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A Texas restaurant holds its last drag show before new law goes into effect

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A San Antonio Texas drag group put on what might have been their last show on Friday night. That's because a state law is set to go into effect that bans drag performances in the presence of minors. Texas Public Radio's Kayla Padilla was there and brings back this story.

KAYLA PADILLA, BYLINE: For a year now, the drag group 360 Queen Entertainment has been performing monthly on the patio at Tomatillos, a bar and family-friendly restaurant on the far north side of San Antonio. On Friday, at what could be the final show, the drag performers kept the audience in high spirits and joked about the new law that could put them out of business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're offended, aren't you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my God, a man in drag. Call the cops.

PADILLA: The show included performances from local drag queens and from Robin Fierce, a former contestant on the TV show "RuPaul's Drag Race." The drag star from Connecticut was well aware of the new Texas law.

ROBIN FIERCE: What is drag doing to people except bringing joy and letting them express themselves in their art? I hope that as a community, we're able to continue to do those things unabashedly and without people getting in the way of that.

PADILLA: Texas Senate Bill 12 states that, quote, "sexually oriented performances are illegal on commercial and public property in the presence of minors."

RICHARD MONTEZ: I know that, nationally, there are some queens that just won't come to Texas.

PADILLA: That's Richard Montez. He and his partner, David Gamez, are co-owners of 360 Queen Entertainment. In anticipation of the law, they moved this '90s-themed drag show to 9 p.m. in hopes fewer families with children would be in the restaurant. Montez says these drag shows are not inherently sexual, but he says the new law is so broad that it could lead to criminal charges against him and his company.

MONTEZ: Under this law, any child in the presence of this show could mean that the venue is fined, that our business is fined and that our performers are charged with misdemeanors.

PADILLA: Montez and his partner have joined the ACLU of Texas's lawsuit against the bill, calling the drag ban unconstitutional and a violation of free speech rights.

MONTEZ: We will be going to Houston on Monday to testify in front of a judge. And we're hoping that that's going to result immediately in either temporary injunction on the law or perhaps a striking down of it.

PADILLA: For local drag talent, the law is a huge threat to their livelihood and rights as performers. King-Edqux Robinson, a performer who goes by the stage name the Queen Fantasia Wood, says performing at Tomatillos is a steady gig that has helped her pay the bills.

KING-EDQUX ROBINSON: So it's kind of going to be me taking a big hit financially but also just, like, one of those things - like, why do I have to keep fighting for the basics of me being able to live my life authentically?

PADILLA: In fact, Robinson says drag saved her life. She says she was raised in Chicago in a religious family.

ROBINSON: I grew up as a very queer, feminine Black kid, and that was very looked down upon. When I found drag, it finally gave me the presence that I knew my feminine nature needed to thrive.

PADILLA: Republicans backing the law claim it will keep children safe. Here's Senator Bryan Hughes, who authored the bill, at a Texas Senate debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRYAN HUGHES: This is about protecting children and what should be done in the presence of children.

PADILLA: During the debate, Texas Democrat Roland Gutierrez called that hypocritical.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROLAND GUTIERREZ: I've been all about this session about protecting children, my friend, and we haven't done a whole lot of protecting the children when it comes to guns and ammunition.

PADILLA: At Friday night's show, a local drag queen ended with words of optimism, hoping the ban will be overturned. And club owner Richard Montez says he'll continue to fight the bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONTEZ: We refuse to just roll over and die. We will not...

(CHEERING)

MONTEZ: ...Be controlled.

PADILLA: Similar laws in other states trying to outlaw drag shows have been struck down by the courts. As of now, the Texas law is set to go into effect September 1. And critics warn the ban could affect other performances including plays, comedy and wrestling - not just drag. For NPR News, I'm Kayla Padilla in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kayla Padilla