by Steve Desroches
Clouds are forming over the Sunshine State. What was once the ideal state for many in America has become a national punchline with frequent “Man/Woman From Florida…” headlines eliciting chuckles and a head shake. But no one’s laughing any more with several recent actions by Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida legislature, including the banning of abortions after six weeks, expanding the “Don’t Say Gay” law up to 12th grade, outlawing gender-affirming care for transgender children, banning over 350 books on LGBTQ issues and Black history from the state’s schools, and of course, picking a fight with Disney over the company’s criticism of the governor’s anti-LGBTQ policies. And now a bill sits on the governor’s desk that, once signed, on the surface bans anyone under the age of 18 from seeing adult entertainment—something that is already the law—but which has added language that is vague, and, in the context of the Republican rhetoric around the bill, targets drag queens.
While all of these conservative efforts are happening elsewhere, with 20 other states either considering or passing anti-drag legislation, the actions of Governor DeSantis are having national repercussions. After all, he’s the governor of the third most populous state in the nation. If it was an independent country, Florida would be the 16th largest economy in the world, and DeSantis is the only Republican who even comes close to challenging former President Donald Trump for their party’s nomination for 2024 election…and he isn’t even officially a candidate yet.
While the law isn’t in effect yet, culturally it’s had a chilling effect on drag performers in Florida, many who are familiar faces here. In turn, it puts added pressure on Provincetown to be a safe haven and supporter of the art form. So what is it actually like to be a drag queen in Florida? Randy Roberts, Varla Jean Merman (Jeffrey Roberson), and Ginger Minj (Joshua Eads) are all well-known regulars and beloved performers in Provincetown and also Floridians. As they prepare for a summer season in Provincetown it’s a perilous time for them at home in Florida. Organizations opposed to the bill like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) note that laws like this are a clear violation of the First Amendment and create a toxic and hateful atmosphere. It is a very real possibility that Varla, Randy, and Ginger could face arrest if they are even seen in drag in public once the law takes effect.
“I just cannot believe it,” says Roberson. “It’s insane. It doesn’t make any sense. It feels like we’re living in this limbo. Is this just a political stunt with no enforcement behind it? Or will people start to get arrested soon? It’s all just surreal. No one knows what’s going on or what’s coming next.”
A resident of Fort Lauderdale, Roberson says Florida is a confusing place to be. There’s relative inclusivity and acceptance in traditional LGBTQ enclaves, but they no longer feel like the oases they once were. And it would seem so silly if it wasn’t so scary. The anti-drag movement in Florida, and elsewhere, didn’t begin over any lewd behavior in public or because of children in the audience at an adult-themed show, but rather it was over drag queen story hours at public libraries. And now the law awaiting DeSantis’ signature is written in such manner that it not only could be applied to drag shows, but also everything from Halloween costumes to productions of Hairspray, Chicago, and La Cage aux Folles or any gender non-conforming person walking down the street. The homophobic and transphobic climate has grown so disturbing that the St. Petersburg-based LGBTQ rights organization Equality Florida took the extraordinary action of issuing a travel advisory to the LGBTQ community “warning of the risks posed to the health, safety, and freedom of those considering short or long term travel, or relocation to the state.”
That warning extends even to places like Key West, where Randy Roberts has performed at the La Te Da cabaret on Duval Street for 25 years. “There is a slight air of negativity toward drag,” says Roberts. “I never thought that I could be seen as dangerous. It’s a bit daunting. I’ve always thought of Key West as a safe place for so long. There’s an air of anxiety and uncertainty. It’s really unbelievable what’s going on. Frightening.”
In response La Te Da no longer allows anyone under 18 in, although Roberts’ show is entirely appropriate for all ages. And he’s no longer allowed to appear in drag with the Key West Pops at the Tennessee Williams Theater like he has for decades. And things have taken a scary turn in Orlando, as well, where Eads says someone threw a brick through the window of Hamburger Mary’s a few weeks ago, a 20-year-old drag brunch is indefinitely canceled due to threats, and drag shows now require armed guards outside.
“It’s one of those things where I’ve gone from sad and scared to being pissed off,” says Eads, a RuPaul’s Drag Race favorite as Ginger Minj. “This is my home. I was born and raised here. I’ve been working in Orlando for 15 years and never had an issue, and now we have people suddenly picketing our shows.”
People are fighting back. At the end of April hundreds of drag queens and their allies marched on the state capitol in Tallahassee. And ticket sales remain strong with audiences expressing their support. As for Varla, Randy, and Ginger; they’ve slyly incorporated current events into their shows, with Roberts and Roberson recently penning a satirical song mocking Governor DeSantis to the tune of Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely,” which will be in both their shows this summer in Provincetown. They realize that Provincetown is an escape for many, including them, from the troubles of the world, but this issue is too important to ignore. Provincetown is a very important place for drag, now more than ever. As for Florida, its homophobic reputation is now internationally known. When right-wing protestors in Melbourne, Australia, threatened a drag story time event forcing organizers to cancel, the premier of the State of Victoria spoke on the floor of parliament telling those who behave in such a hateful manner that his “message to those people is very clear: if you want to behave like the worst elements of the Florida Republican Party, well get to Florida.”
Varla Jean Merman presents Stand By Your Drag at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., June 20 through September 9. Tickets ($40/$50) are available at the box office and online at onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430. Randy Roberts presents Aging Disgracefully at the Post Office Cabaret, 303 Commercial St., June 22 through September 1. Tickets ($35/$40) are available at the box office and online at postofficecabaret.com. For more information call 508.487.0087. Ginger Minj performs at the Art House, 214 Commercial St., July 5 through September 2.Tickets are available at the box office and online at ptownarthouse.com. For more information call 508.487.9222.