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Kentucky adult businesses and explicit drag shows to be regulated under bill advancing in Senate

Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield, answers questions about a bill related to adult-oriented businesses during a press conference Tuesday.
LRC Public Information
GOP Sen. Lindsey Tichenor from Smithfield answers questions about a bill related to adult-oriented businesses during a press conference.

A Republican lawmaker has narrowed legislation to regulate “adult-oriented businesses” in Kentucky after meeting with a drag performer, but LGBTQ+ advocates remain concerned.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Tichenor says her legislation to regulate “adult-oriented businesses” is all about protecting children. But LGBTQ+ advocates say it could deny drag performers access to public spaces.

Senate Bill 147 mirrors another bill the Republican from Smithfield filed last year. This time though, she more closely defined terms to restrict sexually-explicit businesses and performances that are harmful to children.

Businesses like adult bookstores or theaters would not be allowed to set up shows within about an average city block of places that children might frequent under the bill, which passed a committee vote Thursday.

Tichenor said sitting down and speaking with a drag queen led her to narrow the definitions of restricted drag performances in the bill to those that are sexually explicit.

“The intent of this bill is to set a regulation around this industry to ensure we are protecting communities and minors within those communities from exposure that may lead to negative adverse secondary effects,” Tichenor said.

Several LGBTQ+ advocates, including two drag performers testified before the committee that they believed the bill could infringe on their First Amendment rights. Drag performer Poly Tics, who testified at the committee in their drag persona, said the bill fixates on drag shows over other types of performances.

“I'm sure that every person in this room would agree that we have a specific need to address the health, safety and well being of children,” Tics said. “Targeting drag performances is by far one of the least impactful pieces of legislation that could be proposed to meet those needs.”

The bill would ban any businesses that “regularly hosts any performance involving sexual conduct” — like adult arcades, bookstores, cabarets or theaters — within 933 feet of places kids might frequent. Those places include churches, daycares, libraries, schools, parks and “relocatable classroom units.”

Those businesses would have to make sure no minors enter the space or are able to see any sexual content or “patently vulgar matter or performance.” The bill also would prohibit any performance that involves sexual conduct from state or local government-owned spaces.

The committee’s two Democratic senators were the sole “no” votes. That includes Sen. Karen Berg from Louisville who said she hasn’t heard from a single constituent in favor of the bill, only opposition.

Berg and other opponents took issue with the specific singling out of drag performances. The bill includes drag performances with “explicitly sexual conduct” under the definition of an adult cabaret while no other such performances are explicitly mentioned. Tichenor said that decision was justified and she argued it would draw a line between sexual and non-sexual performances.

“It's not broad, it's very, it's very specific as to what type of drag performance is sexually explicit and which one should be kept away from the public,” Tichenor said.

Opponents expressed concerns with the definition of sexual conduct, which included the “removal or simulated removal of clothing in a sexual manner.” They also took issue with the definition of what is harmful to minors, which includes things that “appeal to the prurient interest of minors” and “is patently offensive to prevailing standards” of what is suitable for children.

Anthony Munger, a social worker and project manager with the Louisville Pride Foundation, said he felt the bill’s definitions would encourage a torrent of lawsuits. The bill gives both the attorney general and any citizen the right to sue businesses if they feel the provisions in the bill have been broken.

“I don't want sexually explicit shows in front of kids, but here we are professionals who know what this language is and how to debate it,” Munger said. “And here we are turning it over to individuals and opening it up for civil lawsuits.”

Tichenor said her definitions are clear enough and tied specifically to explicit content. She contended it would not conflict with drag performances that have no sexual component, like the much-debated Drag Queen Storytime events.

But a few members of the committee said they also don’t necessarily believe those events should be allowed under state law and said they would support making the legislation even more severe against drag performances.

“I don't know how my four-year-old granddaughter could possibly understand what is occurring in that kind of environment. That leads to mass confusion,” said Republican Sen. Stephen Meredith from Leitchfield. “What do you think possibly could be considered educational or entertainment value to four-year-olds?”

Andrew Chaftlein, who goes by the drag stage name May O’Nays, said he is a parent to twins and doesn’t consider drag to be a threat to either of them.

“It's our job to decide what art and what culture is appropriate for our children to see. For instance, I don't know that I would take my kids to a WWE wrestling match — it's quite violent — or a gun show or maybe a Hooters,” Chaftlein said. “But these are all places that children are allowed to go, and isn't it great we live in a country where we can have these vast experiences and all make different decisions for our families.”

Tics, the drag performer, said kid-friendly drag events allow children to see others living authentically and recognize that it’s OK to be themselves too. And they’re extra curricular — it’s up to parents to decide if such events would benefit their children.

“Regardless of who they love, how they dress or how they want to present in the world, they are protected, they are loved, and they are seen,” Tics said. “By making this kind of streamline conversation of how kids are supposed to act or how they're supposed to dress without this opportunity to explore different things in safe and regulated ways, we're stunting what children are allowed to explore.”

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.