Members of the Drag Show community listen in during a meeting at the Texas State Capitol on March 23, 2023 in Austin, Texas.

Members of the drag show community listen in during a meeting at the Texas Capitol on March 23, 2023, in Austin, Texas.

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Given Republicans’ relentless legislative attempts to erase trans and gender nonconforming people, a new bill in Texas that LGBTQ+ advocates are describing as the “drag bounty hunter bill” may seem like a drop in the ocean. This fact alone is intolerable. There is, however, something particularly barbaric in the bill’s explicit encouragement of citizen harassment to drive gender variance out of public life.

The proposed legislation defines “drag” as any “performance in which a performer exhibits a gender that is different than the performer’s gender recorded at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs in a lascivious manner before an audience.”

The inclusion of “lascivious” might suggest that the bill is only aimed at performances in venues that already exclude minors, like nightclubs. But given that Texas Republicans are at this very moment attempting to pass a law defining any venue that hosts a drag performance as “a sexually oriented business” — including restaurants — it’s clear that “lascivious” provides no limit to the bounty hunter bill.

If passed, the law is certain to shut down family-friendly drag events and library story hours, but it threatens all gender-nonconforming performers, and even events like Pride.

The bill is a rehash of a strategy used against abortion in the state. When Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 8 in 2021, effectively banning abortion in the state, they introduced a novel legislative approach for running roughshod over constitutional protections: sanctioned vigilantism.

The abortion law deputized private citizens to sue anyone suspected of helping a person obtain an abortion, with the promise of a $10,000 reward for successful cases. Since its passing, copycat laws have abounded, given the legislation’s ability to evade federal court challenges by relying on civil lawsuits. Now, Texas Republicans are seeking to use the same legal mechanism in their all-out assault on gender variance.

The drag bounty bill likewise encourages citizens to sue anyone who hosts or performs in a drag performance in the presence of a minor — with the added allure of a monetary reward. Successful plaintiffs could receive as much as $5,000 in “damages,” up to 10 years after the event.

Across the country, even in New York City, far-right militias and other armed fascists have already made a habit of threatening family-friendly drag performances and story hours. The Texas bill grants the practice a vile authority — and pulls from a long legacy of the government using state-sanctioned vigilantism to enforce white supremacy, gender conformity, and border rule.

The very nature of such base-catering legislation is to chill LGBTQ+ expression and embolden attacks against it. Even technically ineffectual laws have material consequences for public life, like the recently passed anti-drag law in Tennessee, which makes nothing illegal that is not already illegal.

Compulsory heterosexuality and gender conformity is so manufactured, so fragile, that it requires heavy policing and enforcement.

Like every new anti-LGBTQ+ law, the bounty hunter bill rests on the formulated far-right paranoia around drag performances and trans existence as sites of “grooming” and sexual predation. Underlying this anti-trans, anti-queer panic is the fact that compulsory heterosexuality and gender conformity is so manufactured, so fragile, that it requires heavy policing and enforcement — both by the state and vigilante forces.

The same reliance on vigilantism has shaped most every aspect of the history of oppression in this country. Armed far-right groups on the U.S.-Mexico border have been active in brutal border enforcement for over 40 years, with a notable presence since Donald Trump’s presidency. In recent years, racist vigilantes have hunted and captured hundreds of undocumented people attempting to cross the border, largely without retribution. The Texas GOP is currently seeking to codify the practice with the recent introduction of a “vigilante death squads policy.” The proposed legislation would create an official security force, comprised of both police and private citizens, to track down, arrest, and deport undocumented people.

The history of such violence is long, including the extreme, deadly brutality of the fabled Texas Rangers from the mid-19th century onward, who perpetrated extraordinary lethal violence against Indigenous and Mexican people to establish and maintain settler border lines. From the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, to many thousands of lynchings, to the vigilante violence on which Jim Crow rule relied, the U.S. government and law enforcement have embraced vigilantism — through outright deputization or the granting of expansive impunity — to uphold white supremacy. The porousness between far-right armed groups and police forces, as well as Republican elected officials, has long made this relationship all too clear.

Racist stand-your-ground laws, which permit citizens to use deadly force when they deem it necessary to defend themselves or their property, reliably uphold the white paranoia that the mere presence of Black men and boys constitutes a threat. What are such laws, then, if not the legal sanctioning of vigilantism?

And when it comes to the government’s endorsement of anti-queer, anti-trans violence, consider the fact that the “LGBTQ+ panic” defense still remains on the books nationwide today, despite long and widespread protest. This legal strategy permits a defendant, even one accused of murder, to assert that their victim’s sexual orientation or gender expression is to blame for their violent response. A jury can, of course, outright reject such a defense, but the ability to deploy it in court unambiguously constitutes the legal acceptance of violence against gender nonconformity.

It is building on this legacy that the Republicans have turned to vigilante loopholes in new legislation to police bodily autonomy, when it comes to both reproductive freedoms and LGBTQ+ liberation. Such legislation continues to tell a right-wing story about for whom the U.S. exists — those granted the permission to take up its violent powers, in the brutish image of the Texas Ranger.

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