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Why lawmakers in Idaho want to ban public drag shows

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

While Democrats nationally fended off huge Republican gains, it's a very different story in some statehouses. Idaho, for instance, moved even more to the right. Lawmakers there convening today will consider a bill backed by conservatives that would ban public drag shows. NPR's Kirk Siegler is in Boise.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A short walk from the Idaho statehouse in one of the nation's most far right controlled states, there's a large, popular queer nightclub. The Balcony, in the heart of Boise's downtown entertainment district, is if nothing else, a symbolic sign in a corner of the country not long ago labeled the hate state.

DUGAN JACKMAN: And it is funny because everyone has their idea of Idaho. And there is - it is that way to a point.

SIEGLER: The club's event director, Dugan Jackman, says Idaho - mostly its liberal-leaning and fast-growing capital city - has come a long way on LGBT rights.

JACKMAN: When I first moved here, I was scared to walk down the street with my husband holding his hand. And now I don't really give a [expletive]. I don't care who sees me hold my husband's hand. I don't see - who sees me wear nail polish or who knows that I'm queer.

SIEGLER: As in recent years, last summer, Boise's Pride festival drew thousands of people, with hometown companies like Albertsons, Simplot and Boise Cascade as major corporate sponsors. But this is a divided America. And in Idaho, there was backlash.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS DRIVING)

SIEGLER: A short drive into the suburbs is the Idaho Family Policy Center, run by Blaine Conzatti from inside a small evangelical church. The 31-year-old was aghast to learn that recent Pride schedule included a drag and lip sync show with kids, supervised by parents.

BLAINE CONZATTI: You know, this was a huge wake-up call, I think, to many families throughout the state that in our public parks, this type of, you know, deviant sexual behavior is being peddled to our kids. And through that, our kids are being sexualized.

SIEGLER: In Boise, the state GOP pressured businesses to pull out of Pride. Most didn't, but the kids' event was still canceled. Now Conzatti wants the legislature to ban all public drag shows. And with conservative Republicans holding a supermajority here, there's a chance they will.

CONZATTI: When you realize that drag is inherently sexual to begin with - you have a biological male who's impersonating the sexual characteristics of a woman, doing provocative dancing, you know, simulating masturbation and grabbing their genitals.

SIEGLER: Thirty-year-old drag performer Frida Nightz says Conzatti doesn't know what he's talking about.

FRIDA NIGHTZ: It's ignorance.

SIEGLER: Nightz is a stage name. We're not using her real name because she's concerned about repercussions.

NIGHTZ: People just coming and, you know, just attacking us and not really knowing what we're doing.

SIEGLER: She's a former Boise State University cheerleader who grew up in Idaho when being gay mostly meant staying underground. She says drag is about art and hope and performances in a public park or a family-friendly event in a library are intended to show kids from small towns especially that it's OK to be different. Twenty-one-and-up shows are geared to adults.

NIGHTZ: You know, they're like, OK, let's hit them here. This might be, you know, a way to try to sort of eliminate them. And it's just awful.

SIEGLER: If Idaho's bill passes, shows at the Balcony Club will go on. It's a private business. But people here are worried they could be the next target.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How we doing, Balcony Club?

(CHEERING)

SIEGLER: One recent Sunday night, a large crowd cheered and partied at the weekly competition, Boise's Next Drag Superstar. Frida Nightz sat off to one side with her drink, beaming.

NIGHTZ: Drag performance - it's just so powerful. And that's probably why they fear it, you know.

SIEGLER: And conservatives are open about a bigger agenda. Some want to ban shows outright in the near future. At least five other states from Florida to Arizona are considering anti-drag bills. One was introduced in Montana just days after a gunman opened fire in a Colorado Springs queer bar. But Blaine Conzatti is steadfast Idaho's proposal is not an attack on LGBT rights.

CONZATTI: Ensuring that we protect children from sexualization and sexualizing influences is not the same thing as attacking any group or ginning up violence against any group.

SIEGLER: Still, things are especially tense in Idaho, where last June, 31 men from the far right Patriot Front were arrested and accused of planning to riot at a North Idaho Pride event. And the queer activist community here is itself promising a very organized and public fight at the statehouse. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.