits a gender that is different from the performer’s biological sex as assigned at birth, using clothing, makeup or other physical markers and sings, lip-synchs, dances or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.” This definition is expansive, going beyond the traditional nightclub drag show, and could apply to any karaoke bar or any coffee shop hosting an open-mic night that does not bar transgender patrons and to any library hosting a drag story hour. 

Reading the bill’s provided definitions, it could even extend legal consequences and misdemeanor charges to “Shakespeare in the Park” companies daring to perform “As You Like It” or “Antony and Cleopatra” or other classics! These productions would legally have to be “Shakespeare 1,000 feet from the Park, Church and Nearest Residence” to comply! 

‘I am disgusted’

“I performed at many poetry shows in St. Louis last year; and if we had this rule, I would have shut down almost all of the venues that hosted me,” Jesse Eikmann told Workers World. “I’m not surprised that Missouri would consider bleaching their cities of trans art like this, but I am disgusted. And by the way, I’m not a drag king. I’m a transgender man reading poems. Calling all trans artists drag performers is insulting to our identities.” 

The bill defines trans people, people with a gender different than that assigned to them at birth, as the same as drag performers — people who dress as a different gender for entertainment. It actually poses a set of restrictions on cisgender people too. Since SB 429 defines drag performances as performing while exhibiting a different gender while singing, lip-synching or otherwise performing, there will need to be a legal definition of which articles of clothing are permitted for men and which for women. 

Would a man singing a song on stage be considered a drag performer if he wears a pink shirt? What about a scarf? What about a woman wearing pants? What sort of rule will businesses have to enforce to keep their liquor licenses?

Even business leaders worry that they will be unable to attract and retain workers. “There is a group of employees who won’t come here, because they think Missouri is a backwards and bigoted state,” said Shannon Cooper with the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. (ksdk.com) 

Bills rooted in bigoted stereotypes

It should be obvious that this bill will result in inconsistent, arbitrary enforcement. In order to comply, every karaoke bar in the state will have to approve every performer’s wardrobe and do a blood test before allowing them on stage. Few establishments have the resources and inclination to do this, but the knowledge that merely allowing participation by transgender patrons could cost them their livelihood will make businesses think seriously about banning trans people altogether — which is clearly the point of this legislation. 

Taking this bill at face value, should it be enacted, a whole range of performances will be classified as “drag shows” and therefore illegal for most venues to host.

“Under the language of the bill, it seems like there could be no place for a trans person . . . to be allowed to perform in any way — karaoke, poetry readings, church choir, school plays, Pride events, the Miss Gay America pageant and other forms of artistic and free expression that are protected by the First Amendment,” said Holly Dickson of the Arkansas ACLU. (tinyurl.com/5eyyuk8z)

These bills are based on the recurrent charge that LGBTQ+ people are inherently sick and predatory — the idea that even seeing queer people exist is equivalent to being sexually assaulted. Far-right governments around the world, from Italy to Indiana, from Hungary to Florida, are banning public acknowledgement of — or now providing service to — persons who are or may be perceived as LGBTQ+. They claim this is to stop LGBTQ+ people from attacking children, a claim that always has been and always will be baseless. 

LGBTQ2S+ workers pose no special threat to anyone else; but, selecting religious scriptures that are used to demand our execution, far-right lawmakers continue finding new ways to persecute the LGBTQ2S+ community. Now, businesses that dare to not ensure all-straight, all-cis entertainment could lose their ability to operate in Missouri and beyond. 

The next step in attempting the social extermination of the LGBTQ2S+ community has arrived. But a united working-class effort can stop it.

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