News (USA)

Undercover cops found nothing lewd at a drag show but DeSantis is trying to punish the venue anyway

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) administration sent a squad of undercover agents to a drag show in December to determine whether minors were being exposed to content that violated the state’s decency laws, according to documents obtained by The Miami Herald.

The agents attended the December 28 performance of “A Drag Queen Christmas” at Orlando’s Plaza Live theater. But while they reportedly took photos of three minors accompanied by adults at the show, they reported no “lewd acts” during the performance.

“Besides some of the outfits being provocative (bikinis and short shorts), agents did not witness any lewd acts such as exposure of genital organs,” the agents wrote in their report. “The performers did not have any physical contact while performing to the rhythm of the music with any patrons.”

However, the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) filed a February 3 complaint against the nonprofit that runs Plaza Live anyway, seeking to strip the theater of its liquor license. Contrary to the agents’ report, the complaint alleges that “The Show featured numerous segments where performers engaged in acts of sexual conduct, simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar, and indecent displays.”

“Every one of the accusations is false. They’re not exaggerated. They are completely false. It’s gross,” said Ann Berendzen, an Orlando resident who attended the show. “You’d see more sexuality in a Las Vegas show.”

In February, former Democratic state legislator Carlos Guillermo Smith, who now works for Equality Florida, tweeted that DeSantis’s “formal action to revoke Plaza Live’s liquor license for hosting Drag Queen Christmas is an extreme abuse of regulatory power that can have devastating economic consequences for this local business. Why can’t parents decide what’s appropriate for their own kids?”

“What you see here is the governor sending in investigators and then dismissing what the investigators have to say because it doesn’t fit into his narrative,” Smith said of the agents’ report. “It’s more evidence that all of this … is contrived, it’s politically motivated. And it’s not about protecting children. It’s part of an ongoing effort to marginalize LGBT people and their allies because that’s the vehicle that will get him to… the GOP nomination.”

The Herald notes that the bare-chested male back-up dancers and dance moves onstage at “A Drag Queen Christmas” were the kind of things you might see at a pop concert or on network TV.

In their incident report, the undercover agents also noted that the venue’s management had posted a sign stating that “While we are not restricting access to anyone under 18 please be advised some may think the context is not appropriate for under 18.”

Legal experts said that the incident report weakens the state’s case against the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation, which runs Plaza Live.

“This document would be exhibit A for the defense,” said Florida litigator Fritz Wermuth.

“To me, the report is a clean bill of health,” agreed criminal defense lawyer and freedom of speech expert Daniel Aaronson. “They are saying, ‘We did not observe a crime.’”

DeSantis, who is widely expected to run in the Republican presidential primary, has made anti-LGBTQ+ legislation a cornerstone of his administration. Last year, the governor signed Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay (or Trans)” law, restricting instruction about LGBTQ+ topics in schools. In 2021, he approved a ban on transgender students participating in school sports and vetoed funding for LGBTQ+ mental health and homelessness programs. He has peddled misinformation about schools forcing kids to transition against their parents’ wills and has implied that child protective services should investigate parents who let their kids watch drag queens.

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