jakub | August 12, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | The VORTEX Files Lawsuit Against State of Texas Over Drag Bill


“Dragonfly Princess” at the VORTEX. (Photo by Steve Rogers)

AUSTIN: The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) has filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas on behalf of the VORTEX Repertory Company, multiple LGBTQ+ chambers of commerce, and multiple individual performers. The suit alleges that Senate Bill 12 (SB12), which targets LGBTQ+ Texans, violates the civil rights and freedoms of every Texan to express themselves through performance.

“This bill is a blatant violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” Ashley Fernandez Dorsaneo, the criminal injustice senior supervising attorney at TCRP, said in a statement. “Texans of all backgrounds and gender identities deserve to express themselves freely, but this ban silences a broad swath of speech by all kinds of actors and performers. Similar laws have been struck down in other states, and we are confident that SB12 will not hold up in court.”

The new law, which is set to go into effect September 1, would fine businesses that host drag shows in the presence of minors with a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation. It would also prevent cities and counties from providing permits and licenses to events that include drag performances.

TCRP believes that because of the way SB12 is written, it would criminalize not only drag performances but also concerts, actors, cheerleaders, wrestlers, and other entertainers and performances.

“SB12 imposes unprecedented restrictions for our members, including small businesses and nonprofits, and jeopardizes their revenue and impacts their operations,” Tammi Wallace, the co-founder, president, and CEO of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “We are spending valuable time and resources educating our members and the community about the severe consequences of this law, which is impacting our ability and opportunity to help small businesses and promote the Chamber’s mission.”

TCRP moved for a temporary restraining order and motion for preliminary injunction this week. The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court Western District of Texas, is available to read here. In addition to the VORTEX and the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, TCRP also filed the suit on behalf of the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce, as well as actor, clown, and mime Brock England; actor Mark Ivy; actor Jamie Brokaw; and artist Oktavea Williams.

Earlier this summer, a federal judge struck down Tennessee’s drag ban, writing that drag is “constitutionally-protected speech.” Another judge temporarily blocked a similar ban in Florida.

The uptick in drag bans comes as 49 states have introduced 566 bills this year aimed at blocking transgender and gender nonconforming people from accessing healthcare, education, and other legal rights, according to Trans Legislation Tracker. This ACLU tracker lists bill numbers and current status.

“The VORTEX opposes the passage of SB12 as an attack on our constitutional right of free speech through our artistic expression,” VORTEX co-founder and producing artistic director Bonnie Cullum said in a statement. “This law is broad, hateful, and difficult to interpret and enforce. It is an attack on our First Amendment rights to create our theatrical art without oversight by the state. It threatens my professional career and places me and our nonprofit performing arts company in jeopardy.”

The VORTEX is an Austin-based company founded in 1988. It is a pioneering leader in Austin’s alternative theatre scene, offering innovative and interdisciplinary works. As of 2021, the theatre had a budget of approximately $2.07 million.

The Texas Civil Rights Project serves the movement for equality and justice in and out of the courts to protect and advance civil rights in Texas. The project envisions a Texas in which all communities can thrive with dignity and justice and without fear. TCG, the publisher of American Theatre, has also been monitoring legislation in various states designed to halt drag performances and restrict TGNC access to health services, and has organized a coalition together with PEN America to share information and collaborate in pushing back against this harmful legislation, as part of TCG’s federal arts advocacy efforts.

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