GOP push to criminalize some drag shows an effort to 'other' LGBT community, performer says
Republican-sponsored bill would outlaw 'drag brunch' & other public performances
Joe’s Diner, a greasy spoon on Phoenix's 7th Avenue, isn’t the first place you’d think to find one of the city’s most famous and glamorous drag queens on an overcast Thursday morning, sipping iced tea in a corner booth.
Richard Stevens, a.k.a. “Barbra Seville,” has entertained the Valley community with his drag artistry for over 20 years. But he splashed into national news prominence last fall during the contentious 2022 Arizona midterm election.
Stevens’ notoriety emerged after then-gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake publicly distanced herself from Stevens and their years-long association after numerous photos surfaced of the pair at drag shows and gay nightclubs around Phoenix. Lake claims they were simply acquaintances; Stevens claims otherwise.
Stevens said he was distraught with how Lake handled their relationship’s very-public ending.
“She and I were friends. We talked, we texted, and we messaged on Facebook. I appeared on the news for her from time to time as a source in the LGBT community. We were friends.” Stevens stated.
He has since moved forward and is now actively helping to fight legislation in the state Senate that would target the LGBT community, specifically those in his profession: drag artists.
Stevens appeared before the Senate in early February as a concerned citizen giving testimony during a public hearing, objecting to the bill introduced by GOP Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale.
SB 1028, one of four new “drag-show-related” bills proposed the Republican-controlled Legislature, seeks to ban and criminalize many public drag shows, categorizing them as “adult cabaret performances.” The bill takes aim at popular venues, bars, and restaurants hosting “drag brunches” on weekend mornings, claiming children could be present or could pass by the establishment and be “targeted in a sexual manner” by the drag show.
Kern said his bill was partly inspired by an incident in Dallas in 2022 during June’s “LGBT Pride month” when a group of white nationalist protesters, yelling obscenities, tried to invade a family-friendly drag show.
“I am not against drag shows or drag performers… what I am concerned about is the direction of the left and some of these drag performers that seem to be targeting children,” Kern said during the hearing.
Under the bill’s stipulations, a first violation would result in a class 1 misdemeanor charge carrying a $2,500 fine and up to 6 months in jail. A second violation would be deemed a class 6 felony, with a fine of up to $150,000 and a prison sentence for as long as two years.
“Drag is a form of creative expression like any other — and the government has no right to censor that expression. SB 1028 is transparent attempt to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ community and push them out of society. A fundamental principle of our democracy is that the government can’t silence people based on the content of their speech. This type of law does exactly that while baselessly and harmfully targeting LGBTQ people,” said Marcela Taracena, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Arizona.
“We have a 1st Amendment right to express ourselves — on stage and off. SB 1028 infringes on that right and is a sad attempt to censor LGBTQ people and their expression.” Taracena said.
Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has said she would veto any of the so-called “drag-show bills” if they make it to her desk.
Stevens currently performs around the valley four to five times a week as ‘Barbra Seville,’ his drag alter-ego, and said that he mentions the legislation at every show to make the public aware of what the Kern bill is attempting to do.
With vintage metal wall art adorning the pistachio green diner walls, Stevens ordered an iced tea refill. He reflected on his appearance before the Senate, speaking up for his community’s rights.
“You know, I’m bothered by the constant ‘othering’ of people in my community. Frankly, they’re looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said.