The Battle for Drag in Montana: The dangerous implications of HB359

A roundup of conversations we're having daily on the site. Subscribe to the Reckon Daily for stories centering marginalized communities and speaking to the under-covered issues of the moment.

Montana bill HB359 will prohibit minors from attending drag shows, defining them as “sexually oriented performances.”

As of yesterday, the bill passed the conference committee after several rounds of amendments. It will either be signed or vetoed by Gov. Gianforte within the next nine days.

Introduced by Republican Rep. Braxton Mitchell on Jan. 28, HB359 was originally aimed to ban minors from attending drag shows that convey any form of sexualization. Another aspect of the original bill was the prohibition of public events of Drag Story Hour, created in 2015 by queer writer Michelle Tea and Radar, a Bay Area queer literary arts group. During these story hours, drag performers read children’s books to kids as a way to promote literacy and diversity.

Since its many rounds of amendments, the bill now has changed “drag shows” to “sexually oriented shows” amongst other additions. Some of the new phrasing explicitly prohibits Drag Story Hour in schools and libraries that receive public funding. It also now has an immediate effective date.

Penalties remain the same since HB359 was introduced, which would fine an owner, operator, manager or employee of a “sexually oriented business” between $1,000 and $5,000 on the first offense of violating the bill. A second fine would start from $2,500. The third and ongoing offenses would be a fine of $10,000 and, if applicable, the confiscation of business license.

Montana’s HB359 harkens back to Texas’ HB4378, another bill that would prohibit drag performances around minors. Both bills similarly define drag as publicly displaying a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth “using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers.”

When Texas introduced the bill, a local drag queen called out what she believed the real issue behind the bill might have been: an attack on trans people. In Montana, the case seems true as well.

“The definitions contained in the bill leave too much up to personal interpretation, which paves the way for even more discrimination and violence against Montana’s trans community,” said Julie Yard, a drag queen based in Great Falls, Mont. She shared her frustrations with Reckon about the bill, finding it insulting that conservative politicians were attempting to define and regulate an art form that is outside of their expertise.

“The conservative politicians of Montana’s 2023 legislative session are robbing children of [experiences] that not only promote child literacy, but also promote appreciation for and acceptance of those who don’t look, think, act, or behave like [them],” Yard said. “By prohibiting [Drag Story Hour], we are sending a clear message to future generations of Montanans that bullying is encouraged, and that we should look down on others who are not like us.”

Yard herself has firsthand experience of pushback for doing Drag Story Hour. Last year, she participated in a reading partnered up with Montana Book Co, an LGBTQ-owned bookstore in Helena, Mont. Days leading up to the event, protesters turned to social media to share their outrage. They claimed it was child abuse and inappropriate. Despite the backlash, the Drag Story Hour went on safely.

In anticipation of whether Montana’s HB359 will be signed by the governor, Chelsia Rice, one of the co-owners of Montana Book Co told Reckon that the bill violates the First Amendment.

“As booksellers, we are ardently opposed to not only book banning, but censorship of any kind,” Rice said. “We are lovers of theater and performance artists—including drag—and we would never put our customers—especially youth—in situations that are harmful to children.”

Onyx Echo, a member of Montana-based drag family The Brick Haus—in which Julie Yard is also a part of—believes drag is an art form children can value. She says that drag would have been something she would want to watch as a child, because “I would have felt a lot less alone.”

While Echo agrees that drag can feature adult themes, she claims that they are not inherent in many drag queens’ performances. “We aren’t dumb—we understand context, and we are capable of presenting drag in ways that are “family-friendly” when necessary,” she said.

“I want to be clear that although the bill has some negative implications for the art of drag, it has exponentially worse implications for our trans peers in our community,” Echo said. “If anyone goes to drag shows or watches RuPaul’s Drag Race, they have an obligation to show up for the trans community that created the drag scene as we know it today. Queer people are under attack, and it’s necessary now more than ever to express queer joy when we can in the form of art and in the form of community building.”

According to the ACLU’s map tracking anti-LGBTQ bills, there have been 471 bills introduced since the start of the year. Montana, however, falls under the category of states that don’t have many anti-LGBTQ bills, with only eight proposed bills including HB359.

Since moving to Montana over five years ago, Kat Elam believes people in the state are overwhelmingly wonderful and accepting, apart from a very loud anti-LGBTQ minority. Elam volunteers as Board Secretary at 406 Pride, a queer and trans nonprofit and resource center in Billings, Mont., while working as the Issue Advocacy Organizer at Forward Montana, a grassroots organization helping to empower young Montanans to be political.

Last year, at their previous job, Elam worked with children as an educator at ZooMontana, a local zoo in Billings. As an effort to create more kid-oriented activities, Elam helped organize a Drag Story Hour with the help of 406 Pride. Similar to Julie Yard and Montana Book Co’s case, several local churches learned about the event and shared their disapproval.

Jeff Ewelt, director of the zoo, released a statement prior to the event that said: “Let me be clear—ZooMontana prides itself in being inclusive of all living beings […] While personal threats and threats of no longer supporting the Zoo are concerning, we will not let unwarranted fear and hate deter our decision to move forward with this harmless and fun reading event that is held throughout the country. At the end of the day, if your personal agenda does not fit this event, we simply ask that you do not come to the Zoo that day.”

An hour before the event, 100 protesters lined up across the street from the zoo, with signs that read “GROOM PETS, NOT KIDS,” and “STOP SEXUALIZING OUR KIDS.” ZooMontana, however, was firm in taking a stand with 406 Pride, and proceeded with the event.

Elam, who also helped select children’s books about being kind to each other, believes the legislature is wasting their time with the push of HB359.

“They could be doing so much more for Montana right now,” they said. “We’re in a housing crisis. We’re having huge price raises for everything. There’s so much more that [the legislature] could be focusing on.”

To learn more about how you can support LGBTQ rights in Montana and in general, Kat Elam recommends, “[Taking care of] yourself—because you are part of the community—is important.”

“When you can care for yourself, you have more capacity to care for others, and then you can make that ripple effect across communities,” said Elam, who believes the biggest thing for community organizing and grassroots organizing is taking care of your community and making a change based on what the community needs.

“Because at the end of the day, if the state is going to [pass bills] that are going to hurt people, then we can’t rely on the state to take care of us. We have to take care of each other.”

Denny Agassi

Denny |

Denny is a writer, actor, and musician who has co-starred in POSE (FX) and New Amsterdam (NBC), and will appear in the upcoming series City On Fire (Apple TV). Aside from The Grammy, Allure Magazine, PAPER, and more, her recent writing—“He Made Affection Feel Simple”—was published in The New York Times’ Modern Love.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.