Theaters that stage performances of certain plays by William Shakespeare would be defined as “sexually oriented businesses” under four identical bills introduced thus far.
HB 643, HB 708, HB 1266, and SB 476 would amend § 243.002, Local Government Code, to subject “drag performances” to city and county regulation as sexually-oriented businesses. The legislation defines a “drag performance” as “a performance in which a performer exhibits a gender identity that is different than the performer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers and sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment.” The bills would apply to a “nightclub, bar, restaurant, or other commercial enterprise that provides for an audience of two or more individuals of a drag performance.” The bills would further amend § 102.051, Business and Commerce Code, which requires a sexually-oriented business to pay the state a $5 fee for each patron admitted to a performance, mandates certain notices to be posted on the premises, and subjects a business to criminal penalties.
Among many, many other things, the legislation would deem at least five Shakespeare plays as “drag performances”: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline. Of course, in Shakespeare’s day women could not perform on stage, so men played the women’s roles as well. But in these plays, cross-dressing is central to the plot and thus impossible to edit out without destroying the whole apparatus. It goes without saying that, if the legislation passes, these plays would become off-limits for school theaters because it would be absurd to allow schools to perform them but not commercial theaters. The same goes for film screenings of these plays, as well as other literary classics adapted for stage or film. Take, for example, Jane Eyre, in which Mr. Rochester cross-dresses as a fortune-teller. Or Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck dresses up as a girl. Too bad for future screenings of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, in which the shieldmaiden Éowyn dresses as a male warrior to fight for her people. And Disney fans will all know that in Mulan, the eponymous hero is a girl likewise masquerading as a male warrior. In fact, cross-dressing is a fairly common trope in epic poetry and myth. The greatest of Greek heroes, Achilles, was dressed as a girl by his mother Thetis to evade service in the Trojan War, and both the Nordic gods Thor and Loki disguise themselves as women in The Poetic Edda.
Whether these proposals really intend to have this effect is a question mark, but if the legislation passes as introduced it could criminalize these and other performances unless theaters comply with the regulations that currently govern businesses that feature sexually explicit entertainment. In any event, it is unfortunate that the debate over the propriety of certain forms of expression threatens accessibility to some of the greatest treasures of our shared world literary culture, not to mention so many contemporary works of artistic expression.