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State Rep. Anna Eskamani on FL government drag show 'investigations'

DRAG QUEEN CHRISTMAS CAST AFTER CLEARWATER SHOW VIA DRAGFANS FB.jpg
DragFans and Murray & Peter Present
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The cast of "Drag Queen Christmas" pose for a photo after the Clearwater show at Ruth Eckerd Hall, the night after Orlando's Christmas Eve performance.

Over the holidays a national touring event called “A Drag Queen Christmas” was performed for the fifth year in venues across Florida, including the Plaza Live in Orlando. But before the curtain rose this time, the Plaza Live got a letter from Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, saying the show is being investigated for being a quote, “sexually explicit performance marketed to children,” and noting that exposing children to such performance could cost the mom-and-pop venue its business license.

WMFE reached out to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, but it did not respond other than to acknowledge WMFE's interview request.

Orlando-based State Representative Anna Eskamani was at The Plaza Live that night. She saw the protesters, and she says the show has been mischaracterized. I asked her how a government move against drag shows might affect the theater community at large.

Nicole Darden Creston:
Can you talk a little bit about what is objectively the kind of political conflation of drag shows and sexuality?

Anna Eskamani:
Yeah, absolutely. So much of the LGBTQ plus fight for equality today is reminiscent of the fight for equality in the 70s, and the 80s, where you have hyper-conservative, extremist - those are also oftentimes heavily religious - who conflate LGBTQ-plus identity with sexual activity. And [they contend]that it's inappropriate for children to be around anyone who is LGBTQ-plus in any context. I mean, I think that the emphasis on drag shows is your typical example of moral panic. But it doesn't just stop at drag shows, in fact, those who are protesting drag shows and trying to brand them as being dangerous, are the same individuals who are calling every LGBTQ-plus person, organization, or company that supports LGBTQ-plus people "groomers," and at the end of the day, their intent is to push LGBTQ-plus people back into the closet.

Nicole Darden Creston:
I do recall those same tropes from the 70s and 80s. And those stopped. Why do you think they are back? Is there some kind of opportunity (for them) now? Or is this just sort of a cycling of this kind of moral panic, as you put it.

Anna Eskamani:
Politicians benefit from moral panic, because it is much easier to create controversy - to pursue culture wars, to divide Americans, divide Floridians on boogeyman scenarios - than to actually solve real problems. I'm very worried that in Florida, we are creating a state where there are disparities at every level, and LGBTQ plus people, especially kids, are being placed in harm's way because we're not creating an environment where they can be accepted. We already see books being banned that talk about LGBTQ plus experiences, or that talk about the experiences of people of color, or the Holocaust. And then this coincides with the "Don't Say Gay/Don't Say Trans" bill, which now coincides with the attacks on drag shows. So none of this happens in a vacuum. It's purely driven by a homophobic and transphobic agenda, and one that is designed to pull us apart versus bring us together.

010523 DBPR letter to Plaza Live.jpg
DBPR
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A copy of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation letter to The Plaza Live in reference to the touring show "A Drag Queen Christmas"

Nicole Darden Creston:
I've been thinking about this from an artistic, theatrical perspective. And I remembered the several wonderful fun years that I spent working at a certain mystery dinner show near International Drive. And the mystery dinner shows there are done in the tradition of what they call "English drawing room mysteries" where there is always a man in a dress in the story. My question, I think, is how far into the arts would some sort of drag ban reach?

Anna Eskamani:
Yeah, I think this is such a fair question. And it's something that so many of our local small businesses and LGBTQ-plus organizations are grappling with and are scared for. I mean, let's be clear. The Plaza Live, one of our most historic and well known venues in Orlando, was targeted by the Department of Business Professional Regulation for hosting a drag show, their liquor license is now at risk because they hosted a drag show. That is unbelievably harsh. It's not based on any law. There is no law right now that they broke. And yet, Governor DeSantis has weaponized every state agency to pursue his agenda, including those as regulatory and as historically apolitical as DBPR. And I think it is important to stress that drag is a show. Drag is performance. And if you don't like drag, then don't go to a drag show. I think it's also important to talk about other environments where many people don't think it's appropriate to bring kids, but kids are brought - whether it's Hooters, whether it's gun shows, including Rated R movies. Parent accompaniment to some of these experiences is something that's very common. So I also find that ironic, that we're going to demonize drag shows, but we're not going to talk about gun shows. And so, it's so important for us to have adult conversations about this when it comes to what do we deem appropriate and inappropriate. But any conversation about the context of a theatrical performance should involve the performers, and I think what is really offensive right now is that drag shows are being attacked and there's no legitimate reason to attack them. Because if it was legitimate, we would have stakeholder conversations to address, you know, whatever the felt issue is, but it's not what's happening. It's purely a politically-motivated attack. The governor has no interest in actually engaging with those impacted by these attacks. It's purely designed to divide us and pursue a homophobic and transphobic agenda.

Nicole Darden Creston:
You mentioned the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the DBPR. They've been sending letters to the venues that hosted this Christmas drag show and saying that there is a law that they were in danger of violating, because it is against the law to have children around sexual content. And again, we've come sort of full circle in our conversation, where they're calling the drag shows sexual content, even though in the case of the South Florida venue that got the letter from the DBPR that was similar to the one that the Plaza Live got, "18 Plus" [years of age for admission] was apparently, according to the venue, all over the public relations material and all the information that they put on social media.

Anna Eskamani:
Right. I mean, it's another important point, right? I mean, at the end of the day, these drag shows that are being tagged by Governor Ron DeSantis, are not targeting children. They're being marketed towards adults - they're not running advertisements on children's websites, or fliering public schools. And so again, I think it's important for us to ground ourselves in reality and realize that the attacks on drag shows, the conflation with drag shows being dangerous for kids, so forth, none of that's founded in reality, because these drag shows are not being marketed towards children. And many of them are hosted in environments with bars and with alcohol. They are designed for those of an adult age, when it comes to how they're promoted. And again, just like with any theatrical performance, there's going to be varying degrees of experience. But again, the sad reality when it comes to what the GOP is doing in America today, and what the governor is perpetuating, is that they don't really care what the content is - if it involves drag, if it involves LGBTQ plus people and identity and culture being centered, then that to them is inappropriate for children.

Nicole Darden Creston:
You were at the Plaza Live that night. Did you see protesters? What did you see? What did you experience there?

Anna Eskamani:
Actually, this is a really good question, because whenever Governor DeSantis goes after an institution or goes after, in this case, a local event, there's a ripple effect because it also attracts really, really extreme rhetoric on the ground. And the case of this event at the Plaza Live, protesters showed up on both sides of the issue. But the protesters that were there against the drag show, were carrying signs that said things like "groomers." There were Nazis on site, including an individual with a Christo-fascism flag that was doing the Hitler salute. So it's very unfortunate because the verbal rhetoric and the attack from DBPR, it does translate to not only harassment at the venue, but potential threats to safety. And there were some attendees who were crying because they were so stressed when they arrived and saw the protesting happening. And so, that's another reminder that these actions also have consequences.

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