Drag is now illegal in ND, and so is self-expression

You’d better be sure cops can tell whether you’re a lady or a gent!

This summer, North Dakota’s legislature passed House Bill 1333, which creates additional restrictions on where “adult cabaret performances” can take place in relation to minors. On the face of it, the bill is perfectly reasonable. Strippers aren’t allowed to perform where children can see them. I have no issue with that. However, included in the list of restricted performers are “male and female impersonators.” Saying that all drag performances are adult-oriented is pretty much the same as saying that all dancers are strippers. It’s a sweeping generalization that’s about suppressing the queer community, not keeping children safe.

However, the entire issue of whether drag is an “adult performance” is a whole other article on its own. What I mostly want to point out here is that this bill makes it a Class A misdemeanor to “crossdress” in public places. The bill clearly states that “male and female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” – whatever that means –  are considered adult cabaret, and then goes on to clarify that not only are these performances restricted, but the entertainers themselves. The penalties and rules about performing on public property/in the sight line of minors apply “regardless of whether or not performed for consideration.”

So wearing drag is illegal in public places now, and the definition thereof is so wide and nebulous that the rights of private citizens are totally ignored. What is a “female impersonator?” Who decides that? Since when is it a cop’s job to look at me from afar, figure out what he thinks I have in my pants, and then decide if I’m allowed to be wearing what I’m wearing?

It’s 2023 in the land of the free, and ND just made it illegal to crossdress in public. Nevermind that zero definition is provided of what makes someone an “impersonator” rather than just a man or a woman – if it can be scrutinized, the ND House wants it off the streets. This also creates huge danger for trans people, as there appears to be no provision whatsoever preventing any random transphobe on the street calling the police because someone is wearing “the wrong clothes.” Am I a “male impersonator” every day that I put my hair up and wear Carhartts? Or am I a “female impersonator” if I wear flashy clothes and do striking, drag-style makeup? Who knows! Certainly not the people who created and passed this bill!

The bill is full of generalizations and vague language that effectively demolish North Dakotans’ constitutional right to self-expression. The thing is, it doesn’t matter what you or I, personally, think about crossdressing or “female impersonation.” There’s a big difference between crossdressing and adult performances, and just because the former might make you uncomfortable does not make it the latter. It’s ridiculous to base laws on personal opinion, such as the entirely erroneous claim that all drag is adult-oriented. Lots of things make me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean they need to be illegal. 

Plus, there’s a lot of actual work to be done to protect children in our state. 16 year-olds can get married in North Dakota with parental consent, but they can’t see men in skirts? It doesn’t make sense, because it’s not meant to make sense. It’s an attempt to suppress queer people, under the guise of “decency.” It’s hypocritical and makes North Dakota more unsafe, not less.

In August, I went to see Alice Cooper/Motley Crue/Def Leppard at the Fargodome. It was an all-ages show and the dome was packed. During the second set, Motley Crue’s drummer came down from his kit and talked to the audience. He complained about the lack of “teens” in the audience – yeah, he specified – and then asked said teens to “show their tits.” 

Do you think that appeals to a prurient interest? I wasn’t sure.

The camera operators at the dome then took the opportunity to scan the crowd and zoom in on as many topless women and teenage girls as possible, putting them on the big screen. Since topless dancers are on the list of restricted performers – along with all the concerns no one even seemed to dream of in the moment about how old the girls onscreen were – surely there was public outcry, right? Letters to the editor, and the swift hand of justice as embodied by North Dakota law?

The next day, I didn’t hear a single thing about the show. Or any of the days after that. I’ll be honest – I didn’t think musicians even pulled things like that anymore. And I sure didn’t think they pulled asking teenagers specifically to show their breasts and getting away with it in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s exploitative, predatory, and objectifying. I left after Motley Crue’s set partially because I was sleepy, and also because it was long and tedious. The most exciting thing that happened was being reminded by deafening cheers and a jumbotron that, as a woman, I am first and foremost a piece of meat.

The next day, for the first time ever, Fargo’s iconic Pride in the Park – a family-oriented, LGBTQ+ Pride celebration – was held at the Bluestem Performing Arts Center in Minnesota. Drag is banned in Fargo, you see, because it’s indecent. So hundreds of people had to go across the river to have a family festival, because the safety of our children is tantamount – unless those kids are queer, or buy their clothes in the wrong section, or like drag. Or are girls.

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